Earlier this week, a story appeared in one of the local papers about a husband and wife who opened and indie bookstore ten years or so ago. Owning a bookstore had been the husband’s dream and, when he retired, he decided it was time to finally live his dream. So he and his wife found a building in the downtown area of one of the small towns outlying the DFW area and were set to buy it and do the renovations necessary to open up. Of course, as is the way of most things, it didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. The city told the couple that the renovations necessary before opening the bookstore surpassed a certain level of the worth of the building. So the building would have to be razed and a new building erected.
That would have been the end of the dream for a lot of people. Instead, the couple looked at their options and amended their plans. Instead of opening a new bookstore, stocking the NYT best sellers, etc., they opened a store that stocks books their local customers are interested in, including used books, as well as books about local history and sites that the tourists coming through town would be interested in. They put in a coffee shop and, in an attempt to keep their profit margins healthy, have started stocking some non-book items that will bring the locals in as well.
In other words, they looked at what the market would bear, and what their customer base wanted, and adapted to it. They knew they couldn’t go into direct competition with the big chain bookstores — or the discount big boxes like Walmart. They didn’t want to use such faux-marketing plans like membership cards for discounts. In other words, they wanted to be what bookstores used to be: responsive to their local market and customers.
And, for ten years or so, it has worked.
As I read the story, it reminded me of the problems that have faced the chain bookstores as well as publishing. The writing has been on the wall for a long time that the industry is changing and for bookstores and publishers to survive, they needed to adapt. We’ve seen one major book seller go out of business. The other two are closing stores at a rate, iirc, higher than they are opening new stores. Publishers have cut entire lines and merged with one another. And still the spiral continues as the gatekeepers fight to maintain their relevancy.
Yet, both parts of the industry have failed to really take into account what their ultimate customers — the readers — want. We see that in the centralized ordering system for bookstores. Someone sitting in an office in NYC (or some other big city) decides what books will be sold in Alice Acres, TX. They have no idea what the citizens there want. Instead, they use some magical mathematical formula to decide on what books go where. So that means you walk into a big box store in Dallas and it will have basically the same stock as one in Boston or LA and, let’s face it, folks in those three cities aren’t the same and don’t necessarily want to read the same books.
Publishers don’t question this. Why should they when they don’t question (read this as being complicit in what is at best a negligent form of theft from authors) the use of Bookscan numbers to report sales and figure royalty payments for authors?
And yet the gatekeepers for both the publishing side and the sales side of the industry are in a panic trying to figure out what’s going wrong with their business model.
Frankly, for me, I love seeing the indie bookstores returning to the market. Yes, we’ve seen some in the DFW area come in, make a splash and then disappear with barely a whimper. There are usually some very fundamental reasons why: they tried to be too big too quickly, they opened up without enough capital in the bank to cover the start up period, they chose really bad locations, etc. But those with a solid business plan, a passion for books, the capital to last out a year while sales build and who also have a passion for books and customer service, they tend to make it. They identify their market and don’t go too small or too large. They adapt as necessary, always listening to what their customers want.
This is a lesson we, as authors, can apply to our own careers. We need to educate ourselves on what the market is looking for. We need to understand that what we read from agents and editors about what they are looking for might not be what readers are looking for. So you have to first decide if you are going to go the traditional route or if you are going to go indie. Then you have to figure out how long it will take to get your product into the hands of your customers, the readers. Once you have that figured out, you have to figure out when to start doing your promotions — and how you are going to do it. And, yes, Virginia, you have to promote even if you go the traditional route.
And you have to adapt. If that novel you’ve been shopping around to agents or editors for a year or more without success is one you really believe in, consider bringing it out indie. Look at what is selling on Amazon or iTunes or KOBO and ask yourself if your novel is something similar. If it is, then why not make the commitment to putting it out on your own? (With the understanding that it will need editing/copy edits/proofing, conversion and a good cover)
Basically, adapt to the times. Adapt to the market. And write and publish. The path you take is yours but don’t close down one path simply because it’s not something you’ve considered before. Educate yourself to the requirements and commitment the path will need and then make an informed decision. After all, no one will ever read your work if it continues to sit in your desk drawer or under your bed.