Enemies or Allies?

Not more than an hour ago, I returned home from a weekend in the closest city, where I met an on line friend for the first time. We talked writing a bunch, shared life stories, ate in nifty restaurants, drank a lot, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The hotel was lovely, with a friendly staff who expressed an interest in having us back for a more full-fledged writing retreat (several of our other writing friends were supposed to come to this one, but their lives intervened and we ended up being the only two who could make it).

All in all, it was a great experience. However, one unpleasant incident early on stuck with me. Most of the time I managed not to think about it or let it bother me. But in quiet moments alone, I couldn’t help going over and over it, the way one does, looking at it from all angles and trying to figure out if it could have gone any differently. If I should have reacted any other way, said something else. Or just mentally shouting all the swear words I didn’t say out loud.

In this nearest city to my rural Colorado home, a few blocks from the hotel where we stayed, there’s a small, independent bookstore. I’ve noticed it when we’ve been in town before, and I’ve always thought, “Oh, I should stop in there some day and see if they’re interested in carrying my books.” I am, after all, a local author, and lots of bookstores do. Even the Barnes and Noble in this city does. This time, knowing I was going to be in town for an extended period, and having a few print copies on hand, I decided to go in and talk to the manager. I packed up my books and brought them along–although I left them behind for the initial contact, and it turned out to be a good thing I did.

It was a brilliant Saturday afternoon–the weather all weekend was just about perfect, and it’s only now we’re home that clouds are rolling in from the mountains to hint at the season’s first real snow.  Downtown was quite active and crowded; a Veterans’ day parade was planned for later in the day. But the bookstore, when we walked in, was deserted. And maybe this is hindsight speaking, but I think now that I felt a slight unease, as of being about to breach a wall into hostile territory. If I did think that at the time, like as not I put it down to the fact that I was about to embark on a bit of self-promotion. I’ve gotten better with this over time, but it’s never easy. And, being self-published, I’m never sure how the person I’m approaching is going to react. Most people in publishing these days agree that there are many paths and choosing to self-publish for whatever reason is just as valid as any other. But you never know.

There was one person in the store, obviously an employee, and we found out in short order that she was the owner. When we came in, she was in the back, on the phone. So we waited. In a few minutes, she finished her business, and approached us to ask if she could help us find anything. I started my spiel:

“I’d like to ask you a question, actually. I’m a local Independent author, and…”

She interrupted me. “What do you mean by ‘Independent?'”

This flustered me because, as I said, you never know how people are going to react to the label. She sounded hostile, and my heart sank. I thought, Oh great; she thinks self-published authors are only capable of producing trash and now I have to justify myself. I stiffened my spine and went on, keeping my tone pleasant because, generally speaking, it’s good to be pleasant. I’ve never gotten anywhere responding to hostility with hostility.

“I self publish my books for e reader, and I also have print versions…” I began.

She interrupted me again. “Who do you publish with?”

The question made me wonder if she understood what “self-publishing” actually means, but then I thought, Okay, there are lots of POD services and some of them don’t turn out a great product. So maybe she wants to find out if my books look professional enough for her to be interested.

“I use CreateSpace for my print versions,” I said. “And I take a lot of care to…”

She interrupted me a third time. “I’m not interested. CreateSpace is owned by Amazon. Amazon is terrible for publishing. I don’t order from them They’re trying to put Independent Booksellers out of business.”

Now, at that point I should have simply thanked her for her time and left. But I gave it one more try. “You don’t have to order from Amazon. I have copies I could let you have, on consignment if you want, or just to see how they go.”

“If I sold them, I’d have to reorder from Amazon.” By this point she was fairly spitting. “I don’t sleep with the enemy.”

Well, this was inaccurate, to say the least. If she took my books on consignment and wanted more, she could order more from me directly. And frankly, where I have my books printed isn’t any of her business, particularly as Amazon doesn’t make more than a few cents profit off author copies. I didn’t get a chance to say any of that, though, because she launched into a tirade about the Evil Amazon Empire.

“There are lots of options for people who want to self publish. You can use some other system; you don’t have to go through Amazon and I don’t have to support them,” she said.

O-Kay. Yeah, it may be true that at this point in time there are a lot more options for self publishing that there once were. I’ve investigated many, many avenues, and I’ve tried several of them. When it came right down to it, I went with CreateSpace because it’s easy to use, they turn out a superior product, their customer service is stellar, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, you can do it without spending anything at all, which is a huge consideration for me. With all this in mind, I said,

“Well, I need to make the choices that are best for me. And you need to make the choices that are best for you.”

I was trying so hard to defuse the situation–Angelina later told me I was extremely gracious. But this woman simply would not let it go. My memory is fuzzy on the details of what happened next, but somehow she started talking about traditional publishing, and how traditional publishers support Independent Booksellers, and now everyone orders from the EVIL EMPIRE, and bookstores like hers are an endangered species, and really authors should be concerned about that because without booksellers….

Gods help me, I tried again. “Well,” I said, “there are plenty of problems with traditional publishing, too. It’s not all one thing or another. Mid-list authors are getting cut out in favor of high profit, and publishing houses don’t take the risks they once did on new material. Many places don’t promote any but the high-dollar earners…”

“THAT’S NOT TRUE!” If you’re counting, this was the fourth interruption. “Publishers send out ARCs to bookstore owners like me, and we comment on them and tell them what we like. They do so much for writers and…”

I have to admit at this point I lost track of what she was saying, because the worst trigger I have is someone telling me my experience is invalid. I thought at the time that she probably didn’t believe I had any experience to speak of. I don’t think I was much younger than she was–in fact, I might be older–but I look young. And all that stuff about trad publishing does fall pretty squarely along self-publishing party lines about gatekeepers and all. But once out of the situation, I kept going back to the things I wish I had said right then. Things like, “Excuse me, are you an author?” and “How many manuscripts have you queried?” Things like, “How dare you tell me this isn’t true, when I have spoken to mid-list authors who have had their contracts summarily canceled because they don’t earn at the rate of Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks, when I have sat in a room full of traditionally published authors who have told their stories of asking how their publishers intended to promote their books and the publishers laughed at them and told them promotion was up to them (and maybe if you’re good we’ll throw in some bookmarks)?”

But, you know, I think it’s better to be pleasant. And above all, not to get into an argument that I cannot win, on a topic where I can’t even make an impression.

Eventually this disagreeable person wound down, after reminding me that there used to be all kinds of bookstores and now there are only the big boxes, blah, blah, blah. To which I replied that yes, I knew those bookstores and I know those bookstore owners–in fact, my husband built a house for one of them. And I did NOT say that while Amazon may have had something to do with those bookstores closing, it was not the whole reason for any of them, and I could tell her the other reasons if she liked. Angelina and I left, and about a block farther up the street, Ang turned to me and said, “God, what a fucking bitch! I can’t believe you were so gracious to her.”

And I thought: I sympathize with you, lady. I really do. I understand that publishing is facing a lot of changes right now and it’s scary. I understand that you’re afraid of losing your livelihood, losing a business you care about. But I wonder if it ever occurred to you that the reason you’re doing badly isn’t because of Amazon at all, but because you’re a defensive, pigheaded CUNT? I mean, both Ang and I walked into that store intending to buy books. And both of us walked out empty-handed.

There are certainly problems with Amazon. They’re controlling and greedy in some areas. As we’ve seen in the ongoing Hachette dispute, they are not above using strong-arm tactics in an attempt to muscle publishers into giving them better terms. (Of course, the other side of this is that publishers make a lot of that attractive profit on the backs of authors.) And I’ve heard it’s a terrible company to work for. On the other hand, Amazon sells a lot more than just books, and I haven’t heard of any other business complaining that Amazon is driving them out. As another friend of mine pointed out, it’s Wal-Mart doing that. And though Amazon may be the biggest on-line retailer, and therefore the most visible and the the most convenient target for blame, they are FAR from the only one.

This may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I don’t believe bookstores–real, physical bookstores–are ever going to vanish. Book people love books. They like to go in and browse, and see what’s new, and talk to other people who love books. They like to sit down and leaf through the pages, and smell the perfume of paper and print. You can’t do that browsing Amazon.

I’ve also investigated several independent booksellers who are successful even in these times. They have programs to support self-published and local authors, and although they have certain criteria one must meet–like using a standard trim size, having an ISBN and bar code printed on the cover, and meeting a minimum technical standard in your prose–I have yet to find another with the criterion: Don’t use Amazon as your publisher because they’re evil.

I don’t have a good answer to any of the questions this incident raised. But it seems to me that, to be successful, Independent Booksellers and Independent Authors should work together and support each other rather than shut each other out. And I keep thinking of a truism I’ve heard over and over again since I plunged into the publishing world: It’s a small community. Kindness pays. If you’re an asshole, everyone will learn about it sooner or later, probably to your detriment.

I can’t quite bring myself to think, “Bitch, I HOPE you go out of business!”

But I also can’t help but think that if that bookseller I met over the weekend is unable to adapt, and if she needs to be unpleasant and overbearing to people who are trying to investigate the possibilities of forming a working relationship with her, maybe it’s time to pull up stakes. Not for all Independent Booksellers. Just for her.