A spectre is haunting bookstores – the spectre of e-publishing and sales.
Historically bookstores and authors have been partners, they have relied upon each other to try and make a go in two fields that have always been a tough business.
But the times have changed. These days, a lot of what is hurting bookstores is helping authors.
How can a store, working on very thin margins, with increasingly high overhead, hope to compete with Amazon and its deep discounts? Or with e-book sales – the only actual growth part of the book market?
And authors cannot afford to ignore Amazon and e-books. Increasingly, to make any kind of living from their writing, they need to focus their attentions on them.
I have read angry tweets and blogposts from booksellers railing against authors who link to Amazon from their websites to sell their books and who are lavishing their promotional attentions on e-book sales. And as a lover of bookstores I can sympathize with that.
But as an author, what am I supposed to do? Just like a bookstore, I’m trying to stay in business.
I make $2.06 from the $2.99 sale of an e-edition of one of my books through Amazon. I make $1.19 when a bookstore sells a trade paperback of the same book at its list price of $14.95. (Sales of my backlist in trade paperback editions had been at a slow trickle over the past couple of years. Now that the e-books are available, my total royalties are on a pace to increase by more than 350 percent this year.)
Have the changes in technology and the market turned authors and traditional booksellers from friend to foe?
It greatly saddens me that so many bookstores have closed, and that so many more are going to close. There is just no way that the new marketplace for books can possibly support nearly as many bookstores as have existed in the past. Only the strongest, most innovative, most creative bookstores are going to survive.
And as someone who loves bookstores, whose first job was in a bookstore, who credits bookstores for some of the minor success I’ve achieved so far as an author, I want to do what I can to help at least some bookstores survive, even thrive.
What can I and other authors do to help bookstores without hurting our own sales? I cannot stop promoting the sales of my e-books or even my paper & ink books that people buy from Amazon or other online sellers. How else am I supposed to earn the money that, among other things, allows me to buy books from bookstores?
The important question for us authors is: what do brick and mortar bookstores offer readers/book buyers that they can’t get cheaper and more conveniently online?
And, just like anyone in business, the next question for us authors is: what’s in it for me? How can working with bookstores help our bottom line?
The one and only thing that traditional bookstores can offer us authors that online booksellers can’t, is personal, face-to-face interaction: between us and the bookseller, between us and the book buying public when we show up for events at bookstores, and between the bookseller - who is representing us authors when they sell our books - and their customers.
How valuable are those things in the modern book marketplace is a vital question for both bookstores and for authors, like me, who still want to work with and support bookstores.
The very sad truth seems to be that the fewer bookstores there are - the less impact bookstore sales have on an author’s bottom line and the less cost-effective it becomes for authors to work with bookstores to promote their books. (If you know what you’re doing, you can reach a whole lot more people in an hour spent online than you will ever reach from any book event – which involve investments of many more hours of time and money.)
I love bookstores and want them to survive and prosper. But there seem to be limits on what I can do to help them.
I can continue to shop at them myself, which I will certainly do.
I can continue to do my best to write books that they can sell. I’d love to write a bestseller for them to sell. That’s what I, and every other author, have always done and it hasn’t changed.
I can put links to independent stores on my website and find other ways to encourage book buyers to shop at those stores. But I can’t afford to not link to Amazon and to my e-books where my readers can, if they choose, buy my books cheaper and more conveniently.
I can continue to do events and drop-in signings at bookstores (if they’ll have me after this blog) in the hope of helping them attract more customers – both to the event and afterwards when they know me and my book better and so they can do a better job of hand-selling. But my publishers have never contributed to my book tours – few publishers do for any of their authors – and events end up costing me time and money, just as they do the stores.
I am sorry to say that as much as I want to help, bookstores can really only help themselves if they want to survive. How they can do that is a subject for a whole lot more discussion and experimentation (if they can afford it with their already slim margins.)
In the meantime, if any booksellers can think of realistic (not charity, not compromising our own sales) ways that we bookstore-loving authors can help, I’d sure love to hear them.