With all the Borders stores closing, I’m having an About Schmidt moment. That’s when I head out to places that (almost) feel like home, only to find they’ve disappeared. Okay, maybe “home” isn’t quite the right analogy to describe a corporate-owned bookstore. But stepping into a big box store does remind me of extended family gatherings. I know what the hit topics are: real estate (before it tanked), personal finance (how much money did you make…how much can you make), companies and rich people to watch. Literary fiction and the arts? Not so much. It’s that upwardly mobile attitude of my immigrant family that fits right in with U.S. of A, Inc.
The big boxes of the book world knew what to serve their customers: whatever boosted their bottom line. Now that the two B’s are closing stores, whether by necessity or strategy, I’m not exactly cheering. Or gloating that they met the same fate as the independents they pushed out of my city. I’m sorry to see two Borders closing downtown, because the small, scrappy booksellers won’t be coming back to fill the void. The remaining Borders in town is keen to cater to its community. If only the company on the whole had adopted this stance. And jumped on the digital bandwagon before it was too late.
Like bookstores, authors need to think strategically about selling their books. And yet, isn’t hindsight 20-20? The world changes so quickly that it’s harder to position yourself for that big payoff by making all the right moves. If you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s often because: a) you have the connections, b) you’re hanging out there most of the time anyway, or c) you’re lucky. Few of us can predict what the future brings. When I signed my book contract in the summer of 2009, I barely paid attention to the e-book clause except to ask my agent to explain how all forms of electronic media would be included herein. A few years before the Kindle came out, I’d bought my husband a digital reader made in France. It had a slightly better selection of books, but the device broke in less than two months. Who knew that an explosion of e-books and readers would soon arrive to tear down the house?
How does a writer and her writing stay relevant, when the shutters go down on the institutions with which she’s made a certain Faustian bargain? I don’t believe in chasing trends. I didn’t write a novel to be the next me-too bestseller (which would make my family proud), but because there’s a deeper story of exile and loss that tugs at me. In the frenzy of China’s economic growth, the past is erased in the name of progress. It’s part of a larger phenomenon. The Internet favors currency – in both senses of the word. Anything published before last week or last year is considered old news. Wisdom is backlisted, rather than accrued. But writing, whether through storytelling or instructional manuals, has an important function in preserving records of the world as we know it, beliefs as we live them, lives as we remember them.
So it’s not the money that motivates me to write. And all the topics volleyed around at family gatherings are my least favorite sections of the bookstore. Passing by the STORE CLOSING sign at the downtown Borders, I’m wistful that another brick-and-mortar symbol of our thinking nature goes to dust. And here’s where we as authors can follow a different strategy than the bookstores that have brought us into the world. The harder it gets, the better the time to write. Write as if it did matter, as if nobody’s watching, and the greatest success is to find the words for a story worth telling.
~~ IN THE LAP OF THE GODS ~~
a novel by Li Miao Lovett
A massive dam rises, a million lives are thrown into turmoil...and a widower saves an abandoned baby girl from the Yangtze.