The American Booksellers Association couldn’t have chosen a better spokesperson to launch its new campaign on Why Indies Matter—or to get more than 250 booksellers to the Javits Center before lunch—than Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Russo. At yesterday’s opening session of the 10th annual ABA Day of Education, also named “Why Indies Matter,” journalist Lynn Sherr, author of Swim, interviewed Russo about the changes roiling the industry—and his New York Times editorial about the giant retailer’s promotion that encouraged its customers to go into stores, scan a product, compare the price, and then buy it from Amazon and get a $5 coupon.
The ABA campaign (it’s not a question) is meant to remind readers about the importance of independent booksellers, something that is almost visceral for Russo. What he sees independent booksellers like his daughter Emily doing that no search engine can do is helping people find books that they don’t know they want to read. “When you go into an independent bookstore,” he said, “you don’t search, you browse. You’re hoping to find something you didn’t know existed.” He worries about upcoming writers like Lauren Groff (Arcadia) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). “Amazon is good to writers we already know, but how will we find the next generation?” he asked. He attributes his own success to independents like Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago, where they optimistically set up five or seven chairs for his very first reading from his first novel, Mohawk, in 1986.
“We no longer have Borders, Barnes & Noble is hanging by a thread. We’ve lost an enormous number of independent bookstores. The Amazon threat is real. It now has 75% of the market for books and electronic books,” said Russo, who proceeded to tell a story about Amazon’s power that he said “is not going to cheer anybody in this room.” He and his artist daughter, Kate, just published a collection of stories, Intervention, which they wanted to make as local as possible. The book was made of sustainable materials, printed in the U.S., and published by their local press, Down East. To promote it, Russo and his daughter drove around New England. They weren’t anticipating huge sales and were surprised when they researched how the book was doing on Amazon. On one Saturday it went from 200,000 to 1,299 in ranking. “It was the kind of jump you only get by getting on The Today Show, Stephen Colbert, or getting a front-page review in the New York Times,” he said. Or, in this case, when Amazon sends an e-mail to every person on its mailing list who ever bought a book by Russo.
Russo doesn’t like to hear his writer friends tell him blithely that independent bookstores will be fine, we don’t have to worry. “I don’t want independent bookstores to survive. I want them to thrive,” he said. Part of that is dependent on the publishing ecosystem, which Russo accuses of having no spine in the face of $9.99 e-books. “I found it astonishing when they acquiesced, when publishers would sell brand-new novels for $9.99. It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend that the movie came out,” he said. “Book publishers have been timid. What they need to do more than anything else is to find a spine. Like most bullies, Amazon will back down. You have to stand up.”
Afterwards, Russo worried about Amazon taking off his buy buttons. Although he has a memoir, Elsewhere, coming out this fall and is finishing a novella and working on a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, he is also doing more screenwriting. “When Amazon gets ready to take the buy buttons off my books,” he said, “I better have a second profession.”