According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 48,841,966 people live in rural areas. An “urban” area has a population of 50,000 or more. An “urban cluster” covers towns with 2,500 to 50,000 people. Below that is “rural.” Sixteen percent of the American population lives in rural areas, and I’m one of them. I choose not to live in an urban area for a variety of reasons and, for the most part, it doesn’t affect my quality of life. I’m a midlist author, and my agent and editor couldn’t care less where I live. E-mail and telephones keep me connected, and FedEx keeps the paperwork flowing (when real paper is required.)
But as a reader and an industry professional who’s interested in keeping a finger on the pulse of the book market, I’ve noticed something disturbing. Rural America has become invisible to publishers and technology companies. Forty-eight million potential readers... invisible and unserved.
Chain book stores have almost vanished in rural areas. Even before Borders started its death spiral, chains were closing less profitable stores in small towns. What that means to those of us living in small towns is that we have to travel farther to visit a bricks-and-mortar store. For me, the closest chain bookstore is 60 miles from home. Not counting used stores, there’s not an independent even that close. I’m forced to get my books in secondary markets, like Wal-Mart or my local grocery. Unfortunately, my Wal-Mart is its smallest footprint store. It has one 20-foot section for both books and magazines. New York Times authors are double (or triple) stacked. New or midlist authors don’t exist.
Of course, there’s the Web, but I can’t browse in the same way I could a physical book to see if I like the voice of a new author. I also won’t be drawn in by the lovely covers publishers work so hard to make “pop” on the shelf.
What about e-books? Sorry, not available. No Apple TV, no cable, no Wi-Fi. The Federal Communications Commission issued a news release on November 18, 2011, pointing out that 18 million people in rural areas lack access to reliable broadband networks. Again, I’m one of those 18 million. Cable is nonexistent and 3G Wi-Fi is 50 miles thataway in any direction. 4G is science fiction. I have satellite, but downloads are severely restricted. I’m allowed 900MB per day. That includes traffic to all sites. Once I reach 500MB, the funnel slows down. If I reach 900MB in one day, I lose traffic entirely for six hours. In other words, if I load Amazon to shop, I can visit 10–15 pages before the connection slows, without downloading any actual data. I haven’t updated my iPhone in a year because the 600+ MB takes six to eight hours to load and slows my browsing to a crawl for days as further punishment.
If it sounds depressing, it sort of is. Like a kid with empty pockets, my nose is pressed against the candy store window. Yet I get only blank stares and outright shock when I talk about this to industry professionals, agents, editors, a book buyer. They aren’t even aware the problem exists.
I’ve suggested to a few that publishers partner with bookstores to help sell e-books at the register. Nobody I polled (from cities) thought readers would buy an e-book at a physical store. I certainly would, and one enterprising independent store near Houston has even made itself a Wi-Fi hotspot for that purpose. For a small fee, while the customer wanders the store, the employees will load the e-books on the device. Not sell them, but load them. It’s a way to stay viable in a changing marketplace. Unfortunately, the sale goes to Amazon or Google. The store would prefer to make the sale by offering e-books directly, from the publisher or its regular distributor, but such a service doesn’t exist.
Publishers could also provide chap books or revised cover flats to indie stores with the first two pages of text on the back (where normally there’s marketing information) to help sell the books in electronic form.
Rural America may only constitute 16% of the population, but with limited entertainment, books are often the king of the land. Even with the FCC promising $4.5 billion a year into a new Connect America Fund, which it claims will give seven million rural Americans access to reliable high-speed Internet connections over the next six years, that’s still six years away. In today’s fast-changing world of book publishing, reaching readers in rural areas could be the make-or-break for a lot of the industry.
I want books. Please. Find a way to get them to me, and I’ll be a faithful customer.
Cathy Clamp, also writing as Cat Adams, writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance in rural Texas Hill County, www.catadams.net.