Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The More Things Change . . .

I am typing today’s blog from inside a tent in my backyard. You might think I am a little bit old for that, (and my knees would agree with you), you might also think that late October in Utah it’s a little bit cold for that. (All of me would agree with you.) But my son turns 11 next month and in order to get his Arrow of Light, he needed to camp overnight in a tent he set up. So here we are. Actually it was kind of fun roasting hot dogs and making s’mores with my little guys. I’ll see how good I feel about it in the morning. So if my slightly frozen fingers mistype, or if my eyes are not as clear in the dark of the tent, blame Cub Scouts!

But that isn’t actually what I’m blogging about tonight. I wanted to respond to a post I was directed to by my good friend and fellow author, Annette Lyon. The post was written by author, Gregory Frost. It’s starts out talking about how his series has been pulled from the shelves of Borders. But it’s really about much more than that. It’s (if I’m interpreting right), about how chain bookstores are limiting what we read. You can read the whole post here:

Now before I respond to Mr. Frost’s post, let me say that I totally understand the pain of having a book pulled from the shelves of a store. I’ve been there. Let me also say that I am going to go out and buy his series. And I’m going do it at an independent bookstore. Some of my favorite bookstores are independents, and we do need to support them I also think that Mr. Frost provides a lot to consider. Which is all I ask of a good post.

If you sense a “but” coming here, you are right. I personally feel that this post has a “the sky is falling” feel to it that I don’t think is warranted. In fact, if anything, I think we have more choices than ever before.

I’ll address a couple of his points.

Mr. Frost laments that, “When the million-copy bestseller is required every quarter, you have a business model doomed to failure — either you publish fewer titles, or fewer copies of those more complicated, subtle, and dare I say it, difficult books.”

Here’s the thing. For as long as I can remember, this has been the model of big publishers. It’s the very fact that there are best selling books that allows them to publish books that make no profit at all. Or that may not make any money right out of the gate. It’s the lure of the next bestseller that lets the publisher take chances. I’ve published with small publishers, and I can say for a fact that it’s not a lot of fun. Yes, a small publisher doesn’t need bestsellers per se. But because of that, books get little churned out in minimal numbers with little or no marketing. There’s a reason authors strive to get published by the big guys. They have the money.

Next, he complains that Amazon and other on-line booksellers do not offer the benefits of brick and mortar stores. “Bookstores, for their part, came against that borderless phenomenon called Amazon in 1995. That year, Jeff Bezos launched which now operates separate stores in the UK, Germany, China, Japan, and elsewhere. Without needing to maintain stock — without needing a shop at all — offers virtually every title put out by every imprint, in multiple languages. No “physical” chain can offer all this.”

Why is this a bad thing? It’s as if Mr. Frost is saying that Amazon is bad for author or book buyers. On the contrary, millions of people can sell books across the globe that never could before the internet. No store could offer all of these titles and smaller authors were out of luck. Now anyone can find virtually any book, either new or used, and see reviews of it. And if you don’t like the Amazon reviews, you can check any of the millions of other on-line reviews. The internet is the savior of small publishers.

The next thing he complains about is co-op. Basically a publisher pays for premium shelf space. “If you took your books, approached a bookstore, and offered them money to place your titles by the front door, this would be called graft. When publishers do it, it’s called business.”

The odd thing about this is that in the paragraph just above, he compares bookstores to a supermarket that stops carrying milk. But the fact of the matter is that every supermarket does exactly what he is complaining about. They sell shelf space. The cereals that get the best spots paid for it. And yet, milk is still where it’s always been (along with the other items that don’t pay for premium space), because it sells. Maybe Borders has cut down on the books they carry. But they still carry a ton of books. And Barnes and Noble carries a ton. Heaven forbid that you have to go looking for a book.

Anyone who lives in today’s world understands advertising. Does the Super Bowl tout Bud because it’s the best beer? Of course not. They are paid for it. But that doesn’t stop you from drinking whatever you want.

Does every bookstore employee know every book? Of course not. But to suggest that the only bookstore employees that read and care about books are independents is crazy. I just spent an evening doing a book signing at a Barnes and Noble in Layton, UT. Not only did the bookstore set up school visits for me. So I could encourage kids to read. But once the line of gets buying books was gone, I talked books with the employees. And guess what? They know books. They suggest titles. And it’s not just the publishers that pay big bucks.

Finally he makes a point that I agree completely with. “My solution is no different than all the writers who've shouted from the battlements before me: Buy your books from independent bookstores; the ones that have survived the onslaught, the ones that we hope will arise to fill the gap.”

Of course! Buy books from your local independent stores. I love the little bookstores on Main Street, Spanish Fork. I go there all the time. I love King's English in Salt Lake, and Clayton books in Clayton, CA. There places are some of my very favorite stores and I encourage everyone to shop there. But the thing is, there is room for the Amazons, the Costcos, the chains, and the indies. Costco will never carry a wide variety of books, and they certainly will not have someone to point you to a new author you will love, but they sell a ton of books which helps authors, publishers, and readers. Amazon offers everything under the sun (and thank goodness they do, because no one else can.) If you are tight on cash, you can even buy the book used, and become a loyal follower of the author’s new books when you do have cash. The chains offer the great service of a wide variety and people to help you.

Where do the indies fit in? Well that’s up to the indie store. If they don’t offer something more than the stores listed above, they won’t stay in business. They can’t offer the variety or the discounts. But they can offer a personal touch that no one else does. I have done signings at many independent bookstores, and the great ones know their customers. They know the local schools. They know about books with local flavor. They take great care of the authors that come by. They survive, not because of pity, but because they offer a truly valuable service.

I don’t think the sky is falling. I don’t think our choices are being limited. I think this is the greatest time to be an author or a reader the world has ever known. The opportunities to hook up a good author and a good reader are limitless.

Let me mention one other thing here. Rob Wells commented back to Annette, me, and some other authors that print on demand will make all of this obsolete. You’ll walk into a bookstore and ask for a specific book and they will print it for you. He feels this will even out the playing field. To some extent, I agree. Bookstores will be able to offer the inventory of an Amazon through this method.

But I also disagree, I still think people want to touch books first. And they want high quality hardbacks that POD doesn’t offer. And bookstores know that face out displays sell books. POD will offer greater distribution. But, with few exceptions, it will not affect demand. Will things change? Of course! But what won't change is readers finding the books they love and telling other readers about them.


At 10/28/2008 1:12 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...

One interesting side note is that if you go into Borders and request a book they don't have, they will order it for you and ship it to you for free. What products they carry on their shelves isn't as important as what they have listed in their system.

At 10/28/2008 1:45 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

For what it's worth, my projection was that POD would take over almost completely within fifty years. That's a long time. (But I completely stand behind it.)

Sure, there will likely still be books on shelves in stores, but the days of large initial print runs are numbered. Assuming the POD technology improves--and I think it's safe to assume that it will--there's no good business reason to have shelves stocked with a bunch of slow-moving inventory.

Really, I picture bookstores of the future as very similar to airport bookstores: they only have the most recent stuff, and only one or two copies of each title. Anything else will be purchased online, or printed in-store.

This will be for three major reasons: it's cheaper and easier for the publisher; it's cheaper and easier for the retailer; and it's cheaper and easier for the consumer.

At 10/28/2008 1:51 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

I totally agree. POD is saving lots of small publishers. Also, there's the e-book. Personally, I like the touch and smell of a "real" book, but e-books are gaining ground rapidly.

And speaking of indies, as a faithful reader and sometimes commenter here, can I put a plug in for a new bookstore? Provident Book, an independent LDS bookstore, and Humdinger Toys & Games, a totally cool toy store, will be having a Grand Opening on Nov 8th. It's located at 661 W State, in Pleasant Grove UT.

I've been posting about some of the products on my blog and will be posting a coupon for everyone to print out and use next week. We'll have author signings (contact me at karleneb [at] mac [dot] com if you're interested. Still have spaces available. And we'll have Free Drawings for book and game packages valued over $300 each.

I'd love to see all of you there. I'm going to be the asst manager, btw.

At 10/28/2008 4:53 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Karlene: is Humdinger Toys really a good toy store? Or is it full of educational toys and kites? I get really sick of toy stores that don't have good toys...

At 10/28/2008 4:55 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I agree with you on POD to an extent, Rob. The problem with your theory comes back to that weird cult-like religion called marketing. Bookstores don’t want to sell you just the book you came in knowing you want to buy. They want to sell you the extra books that catch your eye once you are in the store. The whole reason for end caps, fancy covers, displays, and cover blurbs is to get you to pick up, and hopefully buy, a book you didn’t come in for.

POD printing will get better (although I don’t know if the quality will come in a size that fits in every bookstore.) But it will have to print all covers on the same stock. It may have to print the book on the same size paper. It will not do hardbacks, or glitter, or of the cool things that make cover art stand out. What it will do is make a paperback book cheaply in a short time. That provides a benefit, in that you can know walk into a store and walk out with virtually any book in print. This will be seriously competitive to Amazon.

It takes care of the problem of distribution. What it does not address is demand. Stores will probably keep less inventory, but face out pretty much everything they have. If a book doesn’t sell x copies per month (or fill a slot) it will only be available by special order or POD.

But I don’t believe POD will ever replace the bookstore we are used to, any more than a grocery store would stop shelving inventory if they could create food on demand. That is because half of getting us to buy the “right” thing in packaging and placement. You would lose both of those with FOD.


That sounds cool. I'll drop by.

At 10/29/2008 10:16 AM, Blogger Karlene said...

Rob, this probably isn't your type of toy store. I mean, you wouldn't want a kit that made slime or bubble gum or rockets or things that explode, would you?

Oh, and no kites. At least not during the winter season.


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