Indie Bookstores & Indie Publishers—On The Same Page?

Saturday was the monthly meeting of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). It’s been a year that I’ve been going to the meetings, and I look forward to them.

We had the usual hour of Q & A from those who chose to show up at 9:00 a.m., orchestrated by BAIPA President Pete Masterson. The questions ran from how to get on a bestseller list to printing with Createspace, Lulu and Lightning Source. We talked Smashwords, ISBNs, Baker & Taylor and the transition from Print on Demand to offset production. The usual.

Entering the second hour the room began to fill. The subject announced was “Indie Bookstores + Indie Publishers: Working Together for Success” and the speakers were Calvin Crosby of Books, Inc. and Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage.

I don’t know Books, Inc. very well, since they have no stores in Marin county. They do have eleven stores in other parts of the Bay Area, and their website shows a tremendous number of events they hold with noted authors.

Book Passage bills itself as the Bay Area’s Liveliest Bookstore (two stores) and you’ll get no argument from me. In the next few weeks they will play host to Anthony Bourdain, Elizabeth George, Isabelle Allende, Annie Lamott and Anna Getty, while also hosting dozens of author events, readings and workshops, over 700 events a year.

Great Expectations

At BAIPA meetings we have a time where each person gets up and gives their “elevator speech,” a 30-second pitch on who they are and what they do. People also use these to announce personal victories and milestones.

Over the course of the year I’ve alternately heard stories of how difficult it was to get a book event at Book Passage or, having gotten the event, how exciting it was to have an event there. Back and forth. Complaints about the process, excitement over the product.

Of course the one thing most self-publishers want more than anything else is to see their books in bookstores. This is what eludes many self-publishers, who rely on Amazon and other online retailers who have no need for gatekeeping, since they stock—at least virtually—everything. Amazon, along with digital printing and print on demand distribution, has really made self-publishing what it is today.

Ah, but the bookstores. The lure of being on an equal footing with every other publisher out there—that’s the holy grail to a certain segment of self-publishers. And what better place, what more suitable place, what place will they be understood better, than at the independent bookstores? It seems to the new self-publisher like a match made in heaven.

So the idea of “Indies” working together has a special potency to it. The meeting was very well attended, the room overfull. I would guess sixty or seventy avid self-publishers were ready to hear the talk, learn how we could work together. Here are some notes from the presentation, including some responses to impromptu questions:

  • Independent publishing is growing while big publishing is waning
  • Stores work with self-publishers on a consignment basis, and will shelve books in a “special section” for local authors and publishers, giving them 2 or 3 months shelf time
  • Yes, they do charge a fee for having an event, and this is to cover promotion costs including $30,000 – 40,000 every two months for catalog mailings and email promotion.
  • We have one of the biggest communities of local authors, publishers, and booksellers and we should try to utilize that community
  • Distribution and publicity are most difficult for self-publishers
  • They are optimistic about the survival of indie bookstores, because they adapt to changes in the market
  • Discounters like Borders (which has flirted with bankruptcy for nearly a year) are in trouble, not indies
  • Some of the biggest events have been run by self-published authors, who bring a considerable following into the store

What’s Missing From This Picture?

One question that was asked repeatedly was “What do we do to set up an event or put books into your store?” We received a sort of narrative in response, about how authors who had events were long-time customers, who would naturally, over time, become friends with one or more people “behind the register” so that, when a book came into the equation, they would have a friend to talk to.

It was suggested that authors have a promotion plan, that they be organized, two pieces of good advice. It was also suggested that authors have a blog, a website for their book and to build their community. And, Bill Petrocelli pointed out, make sure there’s no link to Amazon on your website, because that will kill any chance you had of doing something with the store.

I Think I’m on the Wrong Page

It was around this time I started to grow uncomfortable with the whole presentation. There was a question from an indie publisher, who had earlier announced the publication of his 36th book, about why he had to keep going into the stores year after year to remind the buyers to stock his consignment books.

Of course, selling on consignment is not a long-term business model, and the publisher was advised to find some way to get into the bookstore’s database by finding a wholesaler or distributor. Of course, he would have to be prepared to give a discount up to 70%.

This also seemed odd, since the consignment model was the one being pitched at the beginning of the meeting. They agreed that books from Lightning Source with 55% discount, fully returnable, would be acceptable to them, but that iUniverse books were a problem because they had to buy them retail and they were non-returnable.

In a subsequent question it turned out that this information was incorrect, and an iUniverse author in the audience confirmed that they sold on regular, returnable wholesale terms.

Another questioner had trouble containing the outrage he felt because he had to pay to have an event at the bookstore, to which he would be bringing his own new customers, on top of which they wanted him to not sell on Amazon.

Surprisingly, in response Bill Petrocelli launched into an energetic attack on Amazon in what I can only call “Axis of Evil”-type language. I remember the word “pariah” came up, and there was discussion about Amazon’s tactics and their refusal to pay sales tax.

And I can understand some of this. Bookstores are businesses. As Bill pointed out, it costs a lot of money to pay for all the activities they put on. Both Book Passage and Books, Inc. are treasures of our community and centers where people gather to celebrate books, authors and writing. And certainly the internet and the companies it has spawned have decimated some bricks-and-mortar businesses, that’s obvious.

But at the same time I found this the most disappointing meeting of BAIPA I’ve been to. Despite the promise of the billing, this is what we didn’t receive:

  • Any organized process to make contact with the bookstores. Even all these years into the self-publishing “revolution,” neither of these stores seems to have any formal process of any kind for dealing with one-book self-publishers.
  • Confirmation that booksellers have any idea what self-publishers are all about. The complete tone-deafness of the attitude toward Amazon was startling. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Amazon to self-publishers.
  • A hint that there was any interest on the part of the indie booksellers in actually working together. The presentation contained no suggestions, no ideas, no call to action, no request for input from publishers, and no direction. Some people prepare slides, handouts, talking points for their presentations to this group. Bill and Calvin didn’t even stand up. They sat at a table the whole time, which means they basically didn’t make contact with most of the people in the room.

Still Waiting

I was left with the distinct impression that the indie bookstores may not have much common ground with indie publishers and self-publishers, no matter what we’d like to think. Book Passage and Books, Inc. are full of books from major publishers. Smaller presses are certainly well represented, and there’s a definite effort to reach out to the local community in many ways.

But if I were managing one of those stores, would I want an endless stream of self-publishers coming in, trying to get shelf space, trying to have author events? What would I need them for? They just create more work for the bookstore, and the possibility of bad feelings.

Concessions can be made for long-time customers, or for those who “know someone” at the store. If all the self-publishers were subtracted from the equation, it’s likely the bookstores would be just as happy. Can you imagine just doing the accounting for 70 publishers, each of whom publishes 1 book, for which there is likely to be little demand?

I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think the bookstores have any common ground with self-publishers and small indie presses. Individual staff members may have a love of books that extends to the books made by these publishers, but that’s not the same thing.

I shop at Book Passage, and I bet most of the people in that room shop at these stores, and the stores know that. Self-publishers as a group are activist, passionate, independent-minded people. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken on the enormous job of publishing—and trying to sell—their books.

The dislocations in the publishing industry brought about by digitization and hastened by the speed of technological development and the urgency of the recession, are severe. We’re faced with serious challenges, like

  • Finding new ways to deliver content,
  • Finding new ways to identify and satisfy discrete audiences,
  • Discovering how different media can be used together while maintaining the integrity of the book
  • Redefining what it means to “publish,” to “author” and to “distribute” content

Right now everyone concerned with these issues has a stake in working together, of being on the same page when it comes to the changes we will have to negotiate. I hope some of us end up on the same page. What do you think?

Takeaway: There are many challenges for the self-publisher, and establishing relationships with bookstores—even indie bookstores—remains one of the most problematic.

This is a reprint from Joel Friedlander‘s The Book Designer site.

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