Monday, June 27, 2011

Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)

Two recent book-world headlines are kicking around in my head lately, but ultimately the same theme emerges. I'll get to that in a moment.

One is in regards to a Seattle bookseller who refuses to sell the new Amazon publishing imprints, such as the Thomas & Mercer mystery imprint - despite the fact they recently signed a major deal to publish books by the late Ed McBain and one of the authors signed to this imprint wanted to do an event in that bookseller's store.

The other is in regard to bookseller reaction to Pottermore and the selling of ebooks direct to consumers, rather than through bookstores. (Late last week, J.K. Rowling announced the new web experience of Pottermore which will finally include the release of the Harry Potter novels via ebook.)

I absorb such news bits with two hats, which sometimes cause conflict in my own mind:  As someone curious, fascinated and excited by advances in the book industry; and as a bricks and mortar bookseller who is struggling to stay relevant in the digital age.

In the Pottermore discussion, there's mention of the Harry Potter launch day events at bookstores having become the stuff of legend. And in the Amazon imprint hype, there's a debate between an author who wants to do an event at a store that refuses to sell those books.

The thing I see in common with both is the richness of the physical.

Part of the excitement and hype with Harry Potter involved the first (at least to my knowledge) midnight book launches at bookstores around the world, with so much anticipation for the next book in the series that fans simply couldn't wait until 8:30 or 9:00 AM Saturday morning, but instead, lined up, in costume, with specially planned events and a definite party atmosphere, to pick up the next Harry Potter novel at 12:01 AM on the official release day. For a bookseller, such an event is truly magical. And I'm not just talking about the excitement, buzz and adrelanine - I'm talking images of customers lined up as if to get on a gigantic new theme park ride, but instead, they're lined up to BUY A BOOK.

Wow, think about how many copies of that book sold - how many customers dressed up and lined up to hang out at a bookstore in the wee hours of the night. It was a bookseller's wet dream, in many ways, and a tremendous boost to the book industry.

Booksellers might decry how Rowling owes them for being there when she needed them. And sure, that's true -- but just the same, booksellers needed Rowling, not just for the hype and the launch day events, but for reinvigorating the thrill of reading for a whole new generation, for crossing the boundary between young adult and adult fiction (since you didn't need to be a young person to be captured under the spell of Rowling's universe)

Yes, I'm disappointed that customers won't have the chance to choose to support their favourite local bookstore (chain or indie) when buying a Harry Potter ebook -- and that's too bad. But, at least we'll always have Paris.  Er, I mean, at least we'll have those great stories to tell about the magical launch day events.

It seems as if the once struggling author who no longer needs the booksellers is moving along to different waters, leaving the booksellers to sing the old Glass Tiger song: "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)"

But the reality is, the bricks and mortar booksellers have not been forgotten, nor completely left behind. In some ways, there are folks out there trying to sing the song Bette Midler made popular "Wind Beneath My Wings" -- of course, for others the music has stopped and the song is over.

Because, though it seems a little shifty, Amazon sneaking in and snatching publishing itself from publishers (the way they snuck in and snatched bookselling from booksellers) let's look at the situation as presented on mhpbooks site in a recent article.

When contacted by an author who is being published under Amazon's new imprint, the bookseller refuses to carry the books, refuses to host the author, refuses to support Amazon. And I'm not disputing the bookseller's reasoning - he has solid reasoning, does not want to muddy the waters, does not want to buy from the competition that is hammering nails into the coffin of bricks and mortar booksellers everywhere, and simply does not trust the behemoth online company based upon some of their less than stellar actions as good corporate citizens.

So, again, I'm not poo-pooing this bookseller's POV. He is sticking to his guns and one has to admire his integrity.

But I can't say I'd be as steadfast in my own conviction if an author who signed a deal with Amazon turns around and wants to sell books in my store.

This is acknowledgement, of the highest order, that despite the hype, despite the media frenzy, the author recognizes that without a bricks and mortar presence, without acknowledgement from his local neighbourhood bookseller, he's still not an author. Definitely not in the "my book is on bookstore shelves" manner by which an author is often judged.

This is acknowledgement of the type of resonant connection that can be made between an author and a reader when given the opportunity to connect, in person, via a local venue such as, oh, I don't know, perhaps a bookstore.

Those are powerful sentiments, and something booksellers, particularly with all of us singing that Glass Tiger song so frequently, should consider.

If players like Amazon continue to utilize their non-physical presence to their advantage, why aren't booksellers playing up their physical presence more often? Yes, virtual online selling is exciting and new, but there are definite benefits to a real physical presence in a community that no online experience can ever match. Otherwise, authors wouldn't be knocking on the doors of booksellers asking them to carry their book or to host a book event.

After all, the very thing that presents a challenge (being tied to a particular unique physical location) can be the same thing that presents an opportunity.

So, while looking toward the future, while looking at ways in which bricks and mortar bookstores can embrace change, get involved in some of the digital/virtual action, it's also okay to take the time to play up and take advantage of those strengths that already exist.

1 comment:

Larry said...

Very insightful, thank you Mark