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Karen, you’re writing a memoir about your experiences as a bookseller at St Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. Recently, St Mark’s sought help through social media to support a petition asking Cooper Union, the store’s landlord, to lower the rent for the iconic shop. A couple of months later, River Run Bookstore in New Hampshire similarly used social media to assist the store’s owner in finding additional investors and/or help relocating to a less-expensive property.
Karen Lillis: In the case of St Mark’s Bookshop, I think it’s important to point out that the Cooper Square Committee (not the bookstore) was the entity that started the petition, so the bookstore already had a body of support asking for customer support, a neighborhood committee putting in the legwork of setting up a petition and sending follow-up emails.
Though no one wants to see a beloved local institution end, I do wonder if the floodgates have opened for what might become near endless calls to save independent bookstores across the country when, perhaps, not all of them warrant saving.
Karen Lillis: There is nowhere near an endless number of indie bookstores left, thanks to the predatory capitalist practices of Amazon and the chain bookstores. As for the principal of it, I would say that it may be true that not all indie bookstores are great stores worth saving, but that is for each community to decide, and they will.
The curve ball here is, of course, the idea of subsidies—as an economic culture we subsidize all sorts of things and skew the market advantage towards some entities and away from others. I’d love to see a full investigative report on Amazon versus the indie bookstore. What is the span of market challenges that brick and mortar bookstores endure that Amazon is free of, due to their unethical tactics? Have you read the report about the conditions in a Pennsylvania Amazon warehouse, where workers are carried away by paramedics from an overheated environment, work mandatory overtime, are required (under threat of being fired) to maintain unrealistic productivity levels at temp wages, and are treated “like crap”? That’s how Amazon can “speed delivery.”
Other examples of Amazon advantages are the state sales taxes Amazon has been not collecting for years, and the pressure they put on publishers to provide discounts to Amazon. There are all sorts of hidden stories in this bookstore scenario that add up to uninformed consumers shaking their head and saying, “Those poor little bookstores. They just can’t compete with Amazon,” as if it’s all happening by some law of nature. But the brick and mortars are facing all the disadvantages of the market and few of the advantages. So if there is an endless show of support for struggling indies over the next decade or so, it should be the kind that regulates corporate practices to bring a balance and an economic justice to the situation, rather than a show of support out of pity, which is misguided.
Let’s talk about Amazon’s price check app, which is what largely kicked off the latest round of debate about the company’s policies and practices.
To promote the app, Amazon told their customers they could earn up to five dollars in Amazon credit if they went to local businesses and scanned the barcode of products, an effective and easy for Amazon to gather intelligence on their brick and mortar competitors. Amazon is known for their aggressive business tactics and, in my mind, the price check app promotion is as aggressive as a business can get.
Karen Lillis: Amazon’s Price Check App (like B & N’s 40% off stickers) is an aggressive attempt to be the maverick discounter, the femme fatale who tempts you into your own (community’s) demise: “We know what you really want.” But I feel it’s deeply unethical and so pointed against local brick-and-mortars; I don’t want to hear the free market mantra in defense of this. The free market alone is not creating sustainable communities (literary or otherwise), nor is it even the “free” market. I loved the editorial where The Illusions of Free Markets author Bernard E. Harcourt pointed out that we’ve been re-regulating, not de-regulating the economy. The lobbyists and politicians are regulating in favor of the corporations, so the system is really skewed against small businesses (and more subtly against consumers). I want to live in a world where these bullying practices by corporations are actually illegal, not just a constant bummer, a slow poisoning of everything I value in this culture.
Angela Williams: This tactic was so underhanded, dirty and horrible, that the backlash against it has been tremendous. In fact, it sparked an essential debate that we, and many others, are taking part in right now. Now we’re talking about the ethics of business. We can do it with books, rather than food or clothes or medicine, because books are actually a luxury item. Maybe not to us, but to most people they are. We have libraries where people can check books out for free and no one needs a book to stay physically alive (mentally, yes, but that’s a different debate). But so many Americans live below the poverty line and have children to support that chains such as Wal-Mart can price gouge smaller businesses and get away with it. But books? Yes, people want a deal but they don’t want to stomp on the little guy in such an obvious way either.
That said, aren’t consumers entitled to receive the best price for a product? If a customer wants to compare the price of an item—whether it’s a book or a new computer—and then purchase the item at the lowest price, isn’t that the consumer’s right?
Angela Williams: I would think that anyone who actually participated in this has no shame or had no idea what they were actually doing. Well, now is the time to educate people and have them think about these tactics in regard to not just books, but all products for sale.
Karen Lillis: The “consumer’s rights” are often cited, and just as often the entity saying these words does not believe in the consumer’s right to know the whole story. Going back to Rebel Bookseller, Laties details the backroom deals between large publishers and Barnes & Noble. Over the years, B & N raised the price of books across the industry, because they had enough power to demand huge and exclusive discounts. The publishers had to raise their cover prices overall in order to afford the deep discounts B & N demanded. Did the consumer win? The retail price of books in general went up significantly and thousands of consumers’ favorite local bookstores went out of business.
Do you own a Kindle or other electronic reader? How has it changed your reading and book purchasing habits? Do you still purchase physical books?
Angela Williams: I have an iPad and love it. I buy genre mass market fiction or teen books. I find it difficult to read anything truly substantive on my iPad. I don’t know if that’s a personal issue but I buy everything else in book form. I’m very pro e-books, though. I think this world has space issues and anything that makes reading an easier experience will encourage people to do it more. No one can sell books if people don’t read!
Karen Lillis: I don’t own a Kindle/Nook/etc., and prefer to read physical books which I get from local bookstores. I generally don’t buy anything online, except sometimes books from St. Mark’s Bookshop or Powell’s. I read short pieces online (constantly), but I usually print things out to read from online literary journals—I don’t really enjoy reading literature electronically.
Laura Ellen Scott: I’ve been reading on my iPad for some time now, and I just got a Kindle, which I love for the simple reason that I can have hundreds of books in my purse. Access and choice far outweighs losing the option of reading in the bathtub. I’ve never been fetishistic about books, and I’ve always thought that line about loving “the feel and smell” of books is embarrassing, but I practice tolerance whenever I can. These battles shouldn’t be set up as such, because the old guard always ends up looking foolish, and that’s not productive.
I buy most of my reading online, with the only print books being ones from writers and publishers I know. Those, however, are piling up. I need to take them to school to put on the “free book” cart outside my office.
Karen Lillis: I’m not interested in getting the absolute cheapest price on books, I’m interested in supporting the bookstores I love. If I’m broke, I just have to discipline myself not to go into bookstores. If anything, the digital age has made me more conscious of the need to support my local bookstores and favorite small businesses, because I want to live in a city with a sidewalk culture, with storefronts and foot traffic.
Laura Ellen Scott: I do find the idea of a bookstore that defines itself quite clearly very appealing, as in a mystery or horror shop, but I’ve never been to one so I don’t know if they work. But I can imagine being comfortable in that setting and appreciating recommendations in that context.
How do you decide which books you’ll read electronically and which you’ll read in paper? Where do you receive your book recommendations?
Laura Ellen Scott: I swing back to the phrase you used in the first question, “curated selection,” which gives me shivers, and not the good kind. I’ve never appreciated the public nature of buying books (or records), and having my selections evaluated by the person to whom I’m handing my credit card. Reading is probably the only private aspect of my life, but until online shopping became available, buying books had always been a very awkward experience for me. Similarly, I don’t display my books in my home—most college professors line their parlors with prized books as if they are hunting trophies. If a book is out on the table it’s because I’m reading it.
Karen Lillis: The biggest change for me in the digital years has been moving away from New York, leaving a dense city and the proximity of St Mark’s, the store which was my favorite book recommendation device. But even then, it was not only the bookstore itself but the culture that interacted with it that informed me about books—the customers and coworkers I bonded with over shared literary tastes, paying attention to the small presses we carried, figuring out which journals featured reviews of books I cared about.
Some of that is able to be recreated long-distance or in my new city [by] staying in touch with a literary community both in person and on Facebook, watching for new titles on my favorite literary presses, reading reviews and lit blogs, getting book recommendations from my three favorite bookstores in Pittsburgh and then buying those books in the store.
Angela Williams: We [bookstores] can’t fight change. Just look at the newspaper industry. What we can do is adapt and make it our own. Every bookstore should embrace the e-book and help connect the idea of recommending books both in-store and online. The search mechanisms for both Google e-books and Amazon are terrible if you’re looking for a recommendation. So our websites should function as our stores do.
Personally, I get my recommendations for books from friends, colleagues, the NYT Book Review, and our display tables. I have too many recommendations, actually, and it can be overwhelming.
Laura, as an author, how important has Amazon been to helping you reach your readers?
Laura Ellen Scott: During the two weeks of Death Wishes [Amazon e-book] promotion, I was contacted by several very grateful readers, including international ones, whose access to contemporary literary fiction was very limited, mainly for financial and regional reasons. Books are a very expensive, private entertainment—not just in dollars but in time and concentration, and the combination is prohibitive.
We’re in a very temporary moment when immediate financial costs need to be contrasted against the value of exposure—if the only kinds of contemporary literature we are willing to give away or make very affordable are Amish romances and vampire books, you are guaranteed to grow a very unappealing reader culture. When my book was given away, the most common comment was about how “different” it was. If we care about literacy and literary culture, we should take advantage of this opportunity to promote the writing we think is best. Think about what could happen for contemporary poetry if the formatting issues could be resolved. My point is, there isn’t much variety out there, but there will be. Literary writers should get on the train now.
A writer who has been very influential in my thinking is Robert Swartwood. He is both progressive and commercial. Take a look at his 2011 sales round-up, it’s impressive.
Karen, you admirably blog about small presses. Why? Why not blog about the Big Six, or host a mixture of small and large press book coverage?
Karen Lillis: The big publishers have big budgets. They advertise, they get their books onto prominent shelves in bookstores and libraries nationwide, they have a system that gets many of their books reviewed in magazines and newspapers with wide circulation or websites with the most hits—they have coverage in all sorts of ways.
In terms of what’s new in literature, I am interested in what’s on the forefront, and that’s mostly happening in the small press. I think of the larger presses as skimming off the small press once writers have shown themselves to be “popular” enough to be “worth” a look in terms of sales. But the small press realm is where the chances are being taken. I blog about small- and micro-presses to help give a leg up to those presses, writers, and voices which are quality, interesting, and under-exposed.
From your perspective, what are the advantages small presses have over the Big Six?
Karen Lillis: The main advantage the small presses have is they maintain a system where an editor can choose to publish what s/he likes, rather than what s/he thinks the market wants. That system is sometimes known as a Labor of Love, or Not Worrying About Profit First, or Keeping Sales Expectations and Overhead Modest.
Small press editors cultivate a list of authors they think have a certain quality and/or vision, and they seek and foster a readership who will appreciate those books and those writers. The editors advocate for those books often solely because they genuinely like them and believe in them and enjoy the process of publishing and promoting literature they like. It can be a struggle to keep a small press going, but in another sense it is a luxury to get to publish for the love of literature and not for the bottom line.
Laura Ellen Scott: This just in—my 4 year old gosh daughter just called. We’re looking for a new dog, and she is urging me to hurry up and go online to order a big one—presumably from Amazon. I don’t think it’s just book culture at risk anymore…
ABOUT THE SERIES
Six Degrees Left pulls the plug on the respirator of partisan consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue among leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. To help keep our fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture, please leave a comment on this page or send in your questions or topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.
Karen Lillis is a novelist (Watch the Doors as They Close), a small press blogger at Karen the Small Press Librarian, and a former book clerk writing a memoir about her years behind the counter at St Mark’s Bookshop in New York City.
Laura Ellen Scott is an author, most recently of Death Wishing.
Angela Williams is a poet and bookseller at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore located in Washington, DC., and received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
Karen, glad to hear Pittsburgh’s literary scene is still coming along. It was growing pretty rapidly when I left almost four years ago. Just saw a profile you wrote about Awesome Books, which I would love to check out next time I make it back. That whole Lawrenceville/Garfield section of Penn Ave will probably be unrecognizable to me now!
The instructions for the comments section suggest that ‘nobody likes a troll.’ If so, why did you interview Laura Ellen Scott? Her comments drip with such bald condescension that it was hard to get through this piece on a topic that I care about. Was she the best shill that you could find (or the only one)?
This is a great discussion. At the end, I find myself with more questions than answers; I seem to have the same love/hate impulse for Amazon that I do for Starbucks, McDonalds, and Disney. I love my indie bookstores, but it’s so easy to hit Amazon when I’m stuck at my desk. If Amazon would just play nicely, maybe we could all just get along?
Thank you for this extremely interesting conversation, in which — for my taste — Laura Ellen Scott stands out as the voice of reason. (Aside to LES: Drop the Kindle in a Ziploc bag for bathtub reading.)
Since my first novel was pubbed by a wonderful literary press (now called MacAdam-Cage) in the mid-90s, I’ve done over a dozen Big 6 books as an author and ghostwriter. During that time, I watched fiction acquisitions become increasingly constipated, while nonfiction acquisitions became increasingly obsessed with celebrity, and creative writing majors were pumped out of grad school with not a clue about how to make a living writing — creatively or otherwise.
For all the hand-wringing about the fate of booksellers, I heard very little concern for those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to the creation of books. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the health of literary culture might be maybe possibly kinda related to the health of authors.
My first Kindle breathed new life into my reading; 20 years of writing has taken a serious toll on my eyesight. First, I consumed all my favorite classics and loved them more than ever. Then I started working my way through recently ballyhooed fiction, and I’m sorry to say it, but I was bored out of my effing skull.
So I started digging into some of the works being indie/self-pubbed on KDP. Not the 99 cent mosh pit. (I believe the 99 cent price tag was brought to the publishing industry by amateurs, the way sailors brought syphilis to Hawaii. Those who introduced it had a great time; those who live with the legacy, not so much.) I read JEWBALL by the hilarious Neal Pollack; THE DEADWOOD BEETLE, a gorgeous, long out of print, literary novel by Mylene Dressler; THE VOLUNTEER by Barbara Taylor Sissel, an amazing voice who refused to make the compromises that would have made her novels easy grist for the traditional mill; THE LONG DRUNK by Eric Coyote, whose agent believed in the author’s quirky brilliance but never quite managed to get this bordering-on-Henry-Miller, reprobate-noir novel past the gatekeepers.
Left to the wisdom of “book culture” and indie booksellers, not one of these novels would be available to readers today. This is what Amazon hath wrought: authors allowed to push the artistic envelope, readers allowed to think for themselves, a democratized literary ecosystem.
Last year, I started a digital imprint to indie pub e-editions of my out of print backlist, and it went so well, I recently pubbed my latest novel myself. This year, I started forming a coalition of seasoned, professional authors who are stepping off the edge of the map to create a new brand of literary career that hybridizes the best qualities of indie and traditional publishing.
We’re maintaining and building relationships with agents and publishers, but we’re our own gatekeepers now. We hold to the importance of traditional editing and professionalism, but now we have creative freedom we never had, because traditional publishers can no longer afford to take the creative risks we’re prepared to take. And they never could afford to pay 70% royalties.
This revolution was inevitable. It is exhilarating to me, as both a reader and a writer. And it’s the healthiest thing to happen to literary culture since Gutenberg.