the author as a local business, and fair play

This post is 10 years old.

I live in a small town that is big on supporting local businesses. And we do. For example: our milk comes from a farm just a few miles away (glass bottles!) and we buy local produce and eggs. There’s profit for both sides in this kind of relationship. We get better quality food; the farmers make a living at what they like to do.

But say I go to the farmer’s market tomorrow because I want to make a big mixed salad for dinner. Once I’m there, going from stand to stand, all I find is cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cotton candy. I ask about tomatoes, romaine lettuce, fresh corn, peas, beans. Nowhere in the market can I find these things. I turn to leave, headed for the grocery store when the farmers call out to me: wait! Support local businesses!

I will support local businesses as long as it is mutually beneficial to do so. This doesn’t shake down to money: I am willing to pay more for high quality, especially organic, food. But I’m not willing to be bullied. I’m not a capitalist pig because I won’t settle for brussel sprouts and cotton candy.

Where am I going with this, you’re wondering.

If you look back a few posts ago, you’ll see that more than half of the bookstores contacted by my readers were not stocking any copies of TTTT and had no plans to do so. Almost all of them offered to special order a copy. In most cases that requires prepayment.

So I’ve been thinking about this for days, looking at it from all directions. The fact is, if people don’t see a book or hear about it and go looking for it, that book will not sell. It’s not enough to make sure that your target readers know about your new book: they have to be able to find it, too. No matter how interesting a book may sound, if a person asks in three bookstores and none of them stock it, that’s pretty much the end of the line. The potential reader goes away thinking. Huh, maybe not such a good book afterall, if nobody’s stocking it.

So this problem which plagues most midlist authors can be summarized:

1. lack of publisher marketing effort (making people aware of the book through publicity and marketing);
2. lack of bookstore support (making the book available and easy to find).

I am abstracting away from aestetic questions for the moment, please note.

Here’s a fact: Brick-n-mortar bookstores (small and large) aren’t big on midlist authors. One more fact: Pretty much any on-line bookstore will sell you any book in print (including Tied to the Tracks ) without delay. There’s no talk of special ordering, no hoops to jump through. The on-line booksellers are there 24/7; there are no clerks to do deal with (friendly or judgemental); they’ve got everything, or immediate access to everything. Obscure cookbooks, no problem. Biography of a Brazilian soccer player, no problem. And pretty much every midlist author is sitting on that virtual shelf making googly eyes at you. You pop that book into your shopping cart and in a couple days, it will show up at your door.

The brick-n-mortar stores can’t compete with this, but of course they still want your business. There is no argument for mutual benefit — or at least, not any compelling argument. This is where they appeal to your sense of community and loyalty. They ask you to buy locally, because they want to survive.

I want to survive too. And so I am going to come out and be straightforward about this. If you want to read my books (and I hope you do), don’t bother with the brick-n-mortar stores. If you want to read more of my stories and you’re willing to back that up by buying a book now and then, please do so through an on-line bookseller. Amazon or Borders or Powells (an independent, by the way), Barnes & Nobel, anybody who has a decent on-line interface.

As an author I ask you to support on-line booksellers, because at this juncture, it looks as though the on-line booksellers are the only ones consistently supporting midlist authors. Like me.

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10 thoughts on “the author as a local business, and fair play”

  1. I like your consise listing of what you think a good review/reviewer should have. I never thought that this would be such a hot topic! Thanks for the post, this is one of the reasons I visit this site.

  2. Interesting perspective. I support both as it suits me. For what it’s worth, I found the hard cover version of TTTT in my local Books-A-Million (I think…). I’ve ordered all of Sara’s books on-line from Amazon (including the one in my most recent BookPack giveaway).

    I love wandering through a bookstore for impulse purchases. Rarely do I find what I’m looking for when I have a specific purchase in mind. This frustrates me to no end. When I really want it and I ask, I’ve received two answers: We don’t stock it but we’ll order it for you (no pre-payment yet), or, in one case, they shelved a suspense in the mystery section. I’d previously found the first two in the three book deal in mainstream fiction.

    For this reason, I dislike genre shelving. When each bookstore makes up their own way of categorizing a book, I can’t find it. It’s worse than trying to find something in the yellow pages. Amazon (and other on-line stores) are wonderful when I know what I want. Type the title in the search box, and there it is. It’s not as good for impulse buying as a result of browsing the shelves, handling books, and having them catch my eye, but with recommendations, I have no trouble filling a shopping cart.

  3. I thought because I came from Quebec, a French province that I couldn’t get your books. I went to Chapters in Montreal (not my little town north of Montreal) and asked for your book when it came out in Hardcover and it was not available. Since I come from a French area, I’ve taken to ordering from online book sellers, it’s easier then going to the bookstores and hunting for English books.

    I see that it’s not just a language thing (sorry Quebec)it’s a bad marketing thing. I often wondered why I could find Debbie Macomber, Harlequin Romance and Jennifer Crusie in our local grocery store but not your books?

    I can’t imagine how you feel, I know that it would piss me off though. Can you talk to your publisher, have them push harder?! I don’t know enough about the publishing biz (or anything at all for that matter) but someone is not holding up their end of the bargain.

  4. It’s not just my problem. Hundreds of authors are in the same boat, and all of us have agents hammering at the publishers’ doors.

    You see how much good it’s done.

  5. Hey! musta inserted some code hehehe. It’s too bad bookstores can’t be more accomadating. S’pose advertising yourself would be terribly expensive. Almost need a business degree to write a book it seems. Wonder what ad space in a major paper costs? Slackers!

  6. It’s funny, in one of my courses for the Library program I’m taking, we were discussing if the disappearance of “mom and pop” bookstores was bad. A lot of people said yeah, they miss the “cute” feel to them, customer service, etc. but I disagree. Sure, I love to browse bookstores, but being a student, I prefer the prices AND the convenience/availability of the books.
    Usually, I support local stores for reasons that have to do with health(organic food) and also my dislike for outsourcing. I like the idea of encouraging local businesses instead of buying everything with a “made in China” stamp. But bookstores are a bit different in my opinion. I believe in supporting the author. And that means being able to actually find their work.

  7. I believe in supporting the author. And that means being able to actually find their work.
    Very succinctly put Rachel.

    I have also found that if you question your local bookstores (one of a large retail chain) you often find that the decision on what books to buy in is not made at the local level but by some anonymous person at Head Office.
    I have a major issue with this, and I have come across the same strategy with retailers of other items as well.
    In one instance, I was in Farmers (national department store) and asked if they had a particular duvet cover set in a double or king single size as I could see every other size on the shelf. The response I got was that they don’t stock those sizes as there is no demand – people just don’t buy double/king single bedds any more. So I pointed out to this salesperson that we were standing right by a double bed for sale in their department and had they sold any that month. Of course they had. I asked if salesperson did not think it was a little odd that they would sell me the bed but not the linen to put on it – rather missing out on more sales – and was huffily told to take up my complaint (!) with their head office as all buying decisions are made there.
    Another time I went to a national sports store to pick up a couple of children’s t shirts I’d seen advertised in one of their mailers. This was a sort of souvenir rugby shirt so I imagined would be quite popular in this rugby worshipping land.
    When I went to the store I could only find 3 of this t shirt and only one in the size I wanted. Gee, I thought, they must be selling well. However, when I went to the desk to enquire if they had any out the back or would be getting more in I was told they only ever get in one of each size. It didn’t make sense to me, especially as the mailers must have been delivered to at least half a million households. I was further astonished when the saleswoman told me that they might get more in ‘depending on how well they sell’. She didn’t really get it when I pointed out to her that if you only have one, you can only sell one.
    That sort of logic defies me.
    This is why online shopping is such a pleasure.

  8. When I lived in Australia I bought all my books online because the brick and mortar stores never had what I wanted.

    Here in Singapore, the online store doens’t have what I want so I generally go to Borders. Every now and then I save up for a big Amazon order, but postage sucks.

  9. I’ve worked as a bookseller for a major chain, and I learned a lot about the retail end of the industry. Most of it dismayed me. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what the long-term fallout of modern bookselling practices is going to be.

    As a reader, very often these days I don’t find the books I want at the brick-and-mortar stores. I hate the hassle involved in ordering them at the store, so I end up getting them from an online seller. I wait until I have the minimum necessary for free shipping, which I find to be a great perk. The books are always well-packed and delivered right to my door. Even if you love browsing at book stores, as I do, it’s hard to resist the convenience of ordering online.

    About 90% of the books I buy are not bestsellers, so if the midlist disappears from brick-and-mortar stores, so will all my business.

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