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