During my term as board chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association (which is more than 3,000 members strong), I’ve become acutely aware that thousands of books published each year by small presses and self-publishers are unavailable in independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores. These books are in all genres and fill significant gaps in vital and arcane subject areas. Many are brilliant and beautiful, as good as anything the majors produce. So why can’t you find them in your neighborhood bookshop?
Often it’s because their publishers don’t have distributors that can eliminate the inefficiency of single-title ordering and billing. They can’t get distributors—because they don’t publish enough, aren’t big enough, are too unknown, or don’t offer returns—or aren’t interested in getting them. As a result, bookselling today has become highly selective. But it may also be economically and environmentally unsustainable (consider the cost of returns).
I envision a new kind of retail bookselling environment, IndieBook, and I offer it here as a kind of thought experiment. We are not there in terms of scalability, technology, or structure, but we could be there soon. IndieBook is first and foremost a physical retail space. Locate it wherever you think a bookstore will do well. Here are some important criteria for its operation:
1. IndieBook is community and consumer driven, focused on local interests as informed by the store owner, by the store’s exploitation of big data, and by personalized customer accounts, managed at home or at the store.
2. IndieBook is 100% wired and plugged in, filled with electronic touchscreen kiosks for consumers to access their own personalized accounts, featuring dynamic displays curated by the neighborhood retailer. Large, brilliantly colored screens serve up covers and snippets and videos, with a buy button at the end.
3. IndieBook is based on POD, the only sustainable printing technology that makes sense for small-scale indie publishers and self-publishers. Books are printed within five to eight minutes. Hundreds of thousands of titles are available with no inventory shrinkage, no transport costs. There is a ton of work to be done on devices like the Espresso Book Machine, but reliability, speed, flexibility, and cost can be improved over time.
4. IndieBook is multimedia. It provides access to print books, e-books, magazines, movies, music, personal screeds, whatever content the consumer wants, much of it available for immediate download or print.
5. IndieBook is participatory. The store must be a gathering place, a locus of events, happenings, tastings, workshops, panels, and community actions. Is there a hot-button issue in town? Load an LED kiosk with relevant front- and backlist titles. Let local writers print up custom copies of their memoirs, cookbooks, first drafts.
6. Finally, IndieBook has no returns! Fewer books are displayed. Everything else is available on demand. So bring in the offset-printed bestsellers and big books with big names you know you’ll sell through. Otherwise use POD. Make everything accessible, not just what publishers are willing to sell returnable with free freight.
We need to disrupt the current system and build something better, so that every publisher of content, large or small, has a chance to connect with an audience in a communal retail space at the local level. The selling point: indie booksellers selling indie books. Put that Espresso machine right in front! And then market the hell out of it.
We need to acknowledge that consigning small independent presses and self-publishers entirely to Amazon is just not a good thing for our culture or communities. And then all of us—booksellers, publishers, distributors, printers, authors, and customers—need to come together to work out the details. Build IndieBook and the buyers will come.
Peter Goodman is publisher of Stone Bridge Press and outgoing board chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association.