There was the consolidation of book distributors, the consolidation of publishers, and the consolidation of retail outlets. There was the decline in readership, the decline of the midlist, and the decline of time new writers were given to build an audience.
Editors no longer discovered new writers. They instead sorted through a curated selection provided by agents they knew. Bookstores no longer made buying decisions for their local clientele nor displayed their favorites on front tables. They instead stocked the books chosen by centralized purchasing departments and displayed books publishers paid them to display.
As a result of the shifting business landscape, writers were faced with an increasingly adversarial process. The writer expected to invest hours upon hours to research the particular likes, dislikes, peeves, and ethics of agents and editors who required exclusive consideration for months or years before delivering rejection or acceptance. And if it happened to be an acceptance, the writer expected the publisher might—eventually—pay her something close to what the contract said she was owed, sometime close to when the contract said she should be paid. And if the writer’s sales didn’t take off and increase, the writer could look forward to being dropped (a fear expressed, alas, by some Hachette writers who assume the publisher will penalize writers for its own contract disputes).
I know there are many people who currently decry the decline and loss of Borders and Barnes & Noble. I’m sorry, but I cannot share the sadness.
As outlined in this article from Slate, those big box stores—the ones publishers actively supported at the expense of independent booksellers—were the primary forces that drove the business of writing into the realm of suckitude. Their buying decisions cut numerous careers short. Their inventory policies homogenized selection to emphasize books that would sell quickly and in quantity. Their publisher-backed display policies attempted to drive readers to what publishers wanted to sell rather than what readers wanted to read.
Thinking the fall of Big Box retailers signals the demise of literature and a decrease in a writer’s opportunity is like seeing the bankruptcy of Applebee’s as an event of culinary significance.
The Big Box book retailers, in conjunction with publishers, killed off independent booksellers some years ago, and adapted their business models to create a unified chain-restaurant experience. Independent bookstores and online retailers actually stand a much better chance of creating a synergistic experience for readers and writers because they each provide a unique experience. They might sell the same general products, but the specifics are what make the difference. Independent bookstores are on the rise, and have been for a few years now. They serve their unique readership. They like backlists. They like unique books. They like writers. They are stepping into the role Big Box stores attempted, and failed, to fulfill, and they’re doing it with enthusiasm backed by business plans that play to their strengths. They’ve adapted, they’ve opened their opportunities, and they’re happy about it.
At this point, I’m fairly certain someone is awaiting the opportunity to insert the dangers of Amazon into the discussion. Go ahead.
But keep in mind that Amazon and other online retailers don’t remove slow-selling titles from their shelves. They don’t pulp the backlist. They don’t limit their displayed selection to a few publisher-funded choices. They don’t destroy the organic process of writers growing a readership through word-of-mouth discovery and list-building.
So, as a writer and reader, I am thrilled to hear more independent bookstores are opening and thriving. Those stores give me human connections, expertise, enthusiasm and community. I am thrilled with large online bookstores. Those sites give me unimaginable selection as a reader and open opportunities as a writer. Coolest of all? No one has to pick sides in this one. Indie stores and online stores complement each other. They don’t have to compete with each other to succeed.
For writers, the business of writing doesn’t suck so much at the moment. In fact, I think its future looks far more interesting than its past twenty years.
Note: If you’d like to discuss the Hachette case in this context, please read these links first so we don’t waste each other’s time exchanging opinions and facts already hashed and rehashed. If after reading, there is something new to add, awesome! Let’s talk!
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