You don’t have to be in the bookselling business long before you come to realize that everybody you know, as well as his uncle, has written or is writing a book. The good news is that technology has leveled the playing field so that anybody can get his or her book published. The bad news is that technology has leveled the playing field so that anybody can get his or her book published.
In the old days of digital printing, by which I mean 2008, it was hard to find high-quality self-published books: most of them looked so cheap and unattractive that reading them was beside the point—you were never going to sell such a poorly constructed book. I used to joke that I could pick out a self-published book at 30 paces, and it wasn’t actually a joke. Also, the books were often grossly overpriced.
Today there are dozens of digital options, and if writers have some idea of what they are doing, they can make trade paperbacks that not only look as good as those from major publishers, but are also comparatively priced. In other words, here comes everybody!
The question for booksellers then becomes, should I carry these books? How can a bookseller possibly know which books are good and which ones aren’t? How can a bookseller possibly deal with hundreds of consignment forms and endless phone calls and e-mails from authors asking how their books are doing? And how are they doing now? And how about now?
I’m sorry to say I don’t have a solution, and to make matters worse, matters are going to get worse. The book industry is undergoing, at a slightly slower pace, the same transformation that the music industry underwent a decade ago (and the motion picture industry, too, for that matter). Actually, it’s two transformations happening concurrently.
First, anyone with a computer can make a book of excellent physical quality, just as anyone with a computer can now make an album with excellent sound quality. Second, the publishing and distribution of books is undergoing massive upheaval and consolidation—just like the music industry did. It’s my belief that when this shakes out, we will end up with one or two giant mainstream publishers and, if we are lucky, thousands of small, independent houses.
My point is that buying books for your store is going to become harder and harder. To keep your stock diverse and unique, you are going to have to comb through hundreds of solicitations from independent and university presses. How are you going to do this? I have no idea. I really don’t.
All I know is that right now, while you are trying to get work done, the self-published author (let’s call him or her an “independent author”) who is standing in front of you really, really wants you to carry his or her book. I publish books now, as well as selling them, and I will tell you that all of my authors want their books in “real bookstores,” even when I explain that they will make exponentially more money selling their books online.
Why? Because, like most writers, they are great readers, and they believe that independent bookstores are still the cultural curators of the written word. This also makes them great customers, and whether it’s true or not, telling authors that you don’t want to sell their books is also telling them that you don’t want them to be your customer. You might also be accidentally telling them that you don’t want their relatives to be your customers, or their book group members, or their coworkers, or every one of their 750 Facebook friends.
The question that haunts me is not, “How do we accommodate this tidal wave of independent authors?” We will figure it out, probably. The question that haunts me is, “What happens when they don’t want us to carry their books, because in their mind the independent bookstore has become completely irrelevant?”
Think about it. Then think about it again in an optimistic light. They are independent! You are independent! They are local! You are local! You might have more in common than you think, and for better or worse, they might just be the future of bookselling.