The last sacred cow of the book world is planting the seeds of its own irrelevance. The untouchable, most holy of institutions, hailed as the prime literary taste-maker and engine of new discoveries, no longer holds its touted powers, yet none dare voice out loud that the ‘Emperor’ is no longer wearing their clothes.
Once upon a time, in the blissful days of the pre-Internet literary world, local independent bookstores played a crucial role in discovering and publicizing new books. Great books on small presses could win the attention of literary agents and major publishers, and the then-Big-Six’s ‘hidden gems’ could find the accolades they deserved.
For the last fifteen years, the Web has been usurping the indie bookstores’ ‘power of influence’. Countless literary review sites and blogs, and book retailers’ online reviews, have, for the most part, taken over the role of “taste-maker and engine of discovery”. Yet, everyone in the literary world still treats the local indie stores as the most sacred of cows.
Yes, one of their biggest issues can be summed up nicely in a meme. Yet, the problems here go much deeper than that. Indies are backing away en-masse from “local author” programs and even stocking any books released by small presses. With the Big Five’s ever-increasing risk aversion, and honing of commercial formulas, how much “literary discovery” can the local indie stores really do, when they restrict themselves to carrying only major-publisher books?
Soon, the indie bookstores will be forced to recommend books by “
James Patterson” his hired writers, because they’ll be the only titles left on their shelves.
A slight exaggeration, but you get the point.
Due to the aforementioned risk aversion, increasing numbers of excellent books will never be published by the Big Five. And those books have to go somewhere.
Over the last five years, many have headed for self-publishing. The preponderance of best-selling self-published books has long since proven that the Big Five’s commercial formulae are missing many #1 New York Times (e-book) best-sellers, and even “The Martian”, a novel that served as the genesis of a hit movie. No indie bookstore could have discovered or championed “The Martian”, because it was never on their shelves in the first place.
And the indies’ lack of shelf diversity is creating an even bigger problem for themselves.
Given the relative ease of self-publishing, it is safe to say that any author who signed to an independent publisher after, say, the year 2010, was an author who was committed to having print versions of their books available for sale at bookstores.
With the local stores turning a blind eye to small press books, in the process they also shelf-block the authors who committed themselves to the more difficult path of traditional publishing, just to have print versions of their books, that the typical indie bookstore will now no longer stock. In other words, the indies won’t stock the books by the authors who gave up full creative control and self-publishing’s higher royalty rates, just to get print editions for stores that will no longer carry them.
Not a great way to make friends of those authors. Or, for that matter, their independent publishers.
In the face of this trend, some great small presses have had to shut down (R.I.P. Booktrope). Others, like my own publisher PDMI Publishing, LLC, have moved on to targeting large book retailers. For the last several years, PDMI has been holding its author signings at major chains such as Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, which have proven to be more receptive to the small press, its authors and its books than the typical local indie bookstore.
Other small presses still vainly holding out hope for the indie shelves will probably go the way of Booktrope, sad to say. And once all of their authors realize the “local indie Emperor” is no longer wearing their shiny book-championing armor, they’ll be free to move on.
Once again, their books will have to go somewhere.
“Yes, self-publishing,” you say, “but what about print? Print isn’t dead.”
Which is precisely why Amazon is venturing into brick-and-mortar book retailing. If the indie bookstores thought CreateSpace was bad, “they ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Once Amazon’s brick-and-mortar infrastructure is in place, any “Kindle” that catches fire can be on Amazon’s bookshelves in a couple of weeks. Are the Big Five and their self-appointed ‘indie’ taste-makers ready for a world where books that bypass them entirely can become #1 New York Times PRINT best-sellers?
Another hypothetical question: What would happen if more independent publishers followed the path of PDMI and focused on large retailers? Unlike the Big Five, smaller publishers could sign exclusive deals with large retailers, in return for print book shelf space. A “Barnes & Noble Exclusive” title could easily reach #1 NYT best-seller status, if carried in enough stores.
And, given the local stores’ current exclusionary climate, would any of the publisher’s authors really object if their publisher went “Barnes & Noble Exclusive”, especially if it meant their book got shelf space at B&N’s across the U.S.?
And, of course, there are other retailers large enough to be able to sell enough print copies of a title by themselves to push said title to #1 NYT best-seller status.
One thing is sure to continue. Once Amazon entries are regularly populating several places of the Top Ten New York Times print best-seller list, the indie stores will whine and complain about it. Yet much of the ‘blame’ will rest with themselves, for turning a blind eye to the smaller publishers and their authors, all parties involved who had dedicated themselves to the difficult task of producing print books, only to be rebuffed at virtually every turn. Killing off some of the geese that laid the golden eggs, but those eggs have to go somewhere.
Straight to Amazon’s waiting nest. 😈
UPDATE 9/08/16: A quote from this excellent Observer article The Truth About The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists :
“(For the N.Y.T. list) a hardcover copy of your book purchased on
Here may be a more valid reason why people are still treating indie stores like sacred cows.
Yet, if you could sell a million books at Wal-Mart alone, you may not make the N.Y.T. list, and you definitely wouldn’t make the W.S.J. list, as Wall Street Journal doesn’t even tally Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club sales, which is a ‘hole’ big enough to drive literal semi-trailers full of books through…. is counted differently than the same hardcover book purchased at indie bookstore X.”