Book Stores: Entertain the Light

Timeless_Books“Books should, not Business, entertain the Light …”

So wrote Abraham Cowley, 17th century English poet, in Extract from Poetical Blossomes: A Wish. But what happens when books are the business?

It’s no secret that traditional publishing is an unprecedented upheaval, roiling through changes affecting everyone in the equation from publisher to distributor to agent to author to bookseller. The dynamics of publishing have irrevocably changed; but so have the socio-cultural dynamics of entertainment—and life in general.

We live in a global society that is becoming increasingly fragmented, the glass monolith of world-wide reach broken into mini-shards of online communities formed, filled, abandoned and forgotten. Remember MySpace?

Businesses, large and small, attempt to tap in to these communities, to access the customers they depend upon to stay viable. Communities spring up around all hobbies, habits, activities (both legal and il-, both savory and un-), and political niches. We can tailor our lives around built-in predilections, preferences and biases: we hear the music we know we’ll like, we see the news we want to see.

I believe this mass panic of macro to micro is a result of the unprecedented, global reach of the internet and the effect it has on the human animal. Mass media is not easy for us to process—anthropologically, we are a tribal, cooperative species, and a tribe on a scale of 4 and half billion is actually short-circuiting our ability to connect.

So what does this have to do with books? Quite a lot, actually.

The traditional publishing formula, complete with traditional wisdom, holds that hand-selling, personal recommendations, perseverance, marketing and time create bestselling success for an author.  A series, I’ve been told, builds; the key is to keep writing good books and to keep the publisher behind the series. An author of stand-alones is supposed to follow a similar path, building awareness and recognition with each book. Time, though, is not something that huge corporations like. They prefer profits now and quickly.

This is one reason why authors prize independent book stores: they cultivate actual, physical communities of people—not just online groups—built around a love of reading and a love of experiencing a space with fellow readers. Unlike giant, bean-counting, Wall Street-watched corporations, independents follow their own course, hand-selling, setting up events, helping spotlight new and midlist authors on the proverbial road up to becoming a bestseller: they are an integral piece of the success formula, the one outlet that will connect readers to authors and provide that crucial time needed to build a readership.

The best of them follow this route because it’s their heart and soul as people—and because it’s good business. It separates them from the faceless corporations they pit themselves against on a daily basis, and gives them something the suits will never experience: a true sense of community. That’s what keeps them alive.

Unfortunately, it’s no secret that many independents are suffering, largely due to economic pressures of cheaper books online. More and more close every year. Those that are surviving or even thriving are managing to provide service and connectivity in an increasingly disconnected market and depend upon their community, just as the community depends on them.

Portland is a great community and the city loves its books. Yet tragically Powell’s Books, the Portland-based, self-proclaimed largest independent in the world, has, as I’ve reported on Facebook, seemingly joined the ranks of the walking dead, the souless corporate zombie nation of books-as-widgets, of authors as pains in the ass.

A quick recap: I’m published with Macmillan, a midlist author, albeit one with more than my share of critical acclaim. A Macavity award winner, an LA Times Book Prize finalist, lots of other nominations and a couple of other awards. I suffered a three-year hiatus between the second and third books of my series because I lost my parents; my newest, CITY OF GHOSTS, finally launched this month to stellar reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Bookreporter and Publishers’ Weekly.

I travel on my own dime, where I can, when I can, and do so in order to connect with booksellers and readers. A list of some of the great and wonderful stores I’ve visited and will be visiting is on my website—all fabulous independents. I enjoy events, and am successful at them. My readers are loyal, and I’m glad to say that they increase in number every year. I planned to add Portland, as usual, to my list of stops.

I’ve signed at Powell’s twice and bought books from them many more times than that. I met Michael and Emily Powell at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival when I was a Prize finalist. I had a wonderful time at the Beaverton store. Powell’s booksellers are terrific people. And thus I was shocked when the company events manager—in a supercilious, unctuous and yet reptilian email—”declined” to have me in for a signing. The reason, apparently, is that my sales aren’t “high enough”. What constitutes “high enough” has not been spelled out for me, and this despite the fact that they seem to feature non-genre authors with lesser footprints than mine. I am apparently no longer worthy, despite the awards, despite the Wall Street Journal, despite it all.

Before receiving this decree, we attempted to reach a person at the Beaverton store—to let them know about the good reviews on CITY OF GHOSTS (since they were carrying it)—we were put off by centralized customer service employees who admitted that they were employed as gate-keepers. When we tried to buy a book, we were routed to a center. Not a book store location, but a center. Finally, one person confessed that the management had instituted a “fence off the booksellers” order … no person, no author, no reader, no customer, could speak to an actual bookseller unless he or she walked into a store and cornered them in person.

That’s when I decided to share this story.

Now, I actually have experience in retail. I know first-hand about small business and community-building. For nearly ten years, my mother, partner and I owned and operated a comic book/pop culture store in San Francisco. We were a new generation of such enterprises; one of the few, if not the only woman-owned in the industry.

As part of creating a successful small business, we forged a community; events were a major part of the experience. We had many, many artists and writers in: people like Kelley Jones and Erik Larsen and Mike Carlin and Denny O’Neil and Mart Nodell. We also featured much less well-known artists and writers: one example were the creators of a very small press comic with an African-American hero we heavily promoted for Black History Month. Why? Because we believed in the cause and we believed in the comic—and because “good” business practice can be both ethical and pragmatic.

Let me add two more points: unlike books, comic books ARE NOT RETURNABLE. We took real risks in promoting people. Our returns were not always financially the same, but they all contributed to the overall success of the store and certainly to our satisfaction in it. And—unlike bookstores, who receive steeper discounts and co-op for promoting author events—we received no financial incentives of any kind.

Powell’s, unfortunately, has turned a corner. They’ve embraced the dark side. They are, sadly, not the only ones. Independents that demand a guarantee of return on an author-funded appearance? Dark side. I’ve signed with NYT list authors who’ve had one or two people attend. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING, other than the kind of bottled lightning that catches on when something reaches a cultural threshold of recognition—can guarantee a line at the cash register. The financial rewards for the author and the bookstore can come later, and over time—when a customer needs a recommendation, when someone’s looking for a signed book.

If independents want to survive, and I pray that they do, they need to strengthen their communities and strengthen their personal connections, not diminish them. They need to partner with midlist authors willing to do events, not rebuff them. The best of the indies already do, and we need to support them, sign with them, buy from them and keep them alive! The worst of them, like Powell’s, are cultivating an attitude of gate-keeping that is beyond comprehension. Does it really cost so much to host an author when a) the books are returnable and b) you’re receiving co-op? Minimal risk, maximum chance to increase your business and build a stronger community?

As a poster child for independent success, Powell’s has enjoyed a stellar reputation. But it should no longer do so, and, in fact, should be held accountable for the gulag-like changes instituted upon its workers, its customers and its community. I’ve been told that this more-corporate-than-corporate model unfolded after Michael Powell’s departure, and it’s heart-breaking to see his bookstore crumble so ethically and spiritually, if not yet economically.

Sadly, Powell’s no longer entertains the light.

I, for one, will be spending my time, my energy—and my dollars—at bookstores who do.