Patronize Your Local Independent Bookstore!

30 October 97

Okay, America, we haven't had a talk about your book-buying habits up until now, but the situation is getting seriously out of hand and I thought some education might help. The message is that you should, whenever possible, buy books from an independent bookstore not affilliated with any chain, and here's why: Those tiny little mall chain bookstores, which I like to refer to collectively as Waldenclosets, never were big enough to provide the selection you really want and need. I have no idea why they were so popular in the 80's. The book racks at drug and grocery stores are even worse, the literary equivalent of Top-40-Only music stations. Superstores, with their capacity for backlist and expanded selection, are an improvement, and I note with satisfaction that they're finally starting to drive the Waldenclosets out of business, but they are still given to some very egregious practices.

Did you know that most of the paperback books shipped out by publishers wind up being destroyed? Booksellers rip the covers off and mail them back for a 100% refund, a bizarre practice which was barely acceptable when sell-through was eighty or ninety percent, but throughout the 1990's merchants have increasingly demanded that their shelf space be occupied only by product that sells briskly right away. Worse still, these decisions are now usually made at the national level, so that books with strong local or regional appeal show up as weak sellers and are quickly snuffed. And worst of all, publishers are now basing print runs (i.e., the number of copies they will print and ship) on pre-orders received from the bookstore chains and distributors, who in turn base their orders on the number of copies the author's last book sold.

Since the stores, on average, sell only half as many books as they order, this can quickly lead to a "death spiral" in which sales, none too high on a typical first novel, are halved for each successive book until they vanish off the radar altogether.

No time is given for word-of-mouth advertising, for momentum to build, for a book or author to march up the charts and onto the bestseller lists. In today's climate, you're a bestseller from day one, or you're toast. So the authors who are already stars sometimes get to remain that way, and never mind that they've lost their edge and haven't produced anything noteworthy in a decade. Meanwhile, the fresh talent that should be invigorating our literature is instead being summarily executed, or forced to write "brand name" fiction for Star Wars or Murder She Wrote.

People have been predicting the death of publishing for decades now, and it's mostly hot air, but in the past ten years, and most particularly in the last five, the book distribution system in the U.S. has gone pathological, and is trying very hard to strangle its golden goose to death. The root causes of this are short-term profit seeking, national homogenization of highly regional sales figures, and a failure to understand the uniqueness and non-interchangeability of individual books. Basically, the book chains are in the hands of business majors who don't know or care what they're selling, and don't mind that their own practices are driving prices up and diversity down.

In contrast, those quaint little mom-and-pop specialty bookstores, local micro-chains, and all-too-rare independent superstores are owned and operated by people who love books, can distinguish shit from Shinola, and can spend a few minutes chatting with you and then recommend books and authors you'd otherwise never hear about. And because they love books, they're a _lot_ more willing to try to sell them before destroying them for refund.

I'm not asking for anything on my own behalf -- even under pathological conditions, people do occasionally get lucky, and so far I seem to be one of these. But I've watched too many talented, engaging authors crash and burn in the past two years for no good reason, and I'm worried about what might happen when the superstars of today finally do grow old and die. Who is being groomed to take their place? Nobody I want to read, that's for sure.

So patronize your local indy, or if that extra couple of miles' drive is just too damned much trouble for you, then for God's sake at least try shopping the "What's New" pages at Amazon.com, about as cheap and easy as book buying is ever likely to get. The health and survival of the publishing industry really do depend on your own personal actions!

See last quarter's rant.

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