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An Open Letter From an Indie Author to America's Independent Booksellers

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Dear Indie Booksellers,

December wasn't easy, was it? As if steadily-declining sales and the threat posed by a new phalanx of holiday-purchased ereaders weren't enough, Slate's Farhad Manjoo published a widely-discussed article entitled Don't Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying Books on Amazon is Better for Authors, Better for the Economy, and Better For You, in which he claims that the benefits you supposedly deliver are, for the most part, illusory. Bookstores, he says, are "some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find... cultish, moldering institutions."

Ouch.

As someone who likes indie bookstores a lot, and who always seeks them out in her travels, I feel bad that so many of you are going through such a hard time. And so I have a suggestion for a solid new book-related revenue stream that not even Amazon can touch. Before I tell it to you, however, I need to share a recent experience I had with a bookseller.

I had stopped by her store -- a fabulous one that I had been going to for years -- to see if she wanted to sell my new indie-published book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. I reasoned that a professionally-produced and authoritative book on how to overcome procrastination, perfectionism and writer's block would do well in an upscale New York suburb that's home to many writers, executives and students.

Here's how the conversation went:

Me (to the store owner): Hi! I've been coming to your great store for years. I've got a new book out, and think it would be a terrific fit for your market. [I describe the book.] Would you be interested in stocking it?

I hand her a copy.

She examines it for a long while, and, notably, says nothing. No, "Great topic," "Nice cover," or even a routine, "Congratulations." She is, in fact, the only person I've ever shown the book to who has had absolutely nothing good to say about it. That feels weird.

Finally, she says, simply, "We could stock this."

Then she tells me her terms: It would be a consignment deal. She would keep 40%. She would not be responsible for any damage, loss or theft.

Consignment doesn't feel good, or fair. My friends who make and sell jewelry, clothing, specialty food items, and other products don't do consignment, at least not after they've established themselves. But I know these terms are standard in bookselling, so I nod, okay.

I ask if she will notify me after the books sell and she's about to send a check. No, she says: it's my job to track my book in her online inventory system and request a check. If I don't do that, I won't get paid.

The idea that she can't even be bothered to notify me after making $10 per book, risk-free, irks me.

Finally, I ask her whether, if the initial batch of books sells, she would be willing to follow up with a non-consignment order.

"No."

And I'm feeling still worse.

She hands me a consignment agreement to take home and, for good measure, informs me that I'm "lucky" to have had the chance to talk with her, since she usually only sees writers by appointment.

When I get home, I throw out the agreement -- and now not only do I no longer want to do business with her, I don't even want to buy anything from her. So, along with losing a potential business partner, she also lost a customer.

The deal this bookseller offered me may have been typical but that doesn't make it right. One problem is that she and many other booksellers remain mired in what indie publishing proponents such as Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler call the "legacy" publishing world -- and a fundamental element of that world is disrespect for, and exploitation of, writers.

What I was looking for, when I approached her, was a partnership; and here's what I would have done had she treated me like a potential partner instead of a low-value commodity:

  • I would have emailed, Facebook-ed and tweeted the heck out of her store, bugging my relatives and their friends and neighbors and everyone else I know in her vicinity to buy my book and others from her.
  • I would have done a time management workshop, or more than one, at her store. I would have publicized that workshop not just to local writing groups, but business groups, student groups and activist groups (my first book was on activism, and there are tons of activist groups in her area). I think I could have brought some new customers to her store.
  • And I might have even given her a cut of any coaching or workshops she referred me for.
  • And I would have been open to other ideas.

Indie booksellers, you have a natural friend in us, the indie authors. Even though Manjoo is right and Amazon *is* a boon for us, many of us are also discovering, to our chagrin, that sales still often requires a personal touch -- and we're also discovering that it's expensive and time consuming to enter a new market.

You've already got those personal contacts, and are in that market. So my humble suggestion is that, in 2012, you resolve to work with us -- as equals.

Our reciprocal New Year's resolution will be to make it worth your while.

In their book Be the Monkey, Eisler and Konrath say, "There's no reason indie booksellers can't buy direct from authors, too. Promise to sell a lot of our books and we'll even sell 'em to you cheap, knowing we'll make it up on volume and in the advertising power of paper." (They also say, "A lot of the problems bookstores are having are caused by legacy publishers.")

I already know some of the objections you might raise: that indie books don't sell, that many are unprofessionally produced, and that dealing with indie authors can be a pain. And so I would ask you to further resolve, for 2012, not to stereotype indie authors and our work. Sure, some indie books are unsaleable and some indie authors unprofessional, but you'll find unsaleable product and unprofessional behavior in any industry, including the legacy publishing world itself. Many indie authors, as it happens, are highly entrepreneurial and professional, and many of us are managing to sell our books on Amazon and elsewhere, so why shouldn't you be able to work with us and cash in?

We're out here. Work with us.