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An Ode to Brick-and-Mortar

I’ve been blogging lately about traditional publishing versus the indie and self-publishing alternatives. Again, I have to take a step back here to give the disclaimer that I’m currently very happy with my publisher (Putnam/Penguin), so this is more a question of curiosity than anything else. For now, my stance is: I’m clinging to traditional publishing until it dumps me (fingers crossed that won’t happen).

But in the spirit of widening my lens and discussing publishing at large, I’m attempting to gather information about all aspects and corners of the market. The idea is to talk about some of the rapid change the industry has experienced in the past decade or so.  As the market trends more and more towards publishing monopolies and the online corporate giant that is Amazon, it’s been interesting to see how some smaller presses and even self-published authors are navigating through these new opportunities and limitations.  And perhaps indie and self-published authors are proving to democratize the cloistered world of publishing.    

However, two limitations I keep running into is that (1), while indie and self-published authors are able to sometimes achieve commercial success, they often encounter roadblocks in achieving critical acknowledgment, most especially in those cases wherein the author hopes to be considered a “literary” author, and (2) traditional publishers still have the greatest means of getting authors’ books into actual bookstores.  That first point opens up a whole other can of worms, so for now, in this post, I’m going to focus on the second point.

From what I read about self-published author Hugh Howey’s decision to eventually sign with Simon & Schuster, one of the biggest motivating factors was to get his book, WOOL, into actual brick-and-mortar stores, and to connect with readers more directly.  He seems to have been able to miraculously negotiate the best of both worlds for an author: He signed with Simon & Schuster to produce a physical book, yet retained sole ownership of his e-book rights.  That’s pretty unheard of. 

Now, Howey is a commercially successful self-published author, and he could’ve very well signed this deal because he saw it as an opportunity to make even more money, but I like to think maybe there was something else at stake.  Dare I say… gasp… a vestigial belief in the value of the physical book?

This brings me to my ode. 

While Amazon has proven itself indispensible to the publishing business, it is crucial to note that they haven’t proven brick-and-mortar stores are dispensable by contrast. 

And here I come to yet another conclusion from a place of bias.  I still prefer to buy my books in physical form, and I still prefer to buy them from an actual bookstore. 

Put aside the fact that after some decline, brick-and-mortar stores are now seeing a much-welcomed economic uptick.  I want to talk about the X factor.  I am confident that, if you were to conduct a survey, you would find that the overwhelming majority of writers grew up in a household where regular trips to the library and the bookstore were part of the family routine.  This is how – intentionally or not – you make your kid into a writer. (Ye have been warned, parents). 

Brick-and-mortar bookstores don’t just participate in culture; they are culture.  Brick-and-mortar stores practice a kind of alchemical magic: They make a book an event, and they make an author an actual human.  They are the place where grass-root campaigns begin and “sleeper hits” happen.  Their attendants help you find your way to your new favorite book, perhaps a book you never even knew you always wanted to read.  And they never judge you for your taste.  Maybe you only read literary highbrow stuff; maybe you’re pretty sure you’re only going to hate-read it, but you want to know why all your friends were talking about 50 Shades of Grey the other day.  They ain’t gonna judge.  Sometimes they even host your book club and serve you wine and yummy cheese. They understand the importance of having a cat or a dog in the store.  They appreciate your high standards for quality coffee, and respect it as others would a religion. 

There is no online substitute for these people, for this place.  No matter what the apocalyptic harbingers say, I just can’t envision bookstores going completely out of business.  They certainly aren’t out of style.

I was lucky in that my debut novel was bought by Amy Einhorn, editor and publisher extraordinaire, and Amy had a unique respect for brick-and-mortar stores.  She knew her booksellers.  In the months before my book came out, she took a few of her authors (including me!) on a small pre-pub tour to visit groups of booksellers, flying from one coast to the other.  She shook hands with these people and very earnestly thanked them, admitting that without them, none of us would have a job – not her, the editor, nor us, the authors.  This acknowledgment was both heartfelt and important.  And is something way too many people gloss over. 

I honestly don’t know if my book would have done half as well if not for the physical presence of my book, or if not for word-of-mouth, and the power of the “hand-sell.”  What’s more, I realized something while trying to calm down nerves during my solo book tour: I grew up with librarians and booksellers.  If anybody can be called “my tribe,” this people can. 

Okay, so you got me: This isn’t a discussion of various publishing routes for budding authors so much as it is an ode to brick-and-mortar stores.  So, yeah, that’s going to be the title of this one.  Let’s face it: I’m not writing anything incredibly new here.  My rant is simplistic.  This is a love letter – a rather obvious one – that others have written before me, and others will after me.  Which is exactly why I feel I’m onto something here.