Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Indie Authors Stay Out

By Steve Weddle

The co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley, California has written a letter to the editor of the New York Times, taking time to provide a word of warning for indie authors:

We see this every day in our independent bookstore: writers dropping off unsolicited work in the hope that we will stock books that have had little or no editing, and few reviews or distribution beyond Amazon (always a nonstarter).
You can read more here.

Of course, it seems odd that an independent bookstore should be at odds with independent authors. It seems odd that the co-owner of the store would think that a book would have had "little or no editing"
simply because the book is not corporately owned. I do not automatically assume that the restroom at the independent has had "little or no cleaning" just because it doesn't have the Barnes & Noble smell.

Then again, I don't have the experience of a bookstore co-owner, nor the experiences of this particular co-owner. It could very well be that 98% of indie authors she's met have had horribly edited books.
Typos can ruin the read of even the best book. I recall how I had to set aside the purple paperback of Graham Greene's TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT because of all the typos in that book.

What really seems odd to me, though, is this notion of the two indies at odds -- the writer who, for whatever reason, is not published with a corporation fighting against the little shoppe on the corner.

Maybe the indie author went that route because she didn't want to "sell out" or answer to anyone else. Maybe she didn't like the corporate terms. Sometimes people go indie as a choice. Sometimes people don't work in indie bookshops because they were fired from Barnes and Noble. Maybe they like being indie sellers. Maybe people like being indie authors.

In fact, when you consider some of the troubles between traditional bookstores and traditional book publishers -- BN vs SS, for example -- you'd think that working with individual authors with a stake in their books would be welcomed. And, as most indie authors don't have budgets to travel across country, being able to focus on locals would be beneficial.

Of course, we should be honest about it. Having a publisher to vet books means you don't have to read 500 books a day. Which, you know, you can't.

And some indie authors are batshit crazy. Some are awful to deal with. Here at DSD, we get bombed a few times a week by someone attempting to get reviewed here by acting like an asshole. That said, this type of behavior is not limited to indie authors.

And dealing with one sales person from the publisher is much easier than dealing with 1,000 various authors.

But that's the point, isn't it? You've got so many local, indie authors who want to be associated with you, that you should be able to figure that out. When their books sell, your cash register rings. And
you get to keep a chunk of that money.

When I worked at a gas station, we'd often get folks coming in, telling us how we could all be rich if we'd just give shelf-space to their innovative beef jerky/fingernail clipper/lighter. Everyone wants
shelf space.

And I'm not suggesting that bookstores do anything different than they've always done. I'd never suggest that. I don't know the business from a co-owner's point of view. I have no idea the challenges these folks face. If they want to keep going about it as they always have, that's fine.

But how cool would it be if indie authors and indie bookstores could work together? Maybe a special section for indie authors, Maybe a monthly spotlight. Maybe a reading on the 13th of every month so that readers can meet local, indie authors.

After all, these authors are coming to the bookstores because those bookstores are doing something right.

I think many, many bookstores, both indie and corporate, are probably trying stuff just like this. One store came under fire a couple years back when they sold shelf space to indie authors instead of just
offering it. Some have other ideas that seem to be catching on.

I don't have the Great Solution. But I think it's just making the problem worse when you tell indie authors that they're not the type of authors you want in your indie store.


Jay Stringer said...

I think one of the things the news story highlights is that "Indie" and "Independent" means different things to publishers and bookstores than it does to authors.

The other thing, going back to when I worked in bookstores, is that there WAS a stigma that would become attached to the people who were coming in themselves with a few copies of a self published book rather than through a rep or a distributer.

They tended not to have an understanding of the business side of things; not really getting "sale/return" or margin, often not delivering invoices on time, that kind of thing. The time spent chasing these folk, or showing them how to fill in paperwork, was time spent not selling books, and it was very easy to start refusing to spend that time.

Also that they would then keep coming back in and telling the bookseller how to do their jobs, where to put the book, on which front table it should be displayed- never quite grasping that even in an indie store those decisions were often already made by deals with distributors or publishers.

And I'm sure it's different these days. I'm sure the modern version of self published authors have a far better grasp of business and packaging, and they do their research before stepping foot into the stores.

The internet has changed all of this, and I talk to many self-pubbed authors who are exceptional at the business side o things and who handle themselves in the right way. I'm also sure you're right, and that these two sets of people need to find a way to work together better in the modern world.

But I think we also need to see that this is probably not a decision that comes from the modern self-pub model, but something that comes from those older days.

There are probably people out there with a more up-to-date experience of bookselling who can add to the conversation, though, because my experiences were a while ago now.

Steve Weddle said...


Yeah, I imagine it has changed somewhat, heck, probably even in the last year.

You've got many authors selling their own books by uploading to Amazon and just letting Amazon sell the books for them instead of the indie bookstores.

And maybe more and more indie authors are doing this and fewer and fewer with bother the folks at the indie bookstores.

I'd just rather not see the indie stores push the indie authors into having this as their only option. I don't think it's good for either to Take Sides like this.

Shouldn't have to be either/or, but I am well aware that people can be annoying.

Jay Stringer said...

I agree with you. Hopefully both sides in this latest self-pub-kerfuffle can find a way to work together.

It should all be about selling books, and people on both 'sides' have books to sell.

John McFetridge said...

I don't want to a member of any club that will have people like me as members. Or something like that.

Look, we all know the drill, a guy makes a movie with his parents' credit cards and he's a hero, a guy publishes his own book he's a loser.

But it's not like that anymore. Those indie movies are just Hollywood auditions and lots of good books are indies.

I don't know, there was a time when "selling out" was a bad thing and not every artist was willing to do anything for more sales.

Wow, I'm old....

Fred Zackel said...

When small indie bookstores can afford POD (print on demand) machines to instantly print out some customer's "just discovered!" self-published book from that bookstore's online catalog, then the paradigm will change.

Dana King said...

Publishers and booksellers alike acknowledge they can't make any money. Their business models are flawed, but no one is willing to make any changes.

I know very little (nothing is very little) about running a indie bookstore. However, it seems that if times are tough, some way might be found to see i working with a few indie authors could help, even a little.

Publishers and booksellers alike are routinely talking about they can't afford or don't have time to do. If they're not careful, all they'll be able to afford and have time to do is to go out of business.

Adapt or die. So far, it seems the only leg of the publishing triangle willing to do hat is the author.

seana graham said...

I don't own an indie bookstore, but I have worked in one for many years, so I guess I can speak to this a bit.

We actually carry a lot of self-published books and our consignment program is one of the things that's expanding. But that's partly because the store decided to charge a small one time up front fee for shelf space. There is also a promotional package that gets you more opportunities. Mostly, though, this is strictly a local authors kind of arrangement, and is largely a way to connect with one segment of the book loving community.

Some self-published books sell a lot, but most don't. The ones that do are either by writers who have a big community network, or speak to some big community interest, like local history or something that many people in town are really interested in.

If you have an indie book, you really have to be aware that it's on you to do all the work. Editing, marketing, all that. A bookstore isn't going to do that for you, although they will often meet you halfway if you have come up with some strategy. Our staff reads a lot, but you can't really force anyone to read your book, as big time publishers find out all the time. In some ways, booksellers have to be marketed to as much as anyone else, and in some ways even more. There are a lot of arcs just lying around in all the backrooms that you never get to go in, vying for staff's attention. You would have to somehow get ahead of all that.

Another part of this is that a lot of indie books that aren't local don't compete equally in the marketplace. Most major publishers books are returnable if they don't sell, but many self-published books are not. In general, we order those books for people if they prepay them, which is not the case for most books from major publishers. Otherwise, if the person changes their mind, we are stuck with it.

I really think that unless you have some angle that I haven't thought of here, that apart from getting your book into your local bookstore, your energy is probably better devoted to marketing your work to online outlets. Even if you're working with a small publisher this is probably true. Actually, even if you're working with a big publisher, getting the word out is probably going to be largely up to you.

I know that all sounds pretty discouraging. But don't give up. I've read, and yes, bought books from a couple of the commenters here and thought they were great. I think the stigma against the self-published author is changing. But it is a case by case kind of thing.

Oh, and for the adapt or die motto, I'm sorry to say that what this means in reality for independendent bookstores is that they end up selling more and more non-book items, because these have a much higher markup than books do. And it's still a struggle.

Dana King said...

Your consignment program and charging a small fee for shelf space are exactly the kinds of things I'm talking about. Some effort to dip your toes in the water to see how this works, without risking the business in the process. I know if I had a self-published paper book, I'd be willing to look into both of those options, as well as being quite negotiable about who kept how much of the sales proceeds.

seana graham said...

Dana, I do have add that our store has a lot of space compared to many other indies these days, which may make it possible for us in ways other places can't do it.

My experience has also been that you can be very successful locally without ever breaking in to a larger market, which can be frustrating if you don't understand that going in.

Dana King said...

"My experience has also been that you can be very successful locally without ever breaking in to a larger market, which can be frustrating if you don't understand that going in."

You've hit on a key point I am aware of but too often neglect to mention, unreasonable author expectations. This is not a line of work to get into for the money or notoriety, no mater how much money or fame you favorite authors have. They're outliers, and, frankly, don't count.

Eric Beetner said...

I think there is a difference between self published authors and true indie presses like some of the publishers I've been involved with. Small presses who don't use traditional distributors still have editorial services, professional covers and printing, and are dying to work with indie stores to be treated as an equal.
I've been very fortunate to get to work with some great indie bookstores who welcome small presses and see them as kindred spirits. I've also been surprised to get a cold shoulder from others who seem to have the mentality of this letter writer. To each their own, but I'm with you in the thought that all we're doing is trying to help each other by selling a few books. Consignments are fine. We're doing that right now down at Mystery People in Austin with our Snubnose titles. What we don't sell, we will take back. All it needed was a little communication and coordination.
To that end, I've found I get traction with stores I can visit and put in face time and build relationships. This is no mystery, but it puts the indie author out of the running with many stores out of their own area. But, like you said, part of the appeal is that in my home town, I can guarantee at least a few sales. And why would I as an author, or someone as a possibly struggling bookseller, turn down even a single sale?

seana graham said...

Eric, well, you'd turn down a single sale if the same amount of money will get you a faster turn around for one bo okthan another. A big problem for bookstores is sitting on inventory until it sells, so you only have room for so many unknown quantities. That's why the consignment method is so attractive.

And yes, you're right that a small press is different than a self published book. But they face similar kinds of problems getting the attention of bookstores. I'm a fan of Adrian McKinty's books, for instance, and was glad to be able to sell the first of his "Troubles trilogy" because of Seventh Street Books decision to publish it in the U.S. But getting stores to know that Seventh Street even existed itself was a problem. However, now Random House has picked up Seventh Street for distribution and so the book was shown in the store by a rep, and our main buyer picked it up without needing to be specially in the know about when it was coming out, etc., as I happened to be with the first one.

Dale T. Phillips said...

Too many bookstores don't want a connection with writers and readers. By bringing them together, they'd sell more books, and get more folks in their stores.
It's how they can survive in these changing times.
Gee, people, set up a Guideline List for what you accept, to let people know what they need to do to get books in there. You can weed out the non-pros quickly, and support those indies who will help your business. Or just go online and whine about bad self-pub books.