Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Amazon/B&N Problem

Last Thursday I logged onto Amazon.com and ordered Coal River by Michael Shnayerson and two books in the Oxford University Press "Very Short Introduction" series. Even with the typical heavy discounts, the order qualified for free shipping. The following Saturday morning, I received an email from Amazon saying that the books had been shipped. Yesterday, (Monday) shortly after lunch, the books arrived at my front door.

How can any independent bookstore, other than those dealing in very rare, specialized, or antiquarian books, compete with that kind of service and convenience? Of course I love to browse bookstore shelves and racks, and I rarely leave without buying something. But for the past several years most of my book purchases have gone like this: A review on a new book or an essay about a writer's work catches my eye, or I'll need a book or journal for reference. Instead of heading to the bookstore, I click over to Amazon. But not without a twinge of guilt.

In most ways, I was crunchy (Jane would say cranky) before Rod Dreher entered high school, though I'm very grateful for his articulation. I can't help it; I'm wired that way. My preferences are based more on my upbringing and inborn temperament - the influences that shape my sensibilities - than on politics or even moral reasoning. Certain things just feel right while others feel cheap, vulgar, or exploitative.

So I want to support independent bookstores. I would go well out my way to do business with a good independent bookseller if I could find one within remotely reasonable driving distance.

Or I like to think that I would. There are a few small issues that make me wonder.

Yes, independent bookstores are increasingly rare, but I've visited several in various Texas cities and towns, and, with rare exceptions, they don't stock my books. Oh, they'll be happy to order them for you, but books by a minor regional novelist don't justify shelf space that could be more profitably occupied by the works of better-known writers. And of course that's perfectly reasonable from a business standpoint. Independent booksellers have limited shelf-space and they're fighting for survival. They can ill-afford to placate every neurotic writer who comes along.

Then there's evil, predatory Barnes & Noble. They stock my books, especially here in Texas. When I have a new book out, community relations managers from various B&N stores around North Texas call to schedule book signings, which means that my books get time in the front window and on front tables - space that Texas Tech University Press, my fine little publisher, could never afford. Throughout the year, B&N recognizes local writers through author of the month promotions. B&N can afford these little outreach efforts whereas the independents need to score very popular local writers or big-name literary writers from elsewhere in order to justify the time and expense required to put on a worthwhile event. Of course independent booksellers do get behind works by new or obscure writers that would otherwise be overlooked, but their numbers are small, and they can do only so much.

I understand the independent booksellers' predicament. I also want people to buy my books. Whenever readers send me email, I always ask how they found out about my book and where they bought it. Nine times out of ten, they read a review in a newspaper or magazine. Then they ordered the book from Amazon.com or picked it up at B&N.

So, despite the convenience of Amazon.com shopping, I still find myself browsing amid flocks of teenagers drinking five dollar cups of coffee. Maybe I'm petty or mercenary.

On the other hand, I have to say that my frequent business with Amazon.com isn't totally inconsistent with my natural crunchiness.

For decades Union Underwear, which made - you guessed it - underwear (for Fruit of the Loom) was far and away the largest employer in Campbellsville, Kentucky, my hometown. The town bent over backward to accommodate "The Factory." Working lives were spent in the bleach room or on this or that line. Women worked grueling shifts stitching together T-shirts as fast as they could feed material into the machines, then went home to help their husbands with farm work.

Then came the 1990s and NAFTA. The Factory shut down and moved to Mexico. Unemployment in Taylor County shot up to 18 percent. The degree to which the local agricultural and business economies had eroded became bleakly apparent.

A few years later, Amazon.com built a huge distribution center in Campbellsville and put a lot of people back to work. To a rural, Southern, non-union population accustomed to employment at The Factory, Amazon's work environment seemed downright progressive. Amazon.com, of course, saw a very stable workforce in a region where the cost of living is relatively low.

So when I place an order through Amazon.com, I tell myself that, in a minuscule way, I'm supporting old friends, former neighbors, and classmates. On my website and on this blog, I'll link to Amazon, despite the company's annoying practice of prominently hawking used copies just below the listed price of a new copy. (I certainly don't object to the used book market, and I'm thankful for every reader, but given a choice, I'd prefer to earn my tiny royalty.)

And until something changes, I'll continue to root for independent booksellers while doing business with the allegedly bland, heartless, soulless, predatory chain that stocks and occasionally promotes my books.

8 comments:

Matt Mullenix said...

Ah, Henry. It's a problem.

I don't know how our little Cottonwood Books hangs on---certainly not from my patronage, although I have purchased books there.

When I go book shopping, I go to B&N. They still don't stock my books there (hehe, that will be the day) but I did buy a book with my wife's photo in it last week... LSU Football is evidently much more important than local falconry. Imagine.

I even buy the $5 coffee.

Your description of the modern book buying process may hold some clue to the problem. Presumably there was always less choice and convenience before B&N. Back then you probably started with the classics and proceeded outward on the advice of your trusted bookseller. New books were anxiously awaited and weird books placed on long order. How could there have been the immediate-reward experience of B&N and a venti latte?

Choosing Cottonwood Books would not be a choice simply in support of local business. It might be a resolution to want and expect less in terms of immediate or random reward.

To get the benefit of that choice (truly a lifestyle choice), I might need a lifestyle with ample time and trust to read something I don't really like or is difficult. There are plenty of classics still for sale at Cottonwood. I haven't bought nor read any of them.

Mark Churchill said...

My family and I shop (somewhat guiltily, but still...) at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but we also buy from local bookstores like the great Bluestem Books. They're online at http://bluestembooks.com/, but there's another drawback to shopping online (with either the big guys or the little guys) as opposed to being there—and here I'll disagree with Matt about "expecting less in terms of random reward". Online is great for finding what you're looking for, but browsing actual shelves you're more likely to find what you didn't know you were looking for. That's where the fun often is...

Matt Mullenix said...

Mark you're right--my point was not well made. There's certainly plenty of opportunity for surprise on the shelves of a local bookstore. I meant only that the greater volume (our B&N is at least 10X the size of Cottonwood) ups your chance of finding something new at the big chains.

Of course you lose a lot (if not all) the context and backstory a small bookseller can give you.

My point is that it's probably a trade-off.

mdmnm said...

I've noticed the difference more with music than books (though I got both Matt and Henry's books on-line). Except for one excellent independent and the pricey Borders, the chain music sellers have cut way back on the cd's they stock. If I go into a well stocked music store and browse around for a while, you'll probably sell me an album. If you don't have much, I'll get discouraged and leave. I'm a bit more resistant with books, but more and more I seem to read things I've read about on a blog or something.
Knowing that I'm interested in checking something out, it is hard to beat the on-line sellers who seem to have almost everything available. I still carry around scraps of note paper with titles and authors I'm looking for, but that is an anachronistic habit or an excuse to browse brick and mortar.

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, I hate to admit it, but I've been known to buy a $5 cup of coffee after browsing (and usually buying) at B&N - even after Starbucks moved in down the street from my favorite little coffee shop. If only my resolve matched my intentions and indignation...
In regard to B&N's egregious failure to stock your books, have you been so bold as to introduce yourself to the community relations manager at your local store? Some of these folks are very interested in local writers.

Mark, I agree that browsing leads to pleasant surprises. I rarely go into a bookstore looking for a particular book. On the other hands, when I have a particular work in mind, I nearly always order online.

Mike, I buy nearly all of my music online these days - especially since Bill's Records and Tapes, my favorite music store, moved to Deep Ellum, in downtown Dallas. But I still scribble titles of books and CDs in my pocket notebooks. And by the way, thanks for buying my books!

Peter said...

I have a small bookstore in Suttons Bay, Michigan.

I have the same number of books as Amazon. If you order from me on-line. Same goes for most indie booksellers. Maybe we just aren't good at advertising the fact.

Amazon is great if you know exactly what you want. Indies are great if you want to find something you didn't know you wanted.

B&N may carry a lot of books but without a lot of discernment. If it sells its in. An indie will carry books that the community desires. They will have their quirks and specialties.

Consider this: If we all bought from Amazon and B&N, soon we would have no choice but to do so.

If you like having a choice of books and a choice of venues, use your indie. Buy from them online.

Thanks

Peter Makin
Brilliant Books
Suttons Bay, MI

George said...

If you're ever in Archer City, Texas (you'd have to be going there; nobody passes through), visit Larry McMurtry's book store. Kind of funny because there's a sign on the door of the 'main' storefront (with the cash register) that says 'No bags or large purses.' His store is actually five unattached store fronts around the town square, and the other four have no personnel (you pick up the books you want and walk 1-3 blocks to pay for them). He doesn't sell his own books; there's another store in town that does.

Henry Chappell said...

I hear you, Peter, and I truly appreciate your comment. As a writer, I appreciate everyone who gets out there and struggles in a brutal market. Best of luck with your business.

George, it's good to hear from you. I've driven through Archer City many times, and I always tell myself that one of these days I'll stop and check out Larry McMurtry's store. He nearly shut it down a while back, so maybe I had better stop in the next time I'm up there.