...one of rdeck
's friends, Sherry Gottlieb, who once ran the original "A Change of Hobbit" bookstore, offered some fascinating - if discouraging - insight into the indie-vs-big chain discussion.
A couple of years ago, in response to a similar discussion (it never goes away, does it?) Sherry wrote, in part:For 19 years, in the '70s and '80s, I was an independent bookseller, owner of A Change of Hobbit [which] grew to become the oldest and largest science-fiction and fantasy bookstore in the world. (When it closed in 1991, CoH [had] 75,000 books and magazines, selling not only to
the greater Los Angeles area, but also to mail order clients around the country and around the world.)
I saw firsthand what the big bookstore chains did to the independents, and Borders is one of the worst. Borders policy has always been, and is still: To find an area where a large independent
is doing well, move in, undercut prices, bring in expensive promotions subsidized by publishers, and drive the independent out of business.
Borders and other big chains ... get preferential discounts from the publishers, a radically better rate than that offered to independents... subsidized advertising, and first crack at major authors on tour.
The only ways that independents can hope to survive amid this onslaught are by:
* Specializing. When the chains began to use their preferential
discounts to undercut independents in the late '70s, early '80s,
almost every general independent in the Los Angeles area was forced
out of business. The ones who hung on were the specialists/genre
bookstores (SF, mystery, travel, children's books, etc.)
* Outstanding knowledge of books. Try to go into Borders and ask
the nearest clerk for a book you read once, but can't remember the
name of, and describe the plot -- chances are, they'll shrug and say
they need the title. Do that at an independent, and the clerk will
make guesses, call over everyone in the store and ask them, and do
their best to identify and find the book for you.
* Special orders and searches....Independents ... will do
searches for out-of-print books -- we even did it for OP paperbacks,
keeping a customer's request in the file until we found the book (our
record was 13 years).
* Selection. You have no idea what [chains] DON'T carry... the
chains have virtually killed any chance of a new author to get
"discovered" or even published. If the chains don't order heavily on
a book, publishers now kill the publication. Used to be that the
independents would "hand-sell" books they liked and develop a
groundswell of word-of-mouth that could make a new career.
..Pretty soon, you will be able to buy only what the big chains think you want.
With the ever-shrinking short story market, and the vanishing of even the possibility of the mid-list, new authors are finding it increasingly difficult to break in - and those with even remotely original, unusual or "it is not immediately apparent to the accounting department how we would market this book" ideas are plumb out of luck.
Is it really our inevitable fate to settle into a future of books cloned from known bestsellers, written quite possibly by people hand-picked for their marketability rather than their writing skills or passion or vocation...? Even "Harry Potter" the phenomenon was rejected a number of times, which means that someone somewhere failed to see its phenomenological potential - but it was published anyway, given a CHANCE, and look what happened next. What if the next Harry Potter never gets that chance, because it's just that little bit different, that little bit unusual, considered just that little bit too risky an "investment" for the publishers?...
I would like to hope not. Every year I see a number of amazing books published, some of them by people I am proud to call friends. I am acquainted with a number of stellar editors whom I do not believe capable of being driven by bottom line alone, who would fight for something that they felt deserved fighting for. And yet... and yet.... ALL of this - wonderful writers, great editors - ALL of it bottlenecks in the marketing and publicity and sales department. Even those GIVEN a chance at a debut are given that chance at swordspoint - your first book don't sell, you're out, sweetheart. Forget about building a reputation or an audience. It's publish or perish in a whole new guise.
Writers - readers - booksellers - what think you?