Why Bookstores Aren’t Helping Indie Authors—Yet

TW Column by David Biddle

Building Alliances With Independent Booksellers

 


Getting shelved in a bookstore used to be my ultimate fantasy. My work would be sandwiched in the fiction section between Saul Bellow and Maeve Binchy. (I checked that every time I went to our local Borders, before it fell under the corporate blastgun.)

stack of books, Den HaagSo, after I self-published my first novel last summer and set up a print-on-demand paperback option, I decided to pursue the fantasy. I trundled off to one of my favorite Philadelphia-area indie shops to see if they’d take my wacky novel.

By this time, I’d done a good amount of marketing and garnered ten Amazon reviews (mostly good). I was sure the store would want to support a local author. The Bellow-Binchy sandwich seemed in sight.

Except that the staff of this lovely shop didn’t welcome me with open arms. The store manager, a distracted woman in her late thirties, held a box of books the whole time she spoke with me. She said they might be willing to shelve my book if I sold at least twenty copies at one of their “local author nights.” Bookstore staff would put out information to their email list and post something on the store’s website, but since it was a small business, they really needed authors to “work their contacts.”

Sigh. Working my contacts? I’d been doing that all along. Later, I realized she probably had good reason to be distracted (by the cumbersome box in her arms, for instance), but back then, I knew little about the bottom-line pressures on booksellers.

Old fantasies die hard, of course, and my sentimental attachment to bookstores leaves me with a quandary. How hard should I push to get my work into local shops?

In theory, there is no substitute for the physical presence of a book in the hands of potential readers. Bookstores, whether indies or chains, are still the best places to find people who are actually paid to talk about books to the public. You’d think indie booksellers in particular would have a lot in common with indie authors—and they do.

Yet, my experience tells me that a variety of traditional publishing prejudices and real-world business concerns keep flinging up barriers between these natural allies. If pushy indie authors assume booksellers are just print-bound old fogeys, with antiquated ordering and stocking systems, then they’ll likely be shown the door. Independent booksellers don’t exist to do local authors favors.

In fact, brick-and-mortar bookstores are in direct (and dire) competition with Amazon and other online distributors. Almost every indie author over the past three years has gone into business online, where they can cheaply and easily publish their work as e-books.

Now, all is fair in love and war—and business—but it’s still a hard nut for a lot of struggling booksellers to swallow. You’ve sold 5,000 copies of this as an e-book on Amazon, and now you want me to sell the paperback here?

For booksellers, whose shops usually have limited shelving or display space, quality is also a serious issue. Many indie authors only offer one book and no proof they can continue to produce. And in almost any story of indie author success that involves bookstores, the person responsible for acquisitions reads the indie book and loves it.

Joel Friedlander, who’s been designing print books for decades and blogs at the Book Designer, told me in an email that when indie authors try to sell books to stores or arrange an event, they find out the “awful truth”:

It’s a business, and dealing with a lot of local, one-book, self-published authors isn’t very good business.

Friedlander is sincerely sympathetic to both indie authors and stores. Bookselling is a low-margin venture. He also acknowledges the importance of bookstores as community institutions that can help unknown writers. But as he notes of indie authors, “If you can pull lots of people into their store, they will welcome you. Otherwise, not so much.”

In some cases, indie publishers and indie bookstores have forged connections that have paid off. These are the stories we love to hear. For instance, there’s Tina Boscha, author of the literary World-War-II novel River in the Sea. As she wrote on her blog, when her indie book came out in 2011, she understood that “[t]he only person who was going to get the book out there was me.”

So, she geared herself up and walked into the University of Oregon bookstore and several other local shops in Eugene. At J. Michael’s, she pitched the owner:

I was upfront about being self-published and being published through CreateSpace (essentially Amazon)…. I told him about my background in writing and overall I was polite but assertive—not aggressive—and had copies right then and there should he be interested. What happened next surprised me: the owner said yes and asked about pricing.

Boscha would be the first to say it’s usually not so easy, but as of that December 2011 blog post, she’d placed her novel “in three different local independent bookstores, and I’m on the cusp of having it at a fourth.”

Then there’s the flip side. Pavarti K. Tyler, author of the indie-published fantasy series Two Moons of Sera, noted in a recent email to me:

[A]lmost all opportunities for bookstore placements I’ve found are on consignment. This means you have to pay the printing and shipping AND you have to accept returns. Unless you have buckets of money, this is near impossible.

Bag of BooksMy own story is a cautionary tale. When that store manager said I’d have to prove myself at a local author night, my heart sank. “It really requires effort on the part of the authors to generate an audience for the event,” she added. Typically, these evening readings include several other writers. I’d be surprised if thirty people attend. So, it’s an author-vs.-author showdown for a small number of open wallets.

Most of my reader friends in Philly have already purchased my book, so I understood the store’s position. Still, I passed.

Resolving these conflicts is not impossible, but both sides of the indie divide need to benefit. For one thing, success with bookstores may depend on the type of book.

Mike Spinak, the author of the 2012 Growing Up Humming, a 44-page book about hummingbirds, says 25 percent or so of the stores he’s visited in California have agreed to carry his book.

“One bookstore had a large banner behind the counter saying they welcome indies,” he reported in an email to me. Spinak adds:

I’m sure more will welcome indies, as they become an increasing percentage of industry sales, and as [bookstore] systems develop to better deal with them.

Spinak may be right about the future, but Growing Up Humming has been highly praised on Amazon for its beautiful photography and layout. A short book that’s mostly pretty pictures is far different from a 400-page novel like mine.

Joe Konrath counters the optimism about bookstores. Konrath, a traditionally published author for years who’s now an outspoken advocate for self-publishing, is famous for visiting hundreds of bookstores around the country to hand sell his work. However, in an ironically titled 2012 blog post “Amazon Will Destroy You,” Konrath directs this take-no-prisoners nugget of advice at indie authors:

Bookstores and publishers and distributors are NOT essential to the process. You should have evolved.

Konrath is right, too. And this isn’t a question just for indie authors. These days, most writers have to do the heavy lifting with marketing. Even those with PR teams setting up readings for them need to put in time and effort to visit stores, do readings and signings, and participate in Q&A sessions.

Self Portrait, Stack of Books SculptureThe best indie authors are highly motivated to sell their own books. Most have spent the past several years not only writing books worth reading; they’ve also put a lot of time into social media, marketing, and promotions.

That said, in the very near future, we won’t be talking about big-box, corporate bookstores anymore. The only places left will be independents. Successful indie bookstores have survived the onslaught of Borders and Barnes & Noble with the same kind of entrepreneurial moxie. For instance, Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon; City Lights Books in San Francisco; Strand Book Store in New York City; and Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have successfully networked with book lovers and other local businesses.

We belong together. And in truth, savvy indie shops need savvy individual writers. Any bookstore willing to carry a hungry author’s title is a bookstore that hungry author will champion in blog entries, at cocktail parties, and in newsletters to his or her email lists.

So now I’m doing more research into Philadelphia-area bookstores. I may devote a week next summer to meeting with store managers and buyers in order to learn how they deal with author-entrepreneurs—and, perhaps, to discuss new possibilities, such as establishing that all paperback sales of my work will be handled by bookstores.

My knowledge of what’s percolating at small shops around the country is still limited, but I’ve come to see that receiving promotion through a bookstore’s mailing list isn’t chump change. It’s also on me to step up. Maybe I’ll go back to my favorite indie shop and discuss a book-release dance party for my second novel. Maybe I’ll promise copromotion of the store through my own website and mailing list.

Maybe I’ll even hire a live band and hold the shindig at a larger venue on my dime. I’ll invite the bookstore folks and go out of my way to plug them—regardless of whether they’re selling my book—as an investment in goodwill.

That dream of seeing my name sandwiched between Bellow and Binchy? Just another lesson in writerly vanity. At the moment, book pages at Amazon, iTunes, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, and several smaller sites are good enough for me.

But I doubt any author ever falls out of love with bookstores, especially the independents in our hometowns. Tina Boscha says it well in her 2011 post, starting with the U of O “Duck Store”:

What has been brilliant about having the book there is getting to know the staff to the point that they called me to let me know they had sold four of the five copies and were reordering.

Amazon hasn’t called yet to tell me they’ve sold any of my books. I’m pretty sure they don’t even know I exist.

 

 


Publishing Information

Art Information

  • "Stack of Books, Den Haag" © Janelle Ward; Creative Commons license.
  • "Bag of Books" © Niels Linneberg; Creative Commons license.
  • "Self Portrait, Stack of Books Sculpture, Prague Library" © Dave Henri; Creative Commons license.

 


David Biddle is the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God and two collections of short stories (Trying to Care and Implosions of America). As a freelance writer, he has published articles in such publications as the Harvard Business Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He was a contributing editor for In Business magazine for over a decade.

David blogs at davidbiddle.net, where information on his books and stories is also available. Follow him on Twitter @dcbiddle.


 

Comments

I agree with your comments and while I have not yet published my book, I will be publishing it myself.

There is one point I did not see mentioned above that might be a reason why indie stores are leery of indie authors.

The indie books can be crap. I have read several self published books and they have been poorly edited with misspelled words and inconsistent story line.

And while I think the traditional publishing world is a broken one, they do force the books they do publish through a process that ensures a certain level of quality.

And my book will be self-published, but not until I have completely edited it and it is the highest quality it can be. I belong to a writers group and have asked writer friends to help critique it.

Thanks.

David,
Thanks for your insights and the thoughtfulness of your article.

My 2 cents: Yes, to all the generosity of spirit on both sides between self-published authors and bookstores (especially independents). Yes, to learning more and improving communications....

But we need a major structural change of some kind to make the economics work in our favor if we are to achieve something more than goodwill. One possibility is the Espresso Book Machine, capable of printing POD trade paperbacks anwhere, including bookstores.... Bookstores could be early adopters and natural locations for these machines--but most bookstores would need help to take the risk out of such and investment--and ongoing support in the form of a galvanized local author community to get people into the habit of ordering books through the new in-store technology. Local authors could open constructive dialogs with their independent bookstores (which are often starved for capital) to formulate plans to make acquiring such capabilites possible, and they could organize efforts to galvanize the local literati around making Indie books--and the ability to print them on demand in the bookstore--more visible, encouraging book purchases of Indie titles using the in-house Espresso machines. The benefits to the store: publicity, more traffic, wider selection of titles, goodwill, a way to compete more effectively with e-retailers, etc. Implementing an Espresso Book Machine with an Indie bookstore partners would not be a small challenge but may be doable in some circumstances and is the sort of structural change that could make a real difference. As a project it could be part of a larger discussion between local writers and community bookstores about mutual interests, and who knows what other projects might come from that.

Good post. Great comments, too.

Could it be that book stores and ebooks are somewhat antithetical?

In other words, people who go to books stores love books. The smell, the feel, the weight, the physical artifact in their hands.

I know I do.

I resisted buying an e-reader for well over a year. I felt there would be a disconnect between myself and the material.

But then I got a Kindle Fire and I friggin' love it. I do miss paper. But I also LOVE the ability to get books instantly and read them when I want. Plus, browsing on Amazon is SO much easier than browsing the spines on the shelf in a book store.

So perhaps book stores are a remnant of the older technology, and it's a generational thing which will bow with the passage of time.

We'll have to wait and see, ultimately. But I think Konrath is correct about the need to evolve.

He wrote a good blog post about James Patterson's ad in the NYT about the government saving our literature. So inspired was I that I decided to pour more fuel on the fire with my own post.

I'd like to mention this article, David, and will of course link to it.

In the meantime, everyone... keep writing. That's why we do this. Because it's fun and because it's what we do. If it's not fun, don't do it.

Links:
http://jakonrath.blogspot.co.il/2013/04/konrath-on-patterson.html

http://authorryanschneider.blogspot.co.il/2013/04/james-patterson-new-yo...

Great comments, all. Kevin, it seems your "personal" approach has been highly effective and is something indie folks should seriously consider. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us. Jerry, your point is well taken. Indie authors should have their manuscripts edited professionally (yes, spend the money!), then proofread at least three times before finally going to print. It's tedious work, but the author's name and reputation are at stake here, and not only his or hers, but every other indie author's out there. We can't just leave the judging to readers once the book is in print. When readers are sorely disappointed, all of Indiedom is besmirched. It's up to us to make sure our books are of top quality--the same top quality readers expect from traditional publishers. I applaud you for understanding this and doing whatever it takes to make your book the best it can possibly be before its launch. Much to success to you. And to you, too, Kevin and David.

Kevin,

Your story is awesome and instructive for all of us. I think you hit on something by taking the geographic perspective. I live in Philly. My novel is about central Missouri. I may steal your idea and track down stores in that area. Makes sense. I bow to you. Thanks.

Thanks for a great posting... lots of food for thought!

There's a saying in marketing that you have to always remember that everyone you pitch an idea or product to is wondering: what's in it for ME? It maybe that the trick to getting this to work is that you have to make this whole thing worthwhile to the bookstores.

You want to publicize your book. But they want to publicize their store.

You might only bring in 30 people if you do an event, it is true. (Actually, I would think you would be VERY HAPPY to get 30! That would be quite a crowd for many small book stores.) But a savvy marketing person knows that what you really want is the advertising that goes WITH the event. That is to say -- the signs about the upcoming event, the emails you'd be sending out, the website postings about it -- that's where the real value is. Not the people that actually come that night. Those who come may or may not even buy the book!

But this whole thing should be seen not as a way to sell copies of your book but as a way to publicize it and talk about it and put the title out there, etc. You are essentially making an event out of something static. Someone may remember weeks after the event that they saw an email about your book and that is what you are hoping will happen. They will remember, say, when they are looking for a birthday gift for their sister or a mother's day present.

It is the same for the store: what they want is the publicity. So you might try to go in saying: "Hey, if you let me do a reading/dance party/high tea/how-to night (fill in the blank based on your own book and its audience) it will benefit your store because I will send out announcements to my subscribers, post it to my blog that gets X hits a day, let everyone in my professional society know via twitter, etc. " By thinking of it that way the store might see that they will essentially tap into a new group of potential customers FOR FREE and you are essentially advertising their store for them FOR FREE. You want to emphasize what they will get out of it, not how cool your book is.

Of course, I say all this having not yet finished my book -- ! -- so take it with a grain of salt. But I used to be a communications person who often had to publicize events at a small non-profit with an associated book store. We would often have people give talks -- not for the money we made that night but for the fact we could put our name on the events calendar in the local paper for free. That was much more valuable to us.

Also, I worked in a mall bookstore many years ago and I can tell you that managers of bookstores don't always love books. Shocking, maybe, but true. They also may love books but not the genre you write. Or, they may just love owning a small business. Based on what I saw when I worked in a book store people had more success in winning over our manager if they kept that in mind. Telling her that a book was great was risky -- she liked only one genre and sold the rest of the stuff to make enough money to stay in business.

Good luck and keep us updated. I really got a lot out of this post.

In response to "Why Bookstores Aren't Helping INdie Authort --Yet"

As a new author, I can only speak for myself but this has been my experience...
My novel Angels of Hells Canyon "The Journal" was released through Creatspace on Feb. 24th, 2013. Having no idea how to get it out to the public, I prepared a news release and submitted it to several of the larger papers. NOTHING! I then hand carried a book with a news release and two local papers not only published my article but gave it almost a third of a page. Hmm... What if I did this to bookstores?

Since my book is set in Hells Canyon, Idaho and I reside in Oklahoma, this was going to be a challenge. Solution? Facebook! I got on Facebook and began to search out every bookstore in the Northwest as well as every small town newspaper I could find. So far, I have contacted 6 bookstores through their Facebook sites and bam! Six are now either stocking or are reviewing my book to stock through Ingram. Newspapers? Four out of four have now run articles.

This may not be a novel approach to market a novel, but it has deffinately worked for me. If you have a comment or question you can visit my web site: Angels of Hells Canyon.com or email me at kwhite8550@aol.com
Best of luck to all,
Kevin R. White
Author/Angels of Hells Canyon "The Journal"
Available at Amazon Books, Kindle, Barnes&Noble.com, Auntie's Books Spokane Wa., Book People, Moscow Idaho., "...and Books,too!, Clarkston Wa., River Rock Cafe, Riggins Idaho, Tourist Trap, Riggins Idaho and others to come soon!

Thank you for an extremely valuable post and for generating helpful feedback. My historical novel is six months old. I have been invited to one book club review session which was extremely helpful to me. But that is only one invitation. I am learning the ropes of social media so that is coming along. My next steps will be to experiment with what you have taught me here. Thank you so much.

Several points:

1) "Self-published" and "indie published" are not the same thing. Independent presses are small presses that publish STRANGERS' books because they fall in love with the books, and they work very hard to scrape together funds for advances, contracts, editors, layout, cover artists, advertising, and print runs. It is a huge business gamble. I don't understand why self-published authors try to confuse people into thinking they are published by an independent press. Readers dislike this ruse, and hard-working small presses REALLY hate it. If you are self-published, have the pride to be authentic.

2) If people just want to write a book, good or bad, and "get it out there," they really do not need bookstores at all. On the other hand, if you want to achieve the challenging goal of getting into bookstores, you have to be patient and go through the whole process of writing (and re-writing, and re-writing) a manuscript until it is professional enough to be accepted at a traditional publisher. It is not easy and certainly not for those who want instant gratification. But for many, the satisfaction of being in a bookstore, and having truly proved yourself in the "big leagues," is worth it. For what it's worth, I know several professional writers, one of whom is with a HUGE press and receives enviable publicity and support; a couple of whom are with small presses of varying quality; and many of whom are self-published, hustling hard to sell a couple of books a month (or giving their ebooks away for free). Most of the indie and self-published authors claim to have chosen their route from the start, but it often sounds like sour grapes to me. Truth be told, they are jealous of the guy at the Big Press who gets advances that are more than triple my annual salary. Me, when I finally have a finished novel I will write it as many times as it takes to get a traditional agent and a traditional publisher, because that's the only way I'll ever know in my heart that my writing really made the cut. But that's me.

3) As for bookstores...well, I love them but I have mixed feelings about them. For instance, there is a local independent store I try very hard to support, which is always going on about how much they hate Amazon and how important it is to support "independent stores." Okay, but the thing is, this store won't carry any books written by either my small/indie press or self-published writer friends! They only carry books from the big corporate publishers, or the big corporate publisher's "mini" imprints. So what, exactly, is this bookstore bringing to the table?? They are offering the SAME books I can get at, say, Barnes & Noble, albeit at higher prices, and that's it. They should make themselves relevant by seeking out HIGH QUALITY indie and self-published books to carry along with their usual stuff. Finding a good self-published book is certainly like finding a needle in a haystack, and if they would make that effort on behalf of their customers, they would certainly be providing a valuable service. But they won't do that, because their entire business model is built around being able to return books that don't sell. How many other businesses work this way? Their risk-averse business model is actually killing them, because it makes them too afraid to take the very chances that would make them relevant to customers.

Ace-

You make very good points. Let me address them.

1. The distinction between indie publishing and self-publishing is extremely important. The small independent press side of the equation is a huge piece of the puzzle that is all too often left out of the discussion. I'm guilty in this article of being a bit fast and loose at a couple points near the end with the idea of "indie publishing." There is, though, a broader use of the term "indie" in the writing world now when we talk about "indie writers" or "indie books." As you know, the term "self-published" has negative connotations. I think it's fair to say that when people talk about the indie movement in the book world, we're really talking about a broad set of configurations from small presses to collectives of writers to individual authors, whether they create their own imprint or just operate as a self-published author in the Amazon or Smashwords universes. There is indeed a vagueness in how things are being defined these days. We need to be more careful and aware and do a better job for sure throughout the publishing world of what we're talking about. A lot of self-published authors and bloggers don't seem to even be aware of anything but the "Big Five" and Amazon. Any writer who really believes they have a quality product on their hands should consider approaching independent and small presses before they self-publish.

2. I honestly have a hard time seeing how the business model of the Big Publishing world can sustain itself much longer (meaning 10 years out). It is economically inefficient, inequitable for writers, and counter-productive to creativity. That's not to say that Big Publishers are going to melt into a puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West, but it would seem to me most mid-list and serious authors (both fiction and non-fiction) will do much better either working with the small publishing houses and other publishing collectives that develop business models more in line with how technology has developed here in the 21st century. The most important question is how deep e-book and media tablet use goes over the next decade. The economics of e-books would seem to indicate a 90% market penetration by 2020. We'll see. Readers are a weird sub-set of media culture.

3. You are so right to point out the problem that bookstores seem to have -- some anyway. If you're in business to sell best-sellers, you shouldn't whine about Amazon (or Walmart). Bookstores here in 2013 are the clear and obvious venue for quality presses and independents of all kinds. But the question of e-books comes in here as well with this issue in the end. After watching what happened to video stores and record shops over the past decade, I honestly don't see sustainability for any bookstore selling "new" books if the model doesn't change. Again, economic efficiency is a key here. Moving books is a tough business. They come in the back, a percentage go out the front, and then a lot go back out the back door. The accounting itself must drive book store owners crazy. Whatever. As an indie author, I am more than willing to sell my books on consignment. The problem is I can do that in the Philadelphia area, but not worldwide. And that's the rub in all of this for indie authors.

Good luck with your independent press. Keep us apprised of your thoughts and how things are changing. You've made some really important points here.

I recently self published my

I recently self published my own book of erotic poetry. What I found interesting was when I posted on my Facebook page that I had a book coming out how many of my "Friends" commented on it, liked my post and asked me when it was coming out. Once I posted a link to purchase the book saying that is was now available... "Crickets!" It seems as though I over estimated how much social media would actually help me sell books. I have come to the realization that you have to put all of your heart and soul into getting your product to the masses. I will continue to research ways to self-promote and market, thank you for your insight.

Great article that matches my

Great article that matches my experience. My local bookstore welcomed me and stocked ten copies of my novel and contacted me whenever they needed more. I had been a faithful customer and still am. But most bookstores have been less welcoming. In an understandable way the fact that independantly published books are distributed through Amazon makes bookstores' owners cringe, even if I only used CreateSpace for printing and distribution purposes and if my novel is also available through the bookstore's distributor of their choice. It's a complex issue and I feel that the lack of support hurts bookstores as much as authors. Good luck with your writing and thank you for a detailled and interesting post.

EBooks are an additional

EBooks are an additional factor undermining the income of writers. Many fiction paperbacks sold during the second half of the Twentieth Century were purchased, but not read in entirety. The actual percent of purchased, but never finished novels before the advent of the eBook are statistics writers should be aware of.

It is possible to read a great deal of an eBook without purchasing it. Free reads in the beginning, skips to other portions, and then later returns to read the rest either satisfies the curiosity of many potential buyers, or allows them to read for free. Some might argue a book is not that good if a reader does not finish the book, but many other factors dictate whether a reader has time to finish a book. Regardless, readers who purchase but never finish must account for a third of the paperback buyers.

Any thoughts?

Hi Karl. Sorry it took so

Hi Karl. Sorry it took so long to respond to your comment. You bring up a number of very interesting points that I think about a lot, but rarely come to a conclusion about. I needed to think before responding.

I've often thought about doing an essay on the relationship between book sales and readership. As a writer trying to earn a living, you want sales, obviously. Putting on my cynic's hat for just a moment, if you look at the publishing industry of the past, say, sixty years they've gotten very good at enticing people into purchasing product. All the glitzy diet books, how-to books, the celebrity tell-alls, even romantic and erotic fiction use the graphic tools of advertising to get you interested in the book. But do people actually read a lot of the dreck they purchase? This is now seriously out of hand in some ways in the new digital book world, especially with many self-published authors. I am constantly amazed at how brilliant some people are at promoting their books and themselves (some of them are, of course, marketers and salespeople in their day jobs). Amazon's Kindle Store is all about marketing, promoting and sales. The whole game has gone bananas now for everyone (self-published and corporately published) because pricing for all but recently released best-sellers is on the level of canned vegetables. The equation is pretty much to get the product in front of people as much as possible and make the price so low that they don't even really feel like they're paying real money. You could right now go to Amazon and spend half an hour and buy yourself 10 - 15 mysteries or sci-fi thrillers for the price of one paper book at Barnes and Noble.

That's the sales side of the question for authors. But the other one is whether people are actually reading and finishing of a piece of work. I honestly don't think you can be a cynic if you're really committed to quality stories (whether fiction or non-fiction). Of course you want people to buy your book, but better to have 10 people out of 20 read and finish your work than 5000 buy it and never read it (that's my opinion).

To address your very interesting point about being able to sample work now in the digital universe, I don't know if there's any difference between Amazon's samples and your ability to go to a bookstore and browse, except, of course that you can download samples to your e-reading app. I remember when I first started downloading samples from Amazon I must have jammed 20 or 30 into my Kindle for future reading. Never have I been more frustrated and ambivalent than the following week as I read through those samples. Remember, most of them only allow reading of 10-15% of a book, often less. But you have the quiet and the time to read through those samples carefully. I recall pretty much wanting to buy every one of those books because of that. Had I been simply browsing them at a bookstore, I would definitely have read a paragraph or two for those I pulled off the shelf, but once I had about three in my hand, I would know to stop browsing and go to the check out line. Spending more than $50 on books in the old days seemed a bit over the top for a slow reader like me.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if I fully agree that sampling means that people are less likely to buy a good book. When I read the first 15 or so pages of Claire Messud's latest, "The Woman Upstairs," I knew I wanted to read the rest of that book. Had I been at Barnes & Noble, I don't think I would have gotten through the first page...and I'm not sure I would have been willing to drop the $20.00 for that book when it first came out at all. As it happens, I bought the book in bound form happily through Amazon.

You're right though that some folks may just be happy to sort be dilettantes and just read samples. Worse, perhaps, is that there are now hundreds of thousands of free books available online -- from most of the classics to all the free offerings by indie authors and even the teasers from corporate publishing houses. You could easily make the case that you will only read free books from here on out. But I knew many people growing up in the '60s who were like that too. They refused to buy books and just went to the library.

For years there, too, during and after college, I pretty much only bought used books. I still do that sometimes. I love to pick through the "free" bin at our neighborhood used bookstore even now. None of that puts a dime in the original author's pocket.

Let me conclude by addressing the main thing you bring up...and that is author income. We have just come through a century where the publishing industry has developed better and better methods of making a profit off of authors while ceding zero control of the money flow to said authors. When I began shopping my first novel to publishing houses in the 1990s it was amazing to me that authors made 15% of net sales of books. It's still amazing to me. You can read all sorts of excuses and justifications having to do with publishers' investment criteria, risk, printing and transportation costs, marketing expenses, personnel, etc., but in the end, after I put close to 10 years of my creative blood and sweat into that first novel, the publishing world told me they were going to give me $2.00 per book and they were going to keep the other $28.00? It became quite clear to me that making money as a novelist was not a good reason to write a book...at least back in the 1990s.

Now, however, with digital book formats and the ability to publish on your own through a couple dozen different outlets that all share revenues on about a 70:30 split with the author, maybe there's a lot more work to do as an author, but at least the system is set up to reward you the right way. And I believe wholeheartedly that you should be able to read a sample of my work (I give about 10% on novels) because I want you hooked and I want you to buy that book as soon as you can't read anymore.

I have far too much more to say along these lines. Forgive me for such a lengthy response. The issues you raise, though, are extremely important. I hope at least you have more food for thought. I hope too that you've had a chance to read some of the other Talking Indie columns we've published. They address some of the issues I bring up here from other interesting angles.

More to your point, perhaps,

Add new comment

More Like This

Jul 4, 2011 | Book Reviews
Jan 30, 2012 | Advice, Agents
Apr 1, 2013 | Bookstores, Nothing but the Toth