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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Waxing rhapsodic about independent booksellers.

As part of her series on the changes in the publishing industry, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has more or less your typical paean to independent bookstores, along with all the reasons the rise of superstores and Amazon are a bad thing.

Intellectually I know how the prominence of Barnes & Noble limited the possibilities for the midlist author. If the buyer for Barnes & Noble didn't want to carry your book, then the publisher may as well not bother to publish it. And I know how Amazon throws its weight around to demand bigger discounts, resulting, among other things, in less viability for traditional royalty publishers and lower royalties for authors.

Rusch hasn't quite gotten into all of that yet, but she's got a ton of experience in the publishing world, and I don't doubt her observations as a buyer.

I just haven't experienced it the same way myself.

I remember the days before the box stores well, but I only remember one independent bookseller competing with the Waldenbooks and B. Daltons back then in Miami: Books and Books in Coral Gables. Books and Books is still there. As a teenager, I perceived Books and Books as a place I could go experience indifference from the employees, and to find virtually no science fiction and fantasy. Lots of artsy literary stuff, but none of what I liked. I absolutely received more attentive service from the mall chain.

Maybe the only reason they ignored me was because they didn't perceive teenagers as genuine customers; maybe I'd have had a different experience as an adult, or if I'd brought an adult in with me. Maybe their selection of books changed somewhere along the line. Though I don't live in Miami anymore, I have noticed online that most of the genre signings in Miami seem to end up at Books and Books. Does that mean they're friendlier to the genres, that they're friendlier to signings, or that authors are trying to help them out out of some fetish for independent bookstores?

Waldenbooks and B. Daltons had a pretty terrible selection of just about anything, to be sure. They had like a "club" you could sign up for as a genre reader, though. You got some worthless little card that might have scored you discounts on some things, I can't remember. And a little flimsy magazine-type thing that would talk about upcoming books to look for. The staff pretty much kept behind the counter, but they did seem enthusiastic about books and occasionally about science fiction and fantasy.

Bookstop was the first big bookstore I ever encountered. They also did the genre club thing, as I recall, and they sold the discount card like everyone does now. But their selection was huge! I only had a year or two of shopping there before they were eaten up by Barnes and Noble, but again, a huge selection compared to the mall stores. (And compared to Books and Books.) As a reader barely into his twenties, I loved the place.

I haven't had Rusch's bad experience with B&N employees. Of course, I don't ask for recommendations from them, so that might be part of it. For the most part, my interaction with bookstore employees involves asking where this or that title is, or if they plan on ordering something else, and I suppose that interaction looks the same at one bookstore as it does at another. I do often get engaged in casual conversations about the books I'm buying or looking for, and the staff always strikes me as pretty knowledgeable, actually. I've never worked at a bookstore; during the time in my life when I was working for minimum wage, the closest bookstore involved an hour's drive on the interstate. But it has always struck me as a job that attracts people who love reading, and I've always found that very cool.

Now as an aspiring writer, I know I've got a vested interest (or not technically vested yet, I suppose, but certainly an interest) in what happens to book retailers, and in whichever option increases the likelihood of my making money from my writing. So yeah, go independent bookstores. Rah.

And I'm not saying I disagree with Rusch's observations. She's describing her experiences, so she can't possibly be wrong. I just found it interesting food for thought, because I find myself sharing the knee-jerk reaction to Amazon and Barnes & Noble that the literary blogosphere tells me to have. And yet, when I look through my own memories, I've never really experienced that mythical independent bookseller where the light is always golden and they're knowledgeable about my genres and they hand-sell me all sorts of awesome things I'd never find on my own.

(Incidentally, you know where I get my to-be-read titles from? Not booksellers. Blogs. I see stuff that sounds cool and add it to my--wait for it--Amazon Wish List. And then I pull that wish list up on my phone when I'm in a brick and mortar store and find maybe 25% of the things on it. Other stuff I order online when I get around to it. Which does make Rusch's point that while the big box stores have a big selection, they don't have a lot of variety. One bookstore's selection is much the same as another's. Again, I'm not disputing her observations, just noting that I've never known a time when it was substantially better.)

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