Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The price of convenience

Yesterday, there was an article in PW Daily about a bookseller's passionate outburst to rally independent booksellers and the need to educate authors about disabling the links on their websites. She said it was a case of "survival."

Several independently published authors chimed in on PW's page of the article with comments, basically relaying how they feel independents had snubbed them while chains and let them compete in the marketplace. One commenter even pointed out that handicapped people can easily browse and buy books online, while navigating crowded stores that don't consider their special needs can be a nightmare.As an author who's on both sides of the equation - I'm both commercially and independently published - the article got me thinking about my own conflicts as a reader and writer.

As a reader, I do my utmost to spread my book dollars around; I support my local independents and I also have an credit card that gives me a $25 gift certificate for every $2,500 I charge. I buy new books, used books; I don't discriminate. Yet I have friends who buy exclusively at amazon, while I know no one who buys exclusively at stores anymore; and as time has gone on I've started to understand just how flame-quenching a behemoth like can be to the passion and the hours of joy I experience in a physical bookstore.

Books have gotten pricey; to me, however, $25 is still more than worthwhile. A book gives me days of enjoyment and still costs less than I spend on a meal - and considerably less than I spend on shoes! As an incurable bookaholic, however, I must confess that I'm very attracted by the heavy discounts I can get at amazon, without taxes, and with free shipping. I also know that for many of us living in the current economic meltdown, such discounting will make the difference between whether we buy books or not, and frankly I want people to buy books. So, as a reader, I find that both outlets suit my needs - but I also know that my choice to buy books online is in fact contributing to the demise of independent booksellers, who can't compete with online and chain discounting, and to the possible floundering of my career as a NY-published author.

When I first published THE SECRET LION, I tried very hard to get independent stores and chains to stock my book. But it wasn't returnable; it was printed on-demand; and of course no one knew who the publisher was, so everyone ignored me, except for a few local stores that heeded my pleas and took the book on consignment. I was proud of my achievement and my writing; I held my head high, but deep down I was ashamed. Whenever someone asked me who my publisher was, I cringed and hedged and basically told a big mouthful of half-truths, because being "independently published" was just a step up from being "self-published" and the industry remains one of snobbery, particularly when it comes to publishing. And without that imprimatur a large publisher accords, you're really nobody in most store managers' eyes. Shelf space is limited, as is time and money; what waste them on someone like me when you can get three more copies of the latest opus anointed by Oprah?

With the shame came hurt and anger, followed by my inevitable "I'll-show-them" attitude. My book was readily available online; in fact, besides the publisher facts area under the book image, no one could even tell how I was published. I dedicated myself to marketing online. I did not give up. I would not concede defeat. My motto was if stores wouldn't sell my book, by god I would. And I did, to the tune of 8,000 copies to date. It's a paltry number compared to big publishing numbers, but to me it was success because I did it alone, via And the folks at amazon helped me do it by letting me access the same Search Inside tools and marketing strategies that large publishers use; not once did anyone at amazon treat me differently because of my publishing status—- something I must say, I experienced all too often with stores. During this period, I also bought most of my books online, both for research and for pleasure. The capacity to find out-of-print books online is a writer's dream; but I deliberately turned my back on stores because I felt they'd turned their back on me. This stance later mellowed; I returned to my favorite independents because I felt guilty that I was in my own small way contributing to their downfall and also because I was sensory-deprived and needed to browse, pick up, stroke embossing and delight in gilt foiling, and basically lose myself among aisles and aisles of books.

Now, I have a book out by a major publisher. It's available everywhere. My entire world view as a writer has flipped. I need physical stores more than I need online ones because if the stats are to be believed, only 10- 15% of books are bought online. I doubt these stats myself, just because I know so many people who buy online, but who am I to question? The truth remains that I benefit enormously from the personalized recommendations that independent bookstores provide; from the exposure the chains give; and yet I still must be online for promotion and to meet my readers, seeing as few authors are paid to go on tour these days. I know that for me as a writer, the extraordinary capabilities of the online world cannot be denied.It's a conundrum. Still, I'd be heartbroken if we lost physical bookstores. No matter how many kindles are invented or readers that flip pages on the screen, reading for me remains an intimate experience which, like sex, requires two: in the case of reading, me and the book. Not me and the machine.

So, after much soul searching, I have determined that henceforth I will only buy my out-of-print research books and books not published in the US online and buy all new books at my local independent stores. Going to a chain and getting that 30% discount is pretty much like going online as far as independent survival goes, so I'm going to do my utmost to stay true to the true independents. My habit will get a lot more expensive; but I feel that for me this is the right thing to do.Still like any other addiction, I know buying books online is going to be a very hard habit to break.


Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Thanks for the insight into an author's perspective on this topic. It's something I've considered as a READER but hearing an authors point of view has given me more to consider.

Sarah Bower said...

Christopher, thanks for a very interesting and well-reasoned piece. I can't help feeling, though, that the bookseller who sparked off your reflections was being a bit of an ostrich. Internet shopping of all kinds is here to stay and booksellers who want to stay in business have to, firstly, set up websites with shopping themselves and, secondly, consider USPs like coffee shops, running book groups, having author readings - of course! One very successful indie bookshop in the UK also runs workshops for authors on how to market their books and the best ones I know cooperate actively with local self-published authors. This works well as local authors usually have a local fan base, or have maybe written books with an identifiable regional setting.

I don't think pleas to boycott Amazon, however heartfelt, are really going to work.

Michele said...

I read the PW bit earlier in the week (and clipped it for later use), so I'm pleased to read your response. I agree with your sentiments here and have adopted something akin to your policy.

My problem has always been that it is the "under the radar" books from small publishing houses or independent publishers that I'm always looking for. Book stores (especially in my small town) simply don't carry them. Amazon is simply the easiest place to find new authors.

I understand the plight of the independent book seller (hey, I saw 'You've Got Mail' and who doesn't love Meg Ryan?), and understand their quandary regarding new authors, but Amazon does tend to carry the books I'm looking for.

C.W. Gortner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.W. Gortner said...

I think this discussion is great, and I agree with what's being said. Independent stores know they must change if they are to survive, and I don't think pleas to boycott amazon will do anyone any good. And some do need to be more responsive to local authors, to independently published authors. Like Michele, I've been compelled on several occasions to search for a book elsewhere. Case in point: I couldn't get Sharon Penman's latest at my independent yesterday because they only stocked one copy - one! - and it sold. I had to order it and pick it up today.

Amazon is the most well-stocked and arguably the most accessible bookstore on earth; I don't think for a moment that it's going away anytime soon. The truth is, as consumers we have the right to selection and affordability and amazon offers it; bookstores, in turn, must compete by offering the personal touch, the events, the networking and groups. And yes, the smart ones are doing what they must to give their customers a more fulfilling experience.

As I said, amazon offers impressive advantages and whenever my ranking there sinks, I go a little nuts; that's how powerful a force it exerts on the industry. And bottom line, we all want books to sell, so I'm for any outlet that makes it convenient for the reader. I just wanted to elucidate my own conflict as a reader and writer when it comes to these tough choices.

Mirella Patzer said...

Very eloquently said, Chris. I have been frustrated with both independent and online stores for the exact same reasons. I have adjusted my own spending in much the same way as you.

Mirella Patzer

Sarah Johnson said...

I often find myself conflicted about the same issues. I like the idea of supporting indies, but the fact that I'm 50 miles from the nearest bookstore (aside from a tiny mall Waldenbooks) plays a big role in my shopping decisions. I've also got the same Amazon credit card. There's an indie in a small city an hour away, and they do have a broader selection; I like browsing their shelves and buy from them on occasion. On the other hand, they're often out of things because they regularly stock only one copy.

With my own books, which are from an academic/library publisher, I have difficulty recommending that people special-order them from indies or even chains because they get marked up at least $15 from list price in order to make it economically feasible for them to be sold at all. Amazon sells them at list price (and keeps copies in stock), as does the publisher itself. It's a significant difference, and I really can't see asking people to pay it.

C.W. Gortner said...

Sarah, I see your point. I think with acadamic-published books like yours, the online advantage simply can't be beat - and that goes, as well, for many smaller press and independent offerings. The truth is, price is everything these days. I saw this fact plainly when I picked up my copy of DEVIL'S BROOD at my local independent. No discount, a hefty $27 jacket price plus tax: the book ended up costing me $33, almost twice what it would have through amazon. Yikes!

One of the biggest obstacles that comes up, as well, is sheer shelf space: amazon and other online retail outlets are basically limitless, while physical stores are not. With independents, the limits get even tighter because they want to stock only what they're certain will move; like I said, my independent had only one copy of DB and it had sold. I often find independents stock less historical fiction, too.

Carrie K said...

I'm blessed with a number of independent bookstores in my area and I try to patronize them all(unless they annoy me too much) but Amazon has EVERYTHING. And it delivers it right to my door.

C.W. Gortner said...

Yes, it does deliver to our doors and it certainly has everything. Very hard to resist! Trust me when I say, I'm already having serious withdrawls - and to top it all off, I've just been invited to be an Amazon Vine reviewer. Go, figure.