March 20, 2014
The state of my bookselling, 2014
I am still a bookseller. It is March 20th, 2014.
Everybody is surprised, me included. Every day customers wander through the door and look at me, startled, saying, “You’re still here!” My boss opens the till from time to time and demands to know who we have robbed, because cash appears to be accumulating. Our bills are paid. Our suppliers are satisfied. I have a normal, stable, middle-class job, and will hopefully soon be buying a house in downtown Toronto.
I am still a bookseller. Unlike, unfortunately, many of my colleagues. Toronto’s bookstore fatalities this year include the World’s Biggest Bookstore, the Annex branch of Book City, and the Cookbook Store (who will be having a farewell potluck this Sunday March 23rd starting at 11:30am). The culprits are Amazon and Toronto rents, the latter enemy being, likely, the bigger problem.
Yet, I am still a bookseller. We are lucky to pay stable, and low, rent here. We carry unusual things and have a fiercely dedicated (and, frankly, solvent) customer base. We probably aren’t going anywhere, though some days I worry about the publishing industry’s ability to fill my store with books. As the midlist converts to e-formats and specialty books move to print-on-demand, it can be difficult to stock our bread-and-butter – the complete works of Immanuel Kant, for instance, or Will Kymlika. One of the few true benefits of a meat-space store is that we are right here, right now. If a customer comes in and asks for Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, they mean now. Not, “Sure, we’ll take your order and that will be print-on-demand, non-returnable once it finally shows up in 3-4 weeks.”
This is the single weirdest shift I have noticed in the last 5 years. Books are getting harder for us to get. The same technology which is supposed to be making everything available to us all the time is gumming up the works. Books are getting much easier to get in one way: digitally, through Amazon. The process from writer to publisher (often the same person) to reader has become streamlined through the one fat Amazonian tube.
Optimizing your publishing process to slip down that river makes sense. You’re likely to make the bulk of your sales that way, especially if you are a smaller publisher without the means or the publicity to get your books onto bookshelves internationally. The time and effort required to then get your book into other distribution chains often isn’t worth it. A token effort – maybe checking the “extended distribution” box on Smashwords or Createspace, which in practice means making the book available as a POD title through Ingram – puts the book out there in a technical sense, but it will not be fast or cheap for the purchaser. And let me tell you, if it comes with the “non-returnable” caveat, we won’t buy it at all.
The only way we compete with Amazon is by having books on the shelves, not books in potentia in a database. On the flip side, the only way your reader is going to discover your books is by seeing that book. Maybe they’re seeing it mentioned on Twitter, or maybe they see it crop up on their friends’ Goodreads feeds – or maybe they see it on a bookshelf in a store. Amazon is a fantastically bad tool for book discoverability. George Packer did a wonderful job of breaking down Amazon’s arcane and for-profit search algorithms in his piece, Cheap Words. The long and the short of it is, readers can discover your book if you pay for it, or if you have some fantastic grassroots momentum going on. Otherwise, godspeed. You’re on your own.
Or, it might be worth the extra effort to make the book easily and readily available to actual bookstores, few though we may be. Booksellers are on your side – Amazon is not. We are book lovers, actual readers. We sell books not because we are looking to make a buck – though don’t get me wrong, my mortgage will be paid by that buck – but because we have made a genuine effort to understand your criteria, and we want you to enjoy the book we have suggested. We like what we do, and we are good at what we do. I guarantee that a single indy bookseller can hand-sell more copies of a book they loved than a reader can Tweeting that recommendation to their 250 followers. Both methods have their place, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say three-quarters or more of our customers come in without a specific book in mind. Like customers in a restaurant, all they know is they want something to read, and they’d like to see what we have, imagine the taste of each likely candidate, and to pick what they feel like at that moment. Maybe they have a craving for a specific read, but mostly, they don’t. They trust the bookseller, listen to what we know about the book’s content and accolades and they go away with something unexpected.
That’s what I do, because I am still a bookseller. For a little longer, anyway. So long as we can keep getting good, well-made books at a reasonable price in a timely manner. This is the 21st century – that should be easy, right?