Monday, February 28, 2011

Indie Shoppe Patronizers: You've Got Mail

By Steve Weddle

A few years ago I was at a newspaper conference at which a speaker was PowerPointing up pie charts about how radio wasn’t really going to kill newspapers. Maybe it was television or the webernet that wasn’t going to kill us.

“Think about the monks and their illuminated manuscripts. If their job had been putting ink on paper, Gutenberg would have put the church out of business. But that wasn’t their job. Their job was bringing The Word of The Lord to mankind. And whether it’s gilded artwork in books or text messages on your phone, the church is still in business.”

Publishers aren’t in the business of putting ink on paper—printers are. It’s kinda what they do. And if your job is selling stories, you’re fine. If your job is selling ink on the page – hardbacks, trade paperbacks, mass market paper backs, copies of Backyard Poultry – then you might be having a little financial trouble these days.

Heck, unless you’re able to piss gasoline and fart AK47s, you’re probably having money troubles.
In the newspaper world, we had to get back to what it is that we do – delivering the news to people. The job is to get information to the people, whether by an inky page or a screen on your iPad or a message on your phone.

A dude asked a teenager where he goes to get his news. Some study was trying to determine the “source” kids were using. “Where do I go?” The kid seemed puzzled. “I don’t ‘go’ anywhere. If something is important, it’ll find me.” Which is exactly what newspapers must do. You have to get the news to people. People have stopped coming to newspapers for news. Newspapers have to focus on what they do, not how they do it.

Readers want the story. They want the experience. Hardback. Paperback. Ebook. Those are just the delivery mechanism for the story, the experience.

Bookstores and newspapers deliver information, experience. You go to the bookstore, not for the thing, but for what’s in the thing. What the thing delivers.

And bookstores, especially independent bookstores, are like the church, too. Many of their supporters believe that the best way to get people into the building is to use guilt.

Look, I am not responsible for their shitty business plan. Or their shitty distribution. Or their shitty deal with publishers. Buy-backs. Remainders. Deep discounts.

I understand why people want to hold on to this idea of a bookstore, of Meg Ryan’s mom reading to children on the floor of Ye Olde Bookshoppe Around The Corner. Of Tom Hanks and Dabney Coleman coming in and putting the sweet lady out of business. It’s a romantic-comedy. Romance. Comedy. And Parker Posey. Huzzah. It’s admittedly comforting to buy into the romantic idea. Of how things were. Of how it was better “back then.” Of how a bookshoppe is the anchor to a community. Dances around the May Pole and Victory Gardens and Debutantes and the Confederate Flag and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Let’s be clear about this. If people continue to think of bookstores as something from the past that we need to save, we’re all completely screwed.

An independent bookstore is not the endangered Fliffle Flower. Please, please stop making this your Cause of the Week. Please stop handing out “Save Our Store” flyers.

Look, I know you tried that with the “Wood You Save Me?” campaign to keep that big oak tree safe from the bypass. Honestly, that was really cool. I like trees, too. And the bake sale and getting Gary’s Midnight Ramblers to play the free concert at the Safeway parking lot probably helped raise a bunch of money for the lawyers to fight the right-of-way procurement from the state.

Don’t you people have a PTA meeting to get to? Shouldn’t you be organizing a committee to get my kids to sell your cookie dough at $17 a roll so that we can get whatever the hell it is we need this year on the playground?

A bookstore is not a cause. It’s not. It’s a store. That Sells. Books. Books that deliver scares and romance, fist fights and car chases. Entertainment. Information. The soul-crushing sadness in a Dennis Lehane book. The other-wordly coolness in a Tasha Alexander historical. The humor and thrills in a Brad Parks book.
Do not treat independent bookstores like charity cases. They’re better than that. They are the ass kickers of publishing. They’re not the family of nine who all lost their home and their puppy in a fire.

Fountain Bookstore in Richmond. Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis. Murder By The Book in Houston. Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA. Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. All over the country, small bookstores are kicking ass, doing what they do best -- what the big box stores and online-only sites can't. Book signings, sure. But they’re hosting book groups. They’re places to talk about books, about reading. They’re the community centers for reading. And I love reading. It’s what I do.

And so many of the indies have partnered with Google to sell ebooks right from their own websites. These stores are embracing the “new technology” instead of hiding from it, because they realize it’s about the story, not the ink on paper. If you want ebooks, your local indie can sell you ebooks. If your local independent is hanging up posters saying that ebooks will kill everything, you should tag that bookstore as a favorite in your GPS doohickey. You’ll get great deals, because that store will have a going-out-of-business sale soon. Yes, even though you try to save it with a letter-writing campaign.

See, small bookstores won’t “survive” because you raised $500 for them in your stupid bake sale. Sorry, I meant to say “thoughtful” bake sale. I mean, your hearts are in the right place. You’re just ruining everything. And here’s why.

Your actions are focusing on dumb crap.

“Small bookstores may charge twice as much, but they offer helpful recommendations.”

I get book recommendations from so many places now, why would I pay $28 at an independent instead of $12 for the exact same book? Same binding. Same words. Same smell. “Add in the shipping,” you say. Uh, no. I have the Amazon Prime for free, which includes free two-day shipping. Most of the time, it’s one-day shipping. So I can get into my car and drive an hour to the local indie or order online for free? Heck, now I have to add in five bucks for gas if I shop local.

You can’t focus on price. You can’t say “Yes, it’s twice the price, but…” See, you say “twice the price” and I’ve stopped listening. “It’s twice the price, but you get free Swedish Fish for life.” Whatever. I stopped listening at the comma.

You have to look at what bookstores do well. The signings. The meeting other readers. Meeting writers. The events. Hell, maybe the indie shop has a Local Mystery Authors theme week. Each night, a different mystery writer from the state. How cool would that be? Amazon can’t do that. You can’t meet Ellen Crosby at the Amazon store, can you?

And the Amazon recommendations? If I like this Jim Butcher book I might also like this other Jim Butcher book? I think the woman at my local shoppe does a much better job, thank you, very much.
Focus on this. Focus on the good. Not the "even though it's twice the money" sort of thing. This can't be an argument about price. I'm not paying $30,000 for a Ford Focus just because the local dealer is good at her recommendations. "Steve, I know how you love blue interiors and an auxiliary input jack." Look, when you want to look at what local bookstores do well, you're looking at value, not price.

“You’ll miss the independent bookstore when it’s gone because you’ll be stuck with Amazon.”

Again, this is a shitty business plan. It was a bad idea when newspapers tried it, too. “Don’t you miss the neighborhood bakery?” Yeah. But the old lady in the back of the place there made some friggin amazing pies. The difference between Mrs. Mangianni’s pecan pie and Mrs. Smith’s is the difference between the Arsenal Gunners and the Cooke County Duckies. The difference between my copy of Wallace Stroby’s newest that I got from Amazon and the copy you got from Meg Ryan’s shoppe? I paid nine bucks and had it at my front door in a day. You went to the local independent, which had to order it for you. For $26.

You can’t sell people a negative. You can’t tell them that if they don’t pay $26 for a hardback that they’ll be stuck paying nine.

See, when something is gone, you learn to live without it. When my subscription to Curmudgeon Weekly lapsed, I realized I could live without it. I got the articles online. Sure, I had to click through an ad for The Number One Tip To Remove Belly Fat And Whiten Your Teeth That Doctors And The Liberal Media Don’t Want You To Know, but it worked out fine.

The “you’ll be sorry when your subscription expires” argument? Yeah. I was. I got over it. Stop selling the independent bookstore as an alternative to Amazon. It isn’t. The indie isn’t an alternative to anything. No one can do what they do. You have to sell what it is the local bookstore does, not what it can’t do.

And why did the local bakery close? When I lived on the Chesapeake Bay, we had a town full of these little cutsie shops. Their hours were Wednesday through Saturday, Noon until 5 p.m. -- "And By Chance."
Two of these were bookstores. They're closed now that the town has a Walmart. Walmart doesn't open "By Chance." Walmart wants to be around next year.

“Bookstores bring in local tax dollars, so shop locally instead of at Amazon.”
Seriously? That’s what you got? Danny’s Dildo Emporium on West Highland employs 19 full-timers, while Meg Ryan’s Indie Store employs three, counting Meg. You want more tax dollars, go buy a bag full of dildos.
Who brings in more sales tax to the town? Meg’s shoppe or Barnes and Noble?

And weren’t you the same mini-van full of people parading against Walmart last month? If the argument is “Independent bookstores should be supported because they bring in local tax money,” then you have a few problems. First, that’s a passive sentence. Clean up your writing, dillweed. Second, the guy who lives three doors down from me works for UPS. The online retailers keep him pretty busy. Third, how much tax revenue exactly does the Meg Ryan Independent generate?

Careful. It’s a trap. If you say it’s a nice hunk of money, then I’ll say bookstores aren’t in danger, so shut up. If you say it isn’t much money, then I’ll say “then who the hell cares, so shut up”?

So stop trying to guilt people into spending more than they can afford on books. Stop telling me I'm an evil bastard for reading on my Kindle, for buying a Bargain Book at B&N, for not "supporting" the indie cause, not "patronizing" my local.

Every time I visit a small, independent bookstore, their dedication and passion come blazing through those kick-ass display windows full of books I should be reading.

Focus on what the small bookstores do so well. Ever try to browse for books at Amazon? Ever try to ask a clerk there for help?

While you're holding bake sales and blathering about how independent bookstores aren't surviving, so many of them are focused on what they do best -- and thriving.


Dana King said...

I've been meaning to write something like this for over a year but lacked the huevos.

I din't want to see anyone lose their jobs. (Well, I'd get over it if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Glenn Beck and a few more of that ilk had to draw what they consider to be extravagant unemployment checks). Still, you're right. The business plans were flawed from the start and have become untenable. The physical book is important for what it has come to represent, which are the ideas and stories inside. People passed along stories and ideas for a long time before there were books; books merely improved the process. Now it may be time to gradually move onto something else.

Will books disappear altogether? Have parents stopped telling their children stories? I'll never stop buying books, but the mix of books to electron will continue to change.

David Halberstam wrote in THE RECKONING that what crippled the American auto industry in the 70s (the last time they almost went tits up) was they forgot what they were in business for. They'd come to believe they were in business to make money. Halberstam posited that was incorrect, that they were in money to make and sell cars, from which the money would flow. BMW, Mercedes, and Honda understood that. The bean-counters' role is to support manufacturing and sales, not rule them.

Print publishers have done the same thing, and it may lead to their demise in any recognizable form. It's too bad they're going to take so many good people down with them, but a lot of people drowned who had nothing to do with the Titanic's iceberg troubles. it's the way of the world, and refusing to accept it won't change anything.

Steve Weddle said...

Dana -- Yeah. The auto industry is a great parallel. I hadn't thought of that, because I'm a newspaper guy and have my head stuck up my own ass.
I firmly believe that the bookstores that continue to focus on bring together readers and writers -- readers and stories -- are the ones that will continue to kick ass.
Those that are treated as charity cases will die off.

Unknown said...

You really want to have your book signing out on a street corner, don't you? Why do you HATE indie bookstores? Meg Ryan is awesome. Er, was awesome. That fake orgasm was pretty hot. Now her face looks like some washed up pornstar's, lips all puffy and peepers like dead-doll eyes.

U R mean.

Steve Weddle said...

Dear jjjjjacobs,
Congratulations. I understand that the success of The King's Speech has made life easier for you.

cfawarman said...

I've been working in an independent bookstore since it opened in 1983. I just got downsized. But yes, it is a kick ass bookstore: 10,000 square feet 100,000 books, used books, DVSs, CDs. We discount more titles than the local Borders (not on the closing list) that has been taking the wind out of our sails. We are making money (barely) and Borders ain't. We will survive

Steve Weddle said...


Sorry to hear about the downsizing. Hope that works out.

An indie with 100,000 books? How cool is that? Yeah, sounds like that store is doing it right.

Spencer said...

Sorry, i fall into the group that loves his kindle and amazon prime. Local bookshops come off as trying too hard sometimes, and are annoying (to me) more often than not. I get my book recommendations via twitter or the web, which. I have found very satisfying. I have even bought weddle's content on my kindle because of a twitter rec.

If an indie bookstore has a great local get together scene, they will survive. If not, it is probably over for them.

Sorry about spelling and punctuation. I am on my iPad.

Viva amazon!