Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Loved to Death (or, why book-lovers don't always make great book-sellers)

We'll get to the meat of this post in a minute. First, some background material authors, would-be authors and book-lovers should be aware of...

I've just been reading a fascinating post over on the blog of Andrew Wheeler, a 20-year publishing professional who should know his stuff.

His post is prompted by the outrage several science fiction and fantasy authors about having their recent books "skipped" by chain bookstores. Apparently there was some talk of a boycott, but that seems to have gone nowhere so far. Probably a good thing.

Anyway, that's the start of Wheeler's post, but he goes way beyond that. He explains, in painful-but-necessary detail the realities of the book business. How and why books get ordered (or don't get ordered), and why there are some sound reasons for "skipping." He also talks about the flawed nostalgia that always clouds such discussions of business; the days when books were all good, bookstores were all small and independent, and good authors (was there any other kind?) were carefully sold, nurtured, and rewarded.

And that's where my post begins. Wheeler talks at length about the many shortcomings common to indie bookstores, and why many of them deserved to die. Many are (or were) poorly managed, under-funded, dirty, disorganized, stocked only to suit their owner's peculiar tastes and interests. I can't disagree with much of what he says.. We'll all been in great indie bookstores, but we've been in the clunkers too.

But he doesn't address another kind of doomed bookstore, one I've had the sad experience to observe closely in recent years here in my town: the Store That Loved Books Too Much.

We used to have a great little indie store in the town where I live. It's a beach-resort town, and so I became familiar with the store long before I moved here. In fact, though I lived in a much larger college town with some pretty good (chain and indie) bookstores, I always looked forward to visiting this one. A stop was a necessary part of any trip to the beach, and I rarely walked out without a bag full of books and periodicals.

It wasn't a big store, nor did it have a picturesque location. It was a bland storefront in a strip-mall, located next to a chain grocery store. It wasn't the store. It was what was in the store. Which was (stand by for the big surprise...) books.

Okay, it wasn't just that. It had new books. Every single week. Hot-off-the-presses books, mostly paperbacks, just the thing for a beach read. Most of the paperbacks were displayed face-out on racks along the side walls for easy browsing. Even better, new releases were on the floor below the racks so you couldn't miss them. Sure, this runs contrary to the logic that puts new books at the top, but it worked. The latest thing was there, and easy to find.

They weren't snotty either. They had a rich stock of best-sellers, thrillers, trashy-beach books, and good sections for all the genres, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, western, horror, you-name-it.

Oh sure, that wasn't all the store carried. They had a small but rich assortment of hard-covers and trades, fiction and non-fiction, children's books, an old-fashioned comic-spinner rack (the kind that collectors hate because they crease the comics, but which are great for kids who might actually read a comic for pleasure). a huge magazine section (another good source of beach reading), and a few gifts and cards.

They also had a few of those things that people think of when they think of indie bookstores. They had a nice little rack for local authors that was always well-stocked, and another one for staff picks and recommended reads. They hand-sold books, and were always glad to recommend an author or book in any given genre.

They also had a small blocked off corner for "adult" magazines. I never shopped back there (you believe me, right?), but it was somehow reassuring. I always figured a news-dealer that didn't traffic in material that was offending somebody just wasn't doing its part for the First Amendment, and was probably incomplete in other important areas as well.

Near as I could tell, they did a brisk business. There were always people in the store when I went in there, and the register was always busy. There were even lines sometimes.

What the store had, and I think this was key, was energy. The pulp and newsprint were always fresh, and smelled that way. It was exciting to go into the store on a shipment day, when the new books or periodicals were being unboxed and shelved. Often I'd hover around the magazine racks, waiting to see if the latest issue of one of my favorite magazines was coming out. Every week you'd go to scan the racks for your favorite authors and genres, and never were you disappointed. There was always something new and interesting, even if it wasn't what you went in looking for.

I've never seen anything like it, before or since, in such a small town. I was reminded of some of the big cities I'd lived in, the huge corner newsstands in Los Angeles, the huge Paperback City store in North Hollywood, the seedy-but-has-everything Magazine City in downtown Seattle. Most of these places were dirtier and colder and less refined than our little bookstore, but the buzz was there, and they shared another important characteristic: turnover. Most things moved, one way or another. If they didn't sell, then they were gone.

I'm an author, and I know, I know. If there's one word in the English language we writers hate, it's strip, at least where it's not being applied to an attractive member of the opposite sex (or same, if that's the way you play it).

Stripping, for those of you who don't know, is the process of getting credit on unsold paperbacks and periodicals. The book (or magazine, or comic, but what we complain about are the books) isn't returned. Only the cover is ripped off and returned for credit. The body of the item is (theoretically, that's another story) destroyed. It's a wasteful system, one rooted in history more than business logic, and one that authors just hate. A stripped book is not only unsold, not only returned for credit (and thus taken out of your royalties) it can't be reshipped or resold at any price. It not only isn't sold, it's an anti-sale.

One of the reasons that people like indie bookstores is that, in theory anyway, they don't strip as much. They keep back-lists on the shelves, and give books time to sell. They hand-sell good books that aren't from big-name authors, and aren't fortunate enough to make the Times best-seller list.

Like I said, theory. And at this little bookstore, there was a little truth to it. They shelved back-lists, for top authors and favorites anyway. They kept smaller authors they liked around for a while. But money and space were finite, and things got stripped.

Every. Single. Week.

See, there are places where stripping makes sense: places with high traffic and high volume. Places where people go to look for something new and fun to read. Places like our little store.

It was harsh but true, and while the writer in me would sometimes cringe (especially when it was one of my books), as a reader I loved the place. It was actually a factor in my decision to move to town.

So what happened?

Well, I'm unclear on the details. As I recall, the out-of-town owners sold-out, and it was bought by a well-meaning couple who clearly weren't cut out to run a bookstore. They didn't last long. Just long enough to mess up the stock and chase off a bunch of the staff.

They wanted to sell out, and when that didn't happen, planned to close.

Then a white-knight appeared in the form of a true book-lover. A guy who runs several used bookstores in the area, stores that are still open. There are good stores, and his flagship store is world-class, one of those places a book-lover can wander for hours through the maze-like stacks and never see everything.

But the trouble was, he loved books too much to run a new bookstore. He never stripped anything. The magazine second, already reduced, got smaller still. The adult section disappeared. The wall racks gave way to shelves to make room for the rapidly growing stock of dated (and eventually yellowing) paperbacks. Staff morale was low, and turnover rapid. Various other things were tried, more gifts and cards, games, more comics (but not enough to be a real comic store), music, a bigger kid's section, but nothing seemed to take hold. The foot traffic wasn't there to support it, because people weren't coming back as often.

I found myself going in less and less often. Once a month would catch the new magazines, and there weren't many of those that interested me any more. I stopped looking at the paperbacks. Of course, they were still happy to special order, but without the browsing experience to fuel purchases, I didn't do it often.

It was depressing. Nothing new to browse, and the new releases I'd heard about weren't going to be there. Maybe in the grocery-store next door...

It's sad when the book department at a grocery store starts to look better than a "real" bookstore.

Towards the end, the shelves thinned out as the old stock was presumably sold or stripped, but the money apparently wasn't there to restock. Books were face-out on the shelves, and got further and further apart. Used stock was moved in from other stores to fill the shelves. Even the reduced magazine section was getting thin. Hours were cut back.

There were "business for sale" signs in the windows, but it was hard to imagine what there was to buy. The stock was old and picked over, the traffic gone, the staff decimated, the reputation tarnished beyond repair. The death-spiral was solidly confirmed by then.

A couple weeks ago, while shopping for groceries, I happened to glance over and see the storefront dark and empty. I went over and examined the sign on the door. It had been closed for almost two weeks, and though I shop for groceries next door three or four times a week, I hadn't noticed.

Our little town is full of writers, and near as I can tell, none of them in my circle had noticed either. We all order our books on-line now, or drive to chain stores in the bigger towns in the valley 60 miles away, or go to indie-monster Powell's Books in Portland a couple hours from here.

I was sad, but hardly surprised. Clearly the book-loving-owner was just riding out the lease. He had loved a once-great store to death.

This isn't intended to be critical of the guy who bought the store. He's a neighbor of mine, and a good guy, and he still has those great used stores. It would have died a lot sooner without his intervention, and he tried to make it a success the best way he knew how. God knows how much money he lost in the deal, and I'm certainly not privy to all the many things behind-the-scenes that may have contributed to the store's slow demise.

But it's difficult to see how he could have ever succeeded because of that one blind spot of his. He couldn't strip books, and without that, the store could never again flourish.

Let that be a lesson. Independent book stores aren't magic fairy-lands of literature and enlightenment. They're businesses, and to succeed, they have to be run as such.

Chain book stores didn't kill our nifty little bookshop. We don't have any within 60 miles. Wal-Mart didn't kill it. It's 30 miles to the nearest big-box store. Amazon didn't kill it. Its troubles were apparent long before Amazon was a significant factor.

Management decisions killed it, plain and simple. Decisions that were well-intended, and right minded, and intended to be charitable to authors. Decisions that were still wrong.

The store is gone now, and it isn't coming back, nor is there likely to be anything to replace it. I order on-line, and I look forward to out-of-town trips where I can go to a large book-store and browse (as good as Amazon is in many respects, it has never replicated the book browsing experience).

I miss the magazines more than anything, but magazines are on the decline. Many of the more obscure magazines I used to enjoy have died, and with others, the internet provides more useful and current content. The more popular ones are cheaper to subscribe to, often at a fraction of the newsstand price, and increasingly that's just what I'm doing.

But to be honest, I suspect even this is short-term. Electronic book-readers are getting attractive, and I fully expect most print magazines to go the way of the dodo in only a few years. I recently subscribed to a magazine for three years (they were practically giving it away) and wondered if my need for a print version would run out before the subscription did.

Books are still with us though, for a while anyway, and independent stores have to depend on them to survive. Much as we rail against the return system and stripping, as illogical as it is, if we were somehow to end it today, it's the independent stores, the small stores, that would suffer the most. Chain stores have the size, the volume, the financial resources to soldier on through, but the marginal little stores like ours won't. Let our store serve as an example, and a warning.

Our beloved little store is gone, and it isn't coming back. Nostalgia is all we have left, and that doesn't pay the rent.

But some days, in some ways, stripping books does.