And I can’t get it together

There’s a blog post I started a few weeks ago but never finished that became more relevant in the last few days, because when reading Shelf Awareness Tuesday morning, I learned that Chelsea Green is selling its new book about Obama, Obama’s Challenge, via Amazon 2 weeks before the book will be available to box stores and indies. The article notes, “The ironies and oddities of this situation are striking. One wonders why a publisher that prides itself on progressive politics and sustainable living–which usually includes buying local–made an exclusive agreement with a company seen by some as the biggest threat to local bookselling.” In fact, according to the ABA’s Book Buyer’s Handbook, Chelsea Green describes itself as a “publisher of works dedicated to the politics and practice of sustainability.” And this is where my languishing blog post jumps in. Take it away, languishing blog post:

I read a lot of what would probably be called “progressive” blogs. Feminist blogs, liberal blogs, environmental blogs, and so on. And one of the things that has always bothered me is that these blogs seem to lean very heavily on Amazon and the chain stores. Many are Amazon affiliates and when linking to new books, link to the Amazon page. But I wasn’t driven to say anything about it until I read this post on Feministing.

They quote the Bitch magazine blog in saying: “And [independent feminist publisher South End Press is] in trouble, because Borders is in trouble, and the unfortunate thing about the publishing business is that the actual producers of actual content are generally at the mercy of retailers and distributors when it comes to our financial survival.” The posts suggest subscribing to the press directly, so that you receive the books at your home from the press, a “community-supported publishing program” that I think is an excellent, if partial, solution.

But I have another one. What if these independent presses and independent bloggers, all devoted everyday to changing so many aspects of the system we live in, thought about changing their reliance on chain and internet bookstores? I read many blogs devoted to pointing out and changing unconscious racism, sexism, ableism, cisgenderism, etc–how about adding pointing out and changing unconscious capitalism? Corporate monoliths by their nature will always do what is best for their stockholders. However, as an independent bookseller, my primary goal must always be to keep the doors of the store open, but I can assure you that supporting independent feminist presses is also on my list of things to do.

However, I understand why these progressive bloggers, for all their love of local communities and independent presses, don’t do it. Independent booksellers have, for the most part, done a bad job keeping up on the internet. I love the ABA, and I am excited about IndieBound (obviously) but we need to start sprinting to get our E-commerce up to par. No, above par. There are many people who don’t link to ABA E-commerce sites because they don’t know we exist, don’t know they can also have an affiliate program with E-commerce, etc–and that’s another kettle of fish altogether, this failure of our community to reach out to and make knowledgeable the opinion-makers of the internet (especially as these people are increasingly writing books, as well). But there are also people who might link but don’t because the site is not as user-friendly, fast, or well-stocked as Amazon. Period. There have been times that I haven’t been able to link to my own E-commerce site on this blog or in my weekly e-newsletter because the book I’m looking for isn’t there. And while I have the option of calling to bug somebody to fix it, 99 out of 100 bloggers are gonna walk away after that happens once or twice.

Technologically-oriented folk are used to having a powerhouse of a book website at their disposal, and we need to make a better one if we want to keep playing. Period. I am dying to write an email to my 50 favorite bloggers and say, “Hi! I read your blog everyday, and I’m asking you to consider also affiliating yourself with independent bookstores across the country. Not only would doing so benefit me and my fellow indie booksellers, but it will also benefit communities across the country. As you may be aware, independent businesses are important for communities in the following ways: x, y, and z. And furthermore, indie bookstores in particular are good for this, that, and the other thing. So won’t you please consider?”

I think I’ll be able to send that email soon. I know the folks at ABA and IndieBound are working their asses off to get us back on the internet playing field. I just hope that 1. they’re designing an interface that, like Amazon’s, is equally useful to the tech n00b and the professional blogger and that 2. it comes soon, so I can send that email.

If the IndieBound campaign has shown me one thing, it’s that when you remind people of why indie stores are awesome to visit and great for the community, the majority of the time, they are incredibly receptive. Sure, there has been a little backlash, and some people simply don’t care. But most people are excited to have a tangible way to incorporate this whole “local-independent-sustainable-green-&etc” thing they’ve been hearing about. I have lost count of how many times in the last year people have said something to me about the fact that they specifically want to support my store because it is local and independent–a sentiment I didn’t hear much when I first started here 5 years ago. So I’m confident that we finally reach out to the intarwebs community, they’ll be receptive in similar percentages. I’m just getting an itchy trigger finger about doing so.

Thanks, languishing blog post! As for Chelsea Green; well, I don’t have much nice to say, so maybe I shouldn’t say it at all. I found Bookdwarf’s post on the subject to be particularly awesome, especially “And will they please stop talking down to us like we’re luddite idiots? This means you Jennifer Nix and you Margo Baldwin.”

Except this one thing I’d like to get off my chest: “I hate to tell you, indie booksellers, but this isn’t just about business.” Yeah, maybe not for you! Must be nice! It is for me. At the end of the day and the end of the election, I’m still going to be a bookseller, and I’m still going to want to be in business. I’ll personally be a lot happier to be in business under an Obama administration, but I’m still going to be a bookseller if McCain wins. (And here I resist the temptation to make a joke about how long ANY of us will be alive under that circumstance. Well, I sort of resist the temptation.)

However, with this decision, a small indie publisher is effectively saying to the world at large: “Hey everybody! We believe in sustainability, but we think that Amazon is the best way to release IMPORTANT books–not those pesky indie stores with all their individual buyers and branches! Indie stores are good for some things, but it’s definitely NOT getting the word out to liberal-minded book buyers in a timely fashion!”

That makes my store, and all indie stores, seem impotent in terms of cultural relevance. And as I noted above, I’m willing to admit that maybe we’re not the most relevant institution at the moment. But damn, this sure would have been a great opportunity for a publisher interested not just in the politics but also the PRACTICE of sustainability to give the sustainability of local communities a nice little push, by providing indie stores with a book that we know we can sell. We know who to sell it to. We know their names and they trust our judgment when it comes to books, and that will push your message further than any 25% discount.

I’d also like to point out that contrary to popular belief, there actually DO exist customers who refuse to shop at Amazon, no matter how fancy the buzz. I know they exist because I see them a lot. Said customers have a massive amount of overlap with customers who are interested in books from a “publisher of works dedicated to the politics and practice of sustainability.” Especially a book about Obama! Let me set the scene: my store is literally a block up the street from Obama headquarters in my area, Obama had a drink in my favorite bar during the PA primary, and the store is frequented by Obama supporters. It’s a shame that it will be weeks until I can sell them a book they’d be interested in, especially because I hear tell that this book “is too timely and important to be left out of the national political conversation this fall.


3 comments so far

  1. Jacqui on

    When you are ready to send that email, will you include me too? I (and my readership of six or seven) would love to know…

  2. jmcc on

    I really hope ABA/Indiebound are able to ride the wave of innovative marketing they started and produce a solid interface. If they do, I think we’ll quickly see a wildfire of grassroots implimentation.

  3. Laurie Halse Anderson on

    ::gives standing ovation::

    ::returns to writing draft::

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