Dear Indie Bookstores — a sincere letter to you: How do I solve the dilemma of the heart vs business?

Dear Indie Bookstores,

How are you? I am fine. Okay, well, really, I’m not so fine because I have quite the dilemma. You see, I read/listen to all the discussions rife with anger and confusion and angst and worry and more anger about Amazon and B&N.com, and other online and e-book sales (but in particular, Amazon), and the Indie Bookseller, and frankly, it makes me most uncomfortable, for here I am in these past months touting up online retailers, and yes, most lately, most particularly, Amazon Kindle, despite where my heart may lie with The Community.

And why, you may ask? Why would I do that? Why?, when Brick and Mortar stores need our support—especially the little Indies who are hanging on by their eye-teeth and who are the backbone of a community and who need, require, our loyalty and support. Yes, yes, I understand this, very much so. And let me tell you, Indies, I surely did tout you to the winds and talk you up most energetically—before I was published and then right after my first book, Tender Graces, was published. TG was even nominated for a SIBA award, and I thought, “Oh, wonderful! The Indies are with me! We shall work together!”

So sincerely did I urge readers to the Indie bookstore. So sincerely did I put names of Indies on my website. So sincerely did I write posts on my blog urging readers to buy my books at the Indies. I purposefully did not mention Amazon; I rarely mentioned B&N.com; and even more rarely did I mentioned e-books.

Yet, what happened over and over was this scenario:

Reader: “I went to such and so bookstore and asked for your book and they said they don’t have it.”

Me: “Oh! Well, I am sure they will order it for you.”

Reader, “I didn’t think about asking that. I’ll do that next time I’m in there.”

And then I wondered—did they? Or did they forget me? Or did they end up purchasing it elsewhere—online. What happened “later.”

Or, even worse, this scenario:

Reader: “I went to such and so bookstore and they didn’t have your book so I asked if they would order it and they said they couldn’t order it. Where can I get it?”

Me: “Wait, what do you mean they couldn’t order it? It’s available in all the places books are usually ordered from, just as with any other book. BelleBooks is a small press, but they’ve been around for 12 years or so. Hmm, I don’t understand . . .”

Reader: “They said they couldn’t. I guess I’ll order it online.”

Oh, dear Indies, these are true scenarios that happened more than once, more than twice. And for every reader who contacted me, I have to assume there are more of them out there who experienced the same things—I do not like to have to explain to readers why they can’t find my books in Indie bookstores, or why an Indie bookstore wouldn’t take the time to order a book for a reader, for it makes my heart feel funny.

Now, yes, there is this wonderful scenario and my heart is filled with gratitude:

Reader: “So and such bookstore didn’t have your book, so I asked them to order it and they did.”

Me: “Thank you, and thank the bookstore for me, too!”

And the very best scenario yet,

Reader: “I went to such and so bookstore and there your book was on the shelf, so I bought a copy.”

Me: “How wonderful! . . . etc etc etc.”

Alas, the last scenario hasn’t happened as much as I’d love for it to, for we all know how much we love to make those impulsive purchases, and how much we can forget about something and someone when out of sight out of mind, yes?

I do understand how this is Business, but do you not see that I have to think this way as well? This is a career for me, my job, my life, my love, and yes, I must make a living, too. We both, dear Indie, have a love of books and words, which is why we are in this business, right? However, we both must also look at the business side of things. If you do not sell books, your bookstore will not survive. If I do not sell books, then my publishers will not keep publishing my books—and, as well, I want to be able to support myself, just as you do. I simply cannot stand living off my husband’s earnings; I am an independent woman who needs to support herself. Further, I can’t imagine if I couldn’t have my books published; all my work for naught? Oh no! Indies, I am as passionate and frightened and worried and sincere and hopeful as you are about this business, just from the other end of it.

So, when Amazon creates a buzz about my books, I am “forced” to talk it up. My biggest sales have come from Amazon sales, and e-book sales—not because I “advertised” for readers to go to Amazon and B&N.com and other online retailers, but because that is where my readers most often find my books in  print and in e-book, and then it grows from there. And once that begins to happen, I then talk about those promotions or those mentions or where I am becoming a “best seller,” as I have been on Amazon Kindle. Oh, but I know it comes at a price that is at your expense; however, I am also aware that I am but a blip on the radar of so many books and authors, and I am but a tiny woman/author.

So, I ask you, dear Indie Bookseller, what am I to do? How do I remedy the dilemma of your asking us to Support the Indies with the reality that you do not know who I am and or you do know who I am but I’m so small, so very small. How am I to step back and look at this? How do I resolve this conflict of the heart versus the business side?

I suppose I always thought that Indie Booksellers and Small Press Publishers were “in this thing together,” and would work to support each other, to help each other to grow, and to find ways to survive together, when really, it seems that may not be so at all? Or perhaps I am too close to the forest to notice all the new growth.

If you have a solution to my dilemma, then I am so very happy to hear it. For I’d love to work with you, to know we are together in this thing called survival and love of books and words.

I am your servant, if you so desire, and all the best to you,

Kathryn Magendie

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15 thoughts on “Dear Indie Bookstores — a sincere letter to you: How do I solve the dilemma of the heart vs business?

  1. Loved your thoughts. As a former bookstore owner, I enjoyed hearing how you saw this. This is what I can tell you from the bookstore owner’s pov. We had many people come into the store and ask for books we didn’t carry. If we could order it from one of two places we could order and get decent shipping rates we would, other wise we needed an account to order from a different place and that usually meant quantities and no breaks on shipping. We struggled to compete in those days with CBD. We offered lowered shipping and really made no money on the books hoping customers would buy the gifts when they came in where we made a bigger–50% profit. Books we made little. When I left the business after five years, my partner eventually stopped stocking many books at all due to the low mark up. We had little space and had to stock what would support us and pay the bills and turn a few times a year. It hurt to tell people no we couldn’t stock them because their book that might only sell one or two would replace another bestseller that would make us more money. I was the book buyer and had to make those decisions. It wasn’t easy.

    The local bookstore is on the way out mostly due to online buying. Really, there is no way to compete with quantity. If we got a 37% discount for a book and then add shipping, we were very fortunate but that was rare. I tried hard to find the deals to pay our bills.

    I think you tried hard and it is a shame the locals didn’t carry your book if they knew you and if it sold like it is. But all in all,they are going to the curb-and that’s sad.

  2. A most beautiful worded plea, and yet still sad that your letter is so necessary and true. I all too well recall the joy of my own debut novel’s birth into the world of shiny bound paper, and the shock and horror of hearing from eager book buyers of just how impossible it often was to coax certain indie booksellers into ordering my book when requested. I, too, long to support the sweet and lovely little places, but find it difficult to comply when the love isn’t necessarily flowing in both directions.

  3. Kat

    One of the things to look at is the wholesaler/distributor. If this segment does not present your book to the indie/retailer, they know nothing of your book. It is like any other marketing channel, there needs to communication in the lines of distribution.

    What ways do the wholesalers market your book.

  4. Hi John – My publishers have a marketing/promotion strategy and that includes contacts with brick and mortar bookstores. As well, I spent a good chunk of my early (first book) publishing career personally contacting indies, visiting them, etc., for which I just can’t do anymore, for it was a bit soul-crushing – not that I’m not used to rejection, for you can’t survive this business without a tough skin, but I just have to concentrate on what works.

    Terri – one of my favorite people and wonderful friends was an indie bookstore owner – Osondu Books – I adore her and I adored her store and cried when it closed. She explained to me the “business side” and I do understand it – and that’s the dilemma. For if bookstores don’t know me or think I won’t sell enough, they won’t buy my books and if they don’t buy my books, I have to go where my books are selling well. If they only go after “the best sellers” because that’s what sells, then how can they fault us for going where our book sells? It’s a two-way street and I’d hoped small press authors and indies would be communting more on that street!

  5. It’s sad, but no bricks-and-mortar store is ever going to fit in all the books published each year. I would hope that featuring local authors (maybe signed copies?) would be a sensible compromise, and as a reader I’d be interested in learning more about local writers, too.

    • This is so true, Rachel, and I suppose that makes my “point” even more so that authors simply have to do what they have to do just as bookstores do – and that’s talk about our books on Amazon, B&N.com, BAM.com and other online retailers. It’s just how it is!

      Locally, I love to be supported and support back and I do go into my local indies and purchase books – and Blue Ridge Books (and the former Osondu Booksellers) have been wonderful to me. Also, City Lights in Sylva – love these indies. If there are other indies out there I am not aware of, then I hope they know I appreciate their support!

  6. This is very, very true. I don’t know what to tell you or them. I don’t go to Indie stores because I have small kids who like to touch everything. Maybe someday I’ll go again but for now the internet is my friend.
    btw, my friend at work bought your book from Amazon. She buys everything from them. And….*grin* Three of us were talking books and Debbie (my friend) told our manager that TG was one of her top books for 2011. Then she brought it in for my manager to read. ;-)

    • Jessica – Osondu’s here in Waynesville, before it closed alas, had an areas for kids – it was wondeful! She had readings for “chidren’s hour” and had Santy come at Christmas – GMR was santy one year!

      I am so grateful and happy you told me about what Debbie said – now I’m big smiling! thank you!

  7. A touching message, Kat. As you state, you have to look to your business as well as supporting the Indie. Amazon has opened up the amount of books on offer to the reader. The Internet is a way of life for many. Mix the two and something has to give. Sadly this is the local bookstore for reasons as mentioned by Terri in her comment.

  8. I’m receiving e-mail/fb comments about this post – so I am trying to address some of those in comments here, too.

    Yes, I can see, too, where the bigger publishers can possibly offer the Indie bookstore more and better discounts at Ingrams or where, although BB’s offers comparable discounts right from them–which ties into small presses and indies supporting each other! And I recognize with Bigger Publishers/Authors there is more “sure things” in sales or whatever, etc – these things I understand, but the understanding of it doesn’t solve the problem that I must talk up Amazon because that’s where my books are selling best and the indie bookstores are struggling.

    It a wonderful world, Small Presses and Indie Booksellers would find a way to partnership and in that partnership there would be ideas for how to make both of those business models grow – but I don’t have a clue how this partnership would work out, if it even could.

    The sales I’ve made for ebooks has so greatly outnumbered the sales I’ve made on print books that it’s made my print book sales look puny and weak and sad and my ebook sales strong and mighty and hopeful. I often find myself saying “What would I do (my sales) without Kindle/Nook/etc?”

    And for a little girl who adored libraries as her sanctuary, who loved books as friends, and as an adult, whose study and little log house is FILLED with books – well, this is a strange thing for me. Yet, now I have a kindle and that library is growing.

  9. Wow. This is a great post Kat! I wish I knew what to say. I have two short stories out there, but they are though small publishers. (But no one ever asks me where to buy them. That would be cool.) Someday I hope the Indie and large publishers will be able to work things out. But for now, it’s just frustrating.

  10. I appreciate the spirit of your post. Frankly, I would stop patronizing a bookstore that would ever fail to make an effort to find a book I requested. Our local indie is Highland Books. When I first asked for “Tender Graces,” they ordered it for me and ran into some delay (not on their part), but obtained it for me. I can say that Highland Books has never once failed to obtain a book I wanted, even if the book was out of print.

    I know that many NC authors have done readings in our little bookstore in our little town, including Vickie Lane, John Hart, and Ann Ross. It seems that once an author does even one reading or signing, their subsequent works are prominently displayed. I’m never sure whether they garnered more readers (and thus more demand for their books) by making a presence, or if the bookstore feels sufficiently familiar with the work to promote the new books. When I look at the Websites of many authors, particularly NC authors, I always see a rather lengthy list of upcoming appearances. I note that you speak to book clubs, but I haven’t seen any personal appearances. Perhaps that is the reason the local indies are not familiar with your work. I may be totally wrong, and perhaps you do promote your books to local bookstores. If not, they might not know about your work unless someone asks for it or it becomes a runaway best seller.

    I own a Kindle but I suspect my local bookstore would be surprised to learn that since I buy just as many books from them as I always have. I do order many of the “special deals” but I use my Kindle primarily as a reservoir for biographies, anthologies, classics, and poetry.

    • I don’t do the “signing circuit” unless a bookstore invites me, and then I always go. I quit contacting bookstores and asking if they’d host a booksigning, for I just found that mentally and physically draining. I found some bookstores, even when contacted, never responded and after a time, my editor at my publishers told me to stop spinning my wheels and just write the best books I could write and not let all this pull me down and back. So, now, if a bookstore contacts me as Blue Ridge Books & News does in Waynesville, or City Lights in Sylva, and the former Osondu’s – I always respond and I always do an event, and I have done them at those places — I love interacting with readers. The same with libraries – I am here and I am willing to do anything to help and to be available, and I’ve even donated books to libraries, but, beyond that, I write my books and spend time interacting via social networking and skyping and/or visiting with book clubs. And I’m happy Highland Books ordered and orders books for you – Good For Them!

  11. I sent my editor at Bellebooks this post and she responded thusly, so that y’all may see what the small press editor has to say about this, so I will place her comments in quotes:

    “Online booksellers, particularly Amazon, are supportive of our authors (for Amazon’s own good, but still) and have helped us build a nice audience for authors who are ignored by indie and chain booksellers. It has also made it possible for us to revive the careers of authors who were dumped by major publishers in the mergers and bestseller mania of the 1990’s, then forgotten by the indies. Amazon makes it possible for us to re-issue quality backlist and find entire new audiences for books the indies never shelved in the first place. Amazon is the reason for the renewed and growing popularity of short stories, which authors and small presses are now able to put before an eager reading public without constraint. Amazon et al work hard to build online communities where readers – actual garden-variety booklovers, not distant and often disengaged literary “experts” –discuss the books they love and recommend those books to other avid readers. (So much for the idea that only traditional booksellers can hand-sell a book. “>>

    >>bellebooks editor, D.S.

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