by Will Viharo
“Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Wait, scratch that - at least when it comes to struggling independent bookstores and struggling independent authors. One would assume each always supports the other in the common cause of attracting that most precious of endangered species: paying readers.
But in far too many cases, that would be an incorrect assumption.
Recently, an article in the Huffington Post, written by a literary agent, no less, took to task bookstores - particularly independently run establishments, as opposed to the big chains – that refused to stock not just self-published authors, but any book that was printed via the “evil empire” known as Amazon, which admittedly has its faults. But for a lot of writers in my position, the good outweighs the bad.
Many bookstores don't see that balance, though. Maybe they're not including us authors in the equation?
Prose and Cons
It was impossible for me not to empathize with this piece’s pointed perspective, which correctly pointed out that bookstores that refuse to stock Amazon titles are not really hurting Amazon, since most of their sales are online, anyway. They’re just hurting the authors, as well as the publishers, if there happens to be a separation of powers.
Most small presses, as well as self publishers (the distinction is merely a matter of staffing), print via Amazon’s CreateSpace because it is the most cost effective way to get titles, particularly ones that fall outside the fringes of mainstream tastes, into the hands of appreciative readers, who are the ultimate “arbiters” of contemporary literature.
It’s understandable why major or even mid-level publishers feel slighted at no longer being deemed the ultimate gatekeepers of our collective literary culture. Most readers these days are more concerned with product reviews by actual customers than a recognizable publisher’s logo. The stigma of self-publishing is not completely a thing of the past, but its extinction is as inevitable as the fate of the dinosaurs.
So The Big Five and their corporate brethren try discouraging the competition by denigrating or just plain ignoring them (us). I get it. It’s business as usual, just like in any capitalist industry.
But any bookstore that discriminates against authors according to the identity of their publisher is puzzling to many indie authors, including myself, that have both self-published and been published via small presses. It’s like we’re being “vetted” by our own community, then unfairly held to double standards. We’re not running for office. We’re providing the very products these establishments are trying so hard to sell.
So why the b.s. bias?
The Buck Starts Here
I’ve heard many explanations for this increasingly common practice, mostly having to do with money, of course. Books printed via CreateSpace can be ordered by any bookstore, but unlike books published under, say, Ingram Spark or Lightning, or distributed through the usual channels, unsold copies cannot be returned for a full refund.
I’ve actually offered to buy any unsold copies myself, but the only deal I was offered is consignment, which basically relegates your books to “the kids’ table.” Books on consignment are most often thrown together on a shelf with a bunch of other books separated from the main stock, like pariahs or charity cases.
This is not only humiliating for the author – even though they can snap and post photos of their book on an actual bookstore shelf, for the sake of our own egos (hey, I’ve done it!) – but not all that cost effective.
Since the author can buy his or own books directly from CreateSpace (your indie publisher can provide a discount code if you’re not self-published) at a cheap rate, buying in bulk is probably the best way to go, since the more you order, the cheaper they are per unit. But then you have to actually sell them all to turn a profit, which can be daunting unless you have tons of friends and/or a really big, sympathetic family.
And this isn’t even factoring in the shipping fees, which is the real deal killer.
Basically, consignment feels like the bookseller is doing you a big favor. And in effect, they are. They have to acknowledge and obey their own bottom line as much or more than any other business, and the fact remains, most indie authors are virtually unknown, with meager out-of-pocket advertising budgets to amplify their own reputations. Many professional book bloggers and reviewers won’t even give the books any ink unless the authors pay a fee for the privilege. And since it’s not an old school Payola racket, this added expense doesn’t even guarantee a positive piece.
It's like you're trying to gain to an exclusive club, even though you already carry all the proper credentials. For whatever reason, you still have to prove your worth. And most of the time, you're deemed unqualified, even if you have a sizable following and thriving social media platform to substantiate your membership.
More times than not, unless you have acceptable establishment "sponsorship," it's still not enough.
No wonder outsider candidates are so popular in this year's presidential election cycle. We're all tired of dealing with elitism, in all fields of honest endeavor.
This Time, It’s Personal…
But really, I personally think bookstores resent and rebel against anything associated with Amazon since the Seattle-based empire (my hometown!) has virtually cornered the book market with online sales, undermining the need for brick-and-mortar establishments. I get that.
The reason I think there is more to this unconscionable anti-indie-author attitude amongst most indie booksellers is because I personally know they have refused to stock books published via Lightning Source and Ingram Spark, which are subsidiaries of the single most popular distribution company Ingram, not Amazon (though they are sold there, too - it's an option authors and publishers select when going through the process). Ingram offers to buy back unused copies from retailers. But still, no dice, at least not in my case, and many others I know about both first and second hand.
It's hard not to take this rather rude treatment personally. As if we indie authors don't have enough insurmountable obstacles to deal with. We can't even seem to form professional partnerships with people in our own industry without feeling like we're outsiders trying desperately to feel accepted by our own community.
If more indie bookstores overlooked their own prejudice, however well founded, and cooperated with more indie authors, the result just might be mutually beneficial. Sure, Amazon would still get their cut, but let’s face it: they’re going to get it anyway. No reason to punish the authors that are only exploiting the most affordable resource at their disposal.
None of us are getting rich in this business. Well, most of us aren’t. It’s a labor of love. And true love only succeeds if it’s a mutually respectful, compassionate, and empathetic relationship.
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, indie authors get no respect. That’s why you need to respect yourself. It might just prove contagious.
PHOTO: MARCIN WICHARY
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New Orleans, LA