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 Amazon.com 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 amazon.com 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 amazon.com 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 amazon.com 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 amazon.com. 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.