I’ve been thinking about a lot of publishing stuff lately, gathering thoughts, forming opinions etc. But of all the upheaval lately, I can’t help but be struck by something ironic.
Way back before Jeff Bezos named a website after a very large river, there were bookstores! Physical bookstores. Then along came chain bookstores. Really BIG bookstores that had the power to demand and get steep discounts and payola that got called co-op (where a publisher pays the bookstore pretty big bucks to get a title in the best part of the store, or to get a piece of paper tacked onto the shelf under the book, all to improve the chances of that book selling.) This put the independent bookstores at a disadvantage. There was an outcry. Shop Indie!! Don’t buy from the chains!!!
The Mega-Store Model Is Anti-Avid-Reader
I remember when Mom and Pop bookstores started disappearing from my town because they could not compete with Crown, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and the like. Several cute little bookstores just up and closed shop. The hue and cry was still Shop Indie! Don’t Buy from the Chains! Chains are evil!!
As smaller indie bookstores went away, the selection of books at chains and even some of the large independents started to shrink. I remember how hard it started getting to find what I wanted to read. For years and years, my local independent, which I LOVED and still do, did not carry romance. And the dozen or so smaller stores that did were gone. Drugstores, who used to carry racks and racks of genre fiction, got rid of the racks of books because the jobbers who filled those racks were all fired. Suddenly, the only books in drugstores were the same damn books in the chains. One less place to find and buy books.
Then Amazon came along and I remember booksellers and publishers scoffed. Who would buy books on-line and wait for delivery when you could go to a bookstore and walk out with the book right then? Why, you couldn’t even browse!
Amazon’s Model is Pro-Avid Reader
As I reader, I discovered that at Amazon, I could now find the books I wanted to read. I knew who my favorite authors were, I knew what titles were getting word of mouth and I could get those books from Amazon. I could jump on Amazon, search Romance or Fantasy or Barbara Hambly and browse for the books I wanted. I also started hearing that editors, though they scoffed at Amazon, were using Amazon as a way to find out what was unexpectedly selling and as a book-finding system. Amazon kicked ass at that.
I remember when the chains started gobbling each other up. B.Dalton? Acquired. Waldonbooks? Acquired. More bookstores disappeared, gobbled up by other chains. Fewer bookstores, but much bigger stores. Too big?
The pressure from Amazon built and some of the bigger independents started having trouble, because more and more avid readers, annoyed with the dwindling selection of books and the relentless push of the same-old same-old, turned to Amazon. And then Amazon solved the wait-for-it problem. I could order a book and have it the next day. And it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.
Some really big independents closed. Here in the Bay Area, the two shockers were Cody’s Books in Berkeley (not romance friendly) and Staceys (also not a Romance friendly story, I’m sorry to say).
Avid readers complained about the Borders selection and its inability to shelve or reshelve their stores with books that were getting buzz. Impatient avid readers didn’t wait for the book to finally show up. Why should they when they could order from Amazon and have it the next day? Border’s problems with inventory control were an open secret among readers. They really did support Romance, though, and I suspect that kept their doors open longer that might otherwise have been the case. Several years before the Borders bankruptcy the Borders/Walden Express nearest me closed not because of sales (they were quite profitable per square foot, which I think was in large part due to their awesome romance and genre sections) but because the landlord (a Mall) tripled their rent. If I’m recalling correctly, to $30,000 a month. A MONTH.
Then Border’s failed and suddenly, everyone seemed to forget that Chains were supposedly responsible for the demise of the independent book store. No, it was Amazon who killed them. And Amazon killed Borders too! Except if you read past the first paragraphs of articles analyzing the failure, eventually, you’d get to the description of the inventory problem. That, combined with a corporate cookie cutter mentality about what books would be stocked — so that a Borders anywhere would, supposedly, be the same experience, was a far bigger problem because it was baked in. This cookie cutter/chain store mentality infects Barnes & Noble, stores too.
The Avid (Romance) Reader’s Dream Comes True
Then Amazon came out with the Kindle. It was a success, and anyone paying attention to the Romance community could have predicted it — because eBooks had already been a success in Romance for 10 years. At long last, we’re seeing mainstream acknowledgment that Romance readers are the leading edge. Ignore us at the peril of your book delivery business. Then came 70% royalties for self-publishers and Amazon started eating a lot of lunches.
Now we’re all supposed to cheer for the survival of the last remaining chain store and it’s all Amazon’s fault.
Maybe. From what I hear, Amazon is ruthless. I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s a reason publishers and booksellers actively despise (not just fear) Amazon.
But I’m a reader, and darn it, Amazon makes my reader life better. Print publishers have not made my reader life better. They make it worse, and that’s true despite the fact that they’re publishing books by authors I want to read. As a place to buy print books, Barnes & Nobel is irrelevant to me. The nearest one requires a drive of 13 miles that typically takes 45 minutes. No. No. No. NEVER.
If there’s a book I want to read, or even just a certain type of book, I can have that book 30 seconds after my click and I can do it lying in bed. If it’s backlist that has been self-published by one of my favorite authors, I have that book at a better price.
Since this post is already too long, I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for another post.
What are your thoughts?