The Problems with Indie Bookstores
When people discuss “reading” as some unassailable good, I balk. Reading per se isn’t noble, or educative, or empathic, or moral, any other quality it is sometimes ascribed to be. “Reading” includes Facebook comments, bad business books, Mein Kampf, Ikea instructions. Passing one’s eyes over letters is not inherently…anything.
Nor are independent bookstores de facto “good,” deserving of our support at all costs, unassailable. And it’s important to be able to say this, and discuss independent bookstores as if they were as complicated as anything else, instead of leaving them outside the realm of critique. And yet there is a culture, at least in the worlds I travel, in which it is very bad form to ever criticize an independent bookstore. That’s not good! Making of something a sacred cow is not the best thing we can do for it! And so, some critical notes about independent bookstores that make me nervous to write, because criticizing independent bookstores is, weirdly and dumbly, a scary thing to do in these United States of 21st century America!
They are hypocritical.
I will begin by saying just about every entity—business, non-profit, corporation, person—is probably hypocritical. Including me! and my business! But indie bookstores have cornered the “we are a hedge against Amazon and thus you should support us” market. Being anti-Amazon is so large a part of the indie bookstore ethos, one might assume they don’t support other publishing conglomerates as well. But, in fact, they are utterly reliant on corporations. Most do most of their buying—and so give more of their money— to Ingram Industries, which has as much of a negative hold— if not more of one one— on books and publishing and reading in this country as Amazon. Ingram, a multi-billion dollar privately held company that donates heavily to GOP candidates, has close to a monopoly on indie bookstore book orders, one that has only increased as they bought out almost all the other distributors in the US, and with printing changes over the past few years, is veering towards having one on printing as well. Ingram distributes mine and dozens of other independent presses, and places huge obstacles to the many, many, many self-publishers out there, as well as small presses that lack a distributor (and yet still may be reliant on Ingram, as they print and distribute through IngramSpark). What would happen if the public were better educated about the problems with Ingram, as they have been Amazon? Would indie bookstores, which are so good at PR, lead such a change? I, for one, would be marching right behind.
They don’t reflect American reading preferences
It’s taken me a long time to figure out how misleading is the NYT bestseller list, which is powered, in part, by sales figures from some independent bookstores. Manga sales dwarf those of many on that list (LOOK at those 2021 numbers!) and yet it is very hard to find manga in indies. Or, for that matter, comics per se, which have been huge for decades now. There are a huge range of entirely different independent bookstores that cater to those readers. These are “indie bookstores’ but aren’t considered such by the industry—they are “comic book shops” instead. I rarely took my son to my local indies when he was growing up because he read comics, graphic novels, and manga, and they didn’t stock those. We also went to Borders and B&N, b/c they had a pretty good selection. But it was Carol and John’s in Cleveland — pictured below—that we went to most, and that he, an adult, is now loyal to. He even had a subscription and went in weekly to pick up the newest installments. He also spent hours upon hours sitting on the floor of the comics stacks in libraries, and became an expert on which branches had good collections (many do not) and would bike around to the best ones for him.
Ditto, save the separate independently-run stores that cater to its readership, for romance.
They depress prices
During Belt’s sales meetings with representatives from PGW, which is owned by Ingram, and which distributes our titles to indies, I am constantly being told to lower our projected prices, because if I don’t “indies won’t order them.” Indies claim their customers won’t pay $29 for a hardback, or $18 for a paperback. But printing costs have gone up about 30% in the past year alone, and Ingram takes a huge cut from every book we sell. If we can’t raise our prices, we will end up losing money on every book sold. So instead of heeding this advice that will adversely effect my business, to the point of threatening our viability, I have decided to publish books at a price that, apparently, means they won’t be on the shelves of indies because their buyers deem them too expensive.
But Indies could change this downward pressure on pricing—after all, it’s Amazon’s discounting they often rail against! They could decide to educate their customers about historic trends and rising paper costs and other matters and help independent presses survive these changing conditions and raise our prices. As I’ve written about before, book prices are artificially low already: book prices have not kept up with inflation at all. If I were selling books pegged to their prices in 1980, and with inflation figured in, I would be charging $40 for a hardback.
My sense is that the typical indie bookstore customer makes enough money to afford $29 for a book. And by raising prices, no one is making reading unaffordable, because unlike most other cultural products, books are given away free to anyone who asks at libraries. Higher prices will help save indie presses, and encourage more people to start them. Especially if combined with indie bookstores being more proactive about ordering books, and taking more chances on ones that don’t have distributors, or aren’t found in their Ingram dashboards.
They are in bed with corporate publishing.
This one is probably the item indies are least able to help change on their own. Most of the books in indies are published by the Big 5/4 conglomerates—but also, that’s what most customers at indies expect to find, because they also receive the most media and have the biggest marketing budgets. But do know that those display tables in front of indie bookstores are often paid for by corporate publishers.
My goal here is not to dump on indies! IOr suggest anyone buy any book anywhere else (unless it’s manga or some other genre you can’t find there, of course)! It’s not even to puncture a sacred cow, because those always irk me. Mainly I’m trying to be strategic: lots of people who read this newsletter are in this industry, and by pointing out some problems I am hoping to bring more attention to issues I think we could change. If we can never criticize indies, if we only fear being jumped upon and shamed if we do, then we won’t be able to try to ameliorate conditions that could, with not impossible amounts of work, change. And finally: we all live in contradictions. We are all hypocrites.
I’m teaching my book proposal course again in May. Join me!
Notes from a Small Press is the newsletter by Anne Trubek, the founder and owner of Belt Publishing. Subscribe to receive every post, and not just free ones like this. Oh and don’t forget to grab a copy of So You Want to Publish a Book?, the book based on this newsletter that other people say good things about.