the author as a local business, and fair play

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.