Have you heard? Your local little bookshop is an endangered species, nearly extinct. It's mom and pop vs the gorilla! Amazon is gobbling up the market with discounted prices and the easy, shop-in-your-pajamas online experience. What will authors do without the cozy neighborhood bookstore where they can read aloud from newly-published works in front of eager, welcoming crowds? What will readers do without the ability to peruse books, leisurely wandering the stacks or pouring over the tiered tables of volumes offered up like tasty goodies, lured by the covers highlighted from above? Where else can they go to meet authors and ask questions about characters, plot points and the writing process? Or chat with friendly, knowledgeable sales people who point out their favorites, the best-sellers, the new releases? Like the old mom-and-pop stores, they are a cherished, greatly valued breed, vanishing fast. What can be done to stop the demise of our local bookstore?
When one of my books came out recently, I did what all authors must do these days -- unless you are Stephen King or Alice Munro or Snooki -- promote your own book. And by promote, I mean tweet, blog, schedule readings, signings, panels, performances, interviews and in general toot your own horn in every way possible, whenever and wherever possible. Ad nauseum. Because even if you're the best writer since Anais Nin, if no one knows about your work, its dead in the water. This is especially true if you've been published by a small press where there is little or no budget for marketing. For those authors, I advise getting some construction paper, that thick white paste they pass out in preschool, some feathers maybe and those round cornered scissors -- so you won't be tempted to stab yourself -- and make a new hat to wear, one that says "salesperson," because it's all up to you.
Writers who've been published by one of the big five conglomerates get all kinds of publicity of varying degrees based on the perceived salability of the author, I'm guessing. I don't really know for certain because I'm not a member of that club, and I could be wrong.
And that's OK, I can rise to a challenge, make it work -- except for one thing: book snobbery. The kind of snobbery that prompted a local bookseller to require a $100 fee for shelf space to carry five of my books. He had never read my book or even looked at it; he was merely responding to the fact that it was published by a small press and wouldn't be arriving through the traditional distribution method. I declined his offer.
The bookseller that agreed to host the launch of my novel filed my books alphabetically by author on shelves at the outside edges of the store that contained older publications -- the Siberia of bookshelves. They could have placed them in a more prominent location with other new fiction arrivals, or perhaps created a shelf for local authors; there are lots of us in the Boston area. They could have featured the book on the day of the launch. They could have read the copies I personally gave to each of the staff. But they didn't. Because they judged my book, not by its content, but by its route.
Small presses are just as selective as the big guys, maybe even more so because of their limited resources. Some only publish a handful of new works each year, so tend to be exceptionally choosey, only taking on books they totally believe in; for them its personal But booksellers most often turn up their noses at the thought of letting one of those books share space with the popular kids. Some even pinch their noses shut altogether and will not allow them in the store as if they were smelly beggar children, riffraff that might contaminate the rarefied air.
There are many successful little specialty shops; how do they survive? It could be because they deliver personal service to locals while developing friendly, supportive relationships with the people who furnish them with unique goods, stuff you can't get just anywhere. Obviously, in the case of bookshops, the "people" would be writers. Not only the authors featured by the big boys who deliver boxes of the same stuff to every single retail space from BJ's to Walmart to Barnes and Noble and -- heaven help us -- Amazon, but local writers, poets and yes, the small press authors. The fact is, booksellers are too tied to the publishing giants and their real focus and loyalty is to them. I think the independent booksellers should try thinking outside the traditional box and create their own unique niche. But maybe I'm wrong.
And, look, I am not a fan of the romance novel, or the paranormal, steampunk, vampire fantasy stuff, but man, there is a huge market out there for all of it. Customers. Loyal followers. Buyers. I sympathize with the independent booksellers' plight and wish for them to survive and not be swallowed up by the cheaper-by-the-dozen, big-box-store retail mentality.
But if brick and mortar is a dying breed, it may be because of their stale, exclusive attitudes, like the ones that I've encountered while down on the street battling for my tiny corner of the sidewalk. Like them, I am in a David and Goliath conflict: They with retail giants, and I with publishing giants. We little guys could work together perhaps and create something fresh and new and successful; carve out our own slice of real estate -- a more inclusive place. I might be right.