How Indie Bookstores Can Add Value By Partnering With Authors

I want indie bookstores to survive.

Actually, fuck that. I want indie bookstores to thrive.

And I don’t think that’s impossible. Honestly.

Okay, yeah, the Internet has changed everything — it was a lightning strike that set the whole forest ablaze, and out of the fire and ash came the snorfling hell-beast known as Amazon and that monster tromped everything with its big hooves while also delivering packages crazy fast using Prime delivery (“RAAAR SMASH FIRE RAZE THE LANDSCAPE oh hey here’s your copy of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a weed-whacker, a bulk order of Lapsang Souchong tea sachets, seven smoke alarms, and an inflatable radio-controlled talking moon-buggy, all for 40% off and swift two-day delivery thanks for using Amazon RAAAAR STOMPY STOMPY STOMPY”).

Despite all that, I think indie bookstores are gonna rock the next century. I think we’re veering back away from Big Bulk One-Size-Fits-All services and we’re finding folks returning to The Niche — whether that’s a niche filled with artisanal gin, farm-fresh eggs, hand-painted clit-ticklers, whatever. I think as capitalists we have an unhealthy fear of the niche, as if it suggests marginalization of product. But hey, fuck that. I’m an author. The niche is my wheelhouse, whatever the hell a “wheelhouse” is. I live in the niche. This is where I lay my head at night.

Art grows stronger under the pressure of a niche.

Hell, if the Barnesandnoblepocalypse happens, I think indie bookstores will rise up — hot and shrieky like a fire-winged phoenix! — and fill the void with love and passion and probably lava.

Still. Still. That’s easier said that done. And it’s not going to be a guarantee that bookstores will automagically survive — the Internet has forced everybody to up their game, to evolve or die, to embrace the Jurassic Park ethos of life will find a way.

I’ve got some ideas for indie bookstores. These aren’t genius recommendations and, frankly, many great indie bookstores already do them. These are suggestions from an amateur hour pontificator — a guy whose job is writing shit down, not running bookstores.

Just the same, here I am, writing some shit down.

Some thoughts, then, on how indie bookstores survive, then thrive.

Can’t Be All About Selling Books

You’ll never really beat Amazon on price. Nobody will beat Amazon on price. Maybe, maybe you can match them. But you’re trying to beat the 800-lb mecha-gorilla at the game of being an 800-lb mecha-gorilla. Bookstores that try to exist solely on the basis of “just selling books” are the bookstores that I think you see quietly wither on the branch like a sun-crushed plum.

Be The Bridge Between Author And Audience

Blah blah blah, social media, Faceyspace and Twatter and AnonymousHumpFinder-dot-com, yes, I know, authors and their readers are able to interact all the time any time on the weird wide web of the Internet.

Still, meatspace has enormous value for authors — and not just because it’s a space filled with meat. Fostering real world connections — signing books, meeting fans, having drinks, hunting non-readers for sport — is way more memorable for both author and audience.

Newsflash: one of the best places for this to happen is at bookstores. Indie bookstores in particular! An indie bookstore feels like a comfortable neighborhood bar where the drug of choice is words on pages instead of boozes in glasses.

True fact: not all bookstores grok this. I’ve spoken with a few indie bookstores that treated me like I was, I dunno, bugging them. Like, “Oh, you’re… an author? Ew.” As if authors were not the people who helped fill that bookstore with crazy wonder. I assume it was because I wasn’t a bestselling author? They acted like I was a grungy raccoon begging at the back door for food scraps. And other bookstores don’t prefer to have anything to do with authors at all. Which, you know, is their prerogative. I’m just saying:

Help authors be awesome, and authors will help bookstores be the same.

Symbiosis, baby.

Cover Charge

Charge for events. I know, this is controversial — how much will you charge? Do authors get a cut? If someone runs a book club there, do they get a cut? I’m not saying you need to make readers break the bank just to get into an author signing, and I’m not saying every author signing needs to be a pay-to-get-in dealy-o.

But here’s the thing: I pay money for something, it has value to me. More than if I don’t. And I think you deserve something for putting on a great event and, ostensibly, money paid into an event will be paid back out to make events double-awesomer.

And the cover charge is easy and perfectly palatable when you frame it like this:

One book minimum.

Like, if I go to a comedy club, there’s a drink minimum. I gotta buy a fucking drink to stay inside the club. Well, same goes for the bookstore except here it’s, if you’re at the event, you better buy a book. Just one. The author’s book? Maybe, sure, that’d be nice, but if not — really, seriously, any book. That’s your cover charge. You know what I’d think about that price? I’d think, fuck yeah. I’d think, excuse to buy a new book! Then I’d vibrate quietly, because I love the idea of being forced to buy new books. IT GIVES ME A SEXUAL THRILL SHUT UP.

Safe Space For Readers Of All Genres

Don’t be a bookstore that looks down on readers of any book (I mean, unless it’s a book by Adolf Hitler or something, then I guess you can put on your judgey face). In having a chat with the fine feathered folks of Word Bookstore in Brooklyn, it was refreshing to see people open to books and authors of any stripe. It’s not literary folks looking down on genre. It’s not genre writers looking down on romance. Everybody gets to play in the pool. Books on shelves. Events in-house. Lots of authors. Lots of genres and age ranges. Very refreshing.

More to the point, indie bookstores are already niche. Don’t decrease the size of your capitalist cubbyhole by focusing purely on, say, hoity-toity lit-fic, because first: dick move. And second: can you actually afford to restrict your market so completely?

Value-Add: Physical Product

No reason that an author/publisher and a bookstore cannot partner together to offer unique swag: this could be anything, really. Bookmarks. Postcards. A Lulu-produced short story. A variant-cover limited edition book (think what Forbidden Planet does with Angry Robot’s Adam Christopher novels). A life-size RealDoll of the author? (Okay, ew, maybe not. Nobody wants to see a rubber version of me with my bearded mouth open in a hungry, seductive ‘O.’ … OR DO THEY? Gimme a call, bookstores. We can make this happen.)

Value-Add: Digital Product

Same thing as above, except this time, the added value happens to be digital product. I’m not just talking about offering a Kobo version (though, hey, that’s good, too). I mean, if you buy my book from XYZ indie store, you get an additional short story e-mailed to you. Or you can buy my new novella only through indie bookstores, and they’ll hand your ass a USB key shaped like my beard. Or buying my book through one particular store earns you a seat in a cool Google Hangout where I answer questions about the book or do a reading from the unpublished sequel or do a slovenly striptease while eating a drippy cheesesteak. *licks fingers*

Make Friends With Indie Authors

I don’t know how this works. I really don’t. But indie authors and indie bookstores are a match made in theoretical heaven. Maybe this is a thing that really takes off with like, Espresso book printing machines, I dunno. Maybe it comes through the Kobo connection. But bookstores will be served well by making room for strong indie authors (and in this sense bookstores could be the new gatekeepers amongst a seething mass of new self-published authors whose audience is increasingly in need of a few kept gates now and again). But it also comes from indie authors, too, who have to stop hitching their wagons to Amazon. (Seriously, if I see one more self-published author go on a rant against Big Corporate Publishing while also singing the holy praises of giant kaiju Amazon, I will kill a pony on YouTube.)

Ahem

Very quick shout-outs to some indie bookstores I love and I know others love, too:

Mysterious Galaxy

Word Bookstore

Riverrun Bookstore

Doylestown Bookshop

Moravian Bookshop

High-five to all of them.

Feel free to shout out your own favorite bookstores in the comments — and also to suggest how you think indie bookstores are rocking or could rock harder.

 

92 comments

  • The River Read in Noosa, Queensland, Australia is just brilliant – great coffee, heaps of brilliant books, handmade newspaper bags to carry your goodies, friendly staff and a must do if you ever visit Noosa!

  • In Winston-Salem, NC, we have Barnhill’s. It’s a great little shop near downtown. One of the best things they do is have low-cost writing-craft workshop for local writers. They’re also quite friendly toward writers in general.

  • Three favorite indies, all in Colorado. One I frequent, The Tattered Cover (an indie with three locations in the Denver area). One currently employs me, Poor Richard’s Books and Gifts (downtown Colorado Springs). One I grew up in, run by my parents, The Inklings Bookstore in Holyoke, CO. Thanks for the awesome post, Chuck, and for the support.

  • This.

    Why aren’t more bookstores going all out to drag Kindle readers like me through their doors? I love the Kindle, but not Amazon, and would love to patronise a local bookstore again. As it is, I haven’t been into a bookstore for years, other than when Christmas shopping.

    Sell me Kindle-compatible formats IN THE BOOKSTORE. Do a build-your-own Humble Bundle onsite in a bookstore. Set up theme nights with multiple authors … dog training, steampunk, zombie novels. Invite bloggers to speak, because they either are or aspire to be authors. Bookclubs. Booze. Stay open late. Find out what I like and recommend more of it (I agree, Amazon’s recommendation function is DIRE). Send me emails. Publish author talks as podcasts.

    Please.

    I think for most of us, Amazon is more about convenience than price. I don’t mind paying over the odds for books, but there needs to be a compelling reason to get me in the door.

  • “artisanal gin”

    Now that got my brain churning. An idea: a synthesis of bar and bookstore, where people can drink and read and socialize! Gin and Space Operas! Beer and Urban Fantasy!

    I’m going to find a wealthy investor and make this happen. This, and “Valhalla: Bar and Gymnasium”.

  • Murder by the Book in Houston, TX is amazing! (I wish I lived a lot closer…). Got to meet and chat with Patrick Rothfuss there and they typically have 3-4 author meet ‘n’ greets or readings a month. LOVE it.

    • YES, that shop is awesome! Another great one in Houston is Blue Willow Bookshop. They have tons of great author events and even host larger book cons every year!

  • I loved and appreciated this article. I wish there was not such resistance to the idea of paying for events.

    Fountain hosted 69 events for authors of all kinds in the store (several involving multiple authors) and 61 events offsite involving one or more authors just in 2012. 2013 is looking to be much higher than that. And we’re a tiny store in a market that most publishers don’t even consider tertiary, yet they still send them here because we do a good job of getting the word out about their books.

    I’d say that’s bringing value to a community. I hope it is. Some people buy nothing at these events, just nod and say “Wow! that was great! Thanks!” and many bring their books brought from Amazon and look at me like I’m a great big meanie when I suggest they buy something if they enjoyed the program so we can keep having them.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how to address that?

    Also, just sold a copy of your latest Blue Blazes a few days ago aaaaand we are super-genre friendly, so come see us!

    And so great to see so many of my friends getting shout outs here for book people I really love and admire.

    Thanks for this. Helps encourage me to keep working hard.

  • My home has so many bookshelves that I had to make a labyrinth out of them just to hold my library, and I don’t have space for more. So I’m working on migrating most of my collection to electronic form with the goal of having the physical shelves contain books I like to lend a lot, or illustrated volumes that benefit from being on resolution better than a computer screen, or reference works where I jump around a lot.

    Apocalypse Ink Productions (http://www.apocalypse-ink.com/) do a good job with ebooks in convention dealer’s rooms: I can walk up and buy an ebook at their table, and they hand me a bookmark that has the codes for downloading a copy. I can then walk over to the nearest hotel Wi-Fi hotspot and download it right onto my tablet. I get my ebook and a pretty bookmark to use with my physical tomes.

  • Good article, and I agree that there should be a symbiotic relationship between Indie authors and Indie bookstores, but the problem is that most of the bookstores do not support indie authors, and won’t stock their books. I know the objections about discounts and returns and quality, but even when an indie author has the right discount 55% (which nets the bookstore 40%) and the books are returnable, still most stores won’t consider them. And even if the books are highly rated. I have tried dozens, and so far the only two that have been receptive are Seattle Mystery Bookshop (Seattle) and Mysterscape in KS.

    For many years I drove 20+ miles to shop at Murder By the Book (Houston), mentioned here by a few commenters as a great store. And it is a great store, but they won’t carry indie authors. Owner said it’s a policy. So for me, there will be no more shopping at MBTB. I firmly believe in supporting the indie bookstores, but only the ones who support the indie authors.

  • Give me a place where I can quietly curl up on a comfy chair with a cup of coffee (or tea depending on my mood) and I’m a happy girl.

    I like Barnes and Noble, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it feels too commercialized. Too, blah. There’s no depth or character. It’s just, “Okay, you’re looking for ‘How to Not Be An Asshat for Dummies.’ It’s right here. Thanks, dude” and the pimply faced employee walks away.

    I’ve also dealt with way too much pushy “Get our totally awesome book club membership and save $4.50 on today’s purchase!” I’ve already spent $72. A lousy $4.50 isn’t much. It’s a latte at the Starbucks next door with rude baristas.

    Indie bookstores? A lot less bullshit and a lot more character. I’ll take that any day. Too bad I’ve yet to find a good one in my neighborhood. Damn it.

  • I love that you mentioned the Espresso Book Machine, Chuck, because I want to shout the praises of McNally Jackson Books in SoHo, NYC, which has an EBM and has built a wonderful relationship with the indie authors who use it (including me; I’m mostly published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Clarion imprint, but I also self-published my Kairos Mechanism novella using McJ’s Espresso for the paperbacks). The machine turns out absolutely beautiful pbs, and the bookstore carries a number of titles in-store. McNally also does amazing author events, launches, and panels; they do events in Spanish and kids’ events and host multiple book clubs; they are big supporters of indie publishers and every section is curated by someone who is incredibly passionate about the subject. It’s really a great place.

    (Full disclosure: I’m a very part-time kids bookseller there, so I’m not unbiased, but I’m also a full-time middle grade author, and I was a loyal customer before I was either of those things.)

  • One book minimum.

    So only people with disposable income should get to go to bookstore events? People who have to get their books from the library aren’t worth talking to? Nice.

    I’m really glad my awesome local bookstore (Schuler Books & Music in Lansing, MI) doesn’t pull that kind of stuff. Their events are open to book lovers of all income levels. And if you happen to buy a book, or even just a coffee or a birthday card or whatever, while you’re there for anything from an author signing to a scientific debate, that’s great, but it’s not mandatory. You’re welcome just because you consider yourself part of the reading community.

    And I bet they’re glad too, because when I do have money to spare, they tend to get it. That wouldn’t happen if they’d previously established that I wasn’t good enough to walk through their doors.

  • Two great bookstores in my area: Powell’s Books in Portland and Smith Family Bookstore in Eugene (both Oregon)

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