Sunday, January 23, 2011


I used to think that independent bookstores supported independent authors, and independent presses, but now I’m not so sure. So many independent bookstores seem like showplaces for the NPR circuit, endlessly parading the same authors on their front tables, over and over again, or if not the same authors then the newest authors to be featured on NPR, to win the same awards and maybe even come from the same schools or the same schools of thought. These are the wrong independent bookstores, the ones I’ll still support rather than shopping at Borders or Amazon, but the ones that long ago ceased to think independently.

Don’t get me wrong -- there are plenty of amazing bookstores left, or at least a few scattered here and there -- the bookstores that actually do the job of building community on radical ideas, challenging norms of style and substance, exposing their patrons to new ways of thinking, showcasing books that most people haven’t heard of, but need to. But these bookstores are in the minority, and rarely gain the kind of acclaim that the big independents wield, the tastemakers, the ones where the big authors read, in between their NPR appearances.

Whenever I go to a new town, I check out the bookstores, so of course when I moved to Santa Fe I searched them out right away. Nothing too exciting, really -- two of the NPR-circuit stores: one smaller, with some interesting remainders outside, and one larger, with a café. A few used bookstores with nothing I was looking for, although a few more that I haven’t been to so there’s still time! Actually, my favorite find was Hastings, apparently a big Texas-based chain (over 150 stores!) but a big chain without any stores on the coasts, so I’d only vaguely heard of it. But, guess what -- almost all their books were used, and even though they definitely seem to spotlight the Bible (a whole aisle!) I managed to Discover a book called the Taos Truth Game, a recently-published novel based on the life of a gay author in Mabel Dodge’s circle (Mabel Dodge is the person who started the Taos Art Colony, which brought so many generations of artists in this direction, for better or worse). Anyway, it was a hardback for $4.99 -- and, a book I didn’t even see at the two independent stores selling new books, even though I’m sure I looked at every title in there New Mexico sections, since I was trying to find a book talking about the history of nuclear contamination due to Los Alamos -- environmental, cultural, political -- and, that was another thing: no one working at those stores could offer any ideas, all they could come up with was a new glowing biography of Robert Oppenheimer, or some book that talks about how easy it is to steal nuclear secrets. And that’s the other thing I mean about independent bookstores -- they should exist as a resource, not some snooty high-culture gimmick but a place where people actually pay attention, listen to what you’re saying, know something. I mean, stores don’t even note what you’re asking for any more, even when you’re asking about a local author, or someone reading in the biggest literary series in town, which fills the largest theater downtown.

I might as well add that the snooty independent bookstores don’t tend to carry my books -- even, sometimes, the stores I read at! To tell you the truth, sometimes it takes me a while to even ask, because the way they respond is too annoying, but hello -- now I live in Santa Fe, these stores need to order my books, right? So, at the larger independent I found myself mentioning that I’m an author who recently moved here, and I’d love it if they’d carry my books. The person working there said let me give you our consignment brochure. I said what about ordering them without consignment? He said that’s the only way we do it.

So I took the consignment brochure home, and the first thing I noticed was that it’s a program for self-published and print-on-demand titles. None of my books are self-published or print-on-demand, so I’m wondering what it was about me that made the employee decide that I wasn’t “legitimate” enough to be another kind of author. Was I to close to his age, or too much of a freak? Too young in appearance to be a “real” author, or too queer? Not that there’s anything illegitimate or fake about self-published or print-on-demand titles -- the more, the better! But, the truth of the matter is that my books are put out by the exact publishers that independent bookstores were started to support.

Anyway, I did read that the consignment program gives you 60% of cover price, instead of the usual 7.5% that you would get from a publisher, so that sounded all right. Until I noticed that they make you pay $25 for six months, in order to shelve four books. $25 doesn’t sound like that much, except that they might not sell a single copy. And, even if they do sell all four copies -- let’s say your book sells for $15, so you get $9 per copy, but then that really means you only make $11. Does that sound fair?

But, it gets worse. For $100, they will feature you in their email newsletter, and allow people to order your book online from the bookstore website. That’s like giving them $100 for nothing. I even signed up for their email newsletter over a month ago, and I haven’t received it once! But, here’s the best part: for $200, they will arrange a reading in the store with two or three other local authors, space permitting. That means that the big independent bookstore in town is charging self-published and print-on-demand authors up to $800 for a reading. And, presumably making more money off you when people come to your event and buy things! And, they do all of this while pretending that they are supporting local authors. But, they’re only supporting local authors who pay them more than they’ll probably ever receive. This is what independent bookstores have become.


richard labonte said...

it's fun following your transition from SF to, well, SF, making a new life, discovering new stalls. your dirge about indies was depressing but doubtless accurate, especially the clerk's inability/unwillingness to even check the ingram database to determine your books' provenance - it would have been easy enough to add a copy of each title to the next order (fully returnable!) with the wholesaler. sad sad sad.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Richard, so lovely to hear from you! And yes, from SF to SF, how hilarious...

And, especially lovely to hear from you in response to this particular post -- exactly, a copy of each title to the next order, what is their problem?! Sad indeed, oh my...

Love --