The Fast and The Flexible

While we have several independent bookshops in Chester County, the largest indy bookstore is Chester County Book and Music Company, known as CCBMC. They carry a huge selection of books and music, have knowledgable employees and an in-house Cajun cafe and coffee shop.

They also support local authors. They have a local author section in the store. Local authors and writing groups have scheduled readings in their event space. When I was mulling over cover designs for the anthology Chester County Fiction, I even showed a few samples to the staff for their feedback. From a business standpoint, it made sense for Chester County Book Company to sell a book called Chester County Fiction even though Oermead Press is an outside publisher. Chester County Book Company thinks local. They scheduled two events for us, placed our book on their homepage and linked to our book trailer, and most importantly, they placed our book in a prime spot at the front of the store.

What did CCBMC get in return? Well, they sold a lot of copies. As much as Amazon. They also had thirteen local authors promoting their bookstore at Christmas parties, on social media, in radio interviews, in newspapers, on blogs and websites. When they sold out their inventory four days before Christmas, we delivered 25 more copies within two hours.

In Chester County, only one chain book store, Barnes and Noble, rivals CCBMC in size. We would have liked to have had Chester County Fiction on the shelf in the Exton B&N. Although I had read local authors have a hard time getting carried in B&N, I thought I should make someone aware this is an anthology that could sell well in this one particular location.

In my quick chat with the customer service desk, it became evident they had no interest in evaluating the business opportunity at hand. The woman rifled through some folders and handed me a three-page stapled sheet with B&N book requirements. One of the lines read something about not accepting stapled and mimeographed books.

“I know you don’t support locally published books, but I thought I’d let someone here know this is unique,” I offered, looking for a spark of interest. I could have told her I had the biography of Steve Jobs and her glazed eyes wouldn’t have changed. It was clear her job was to follow the rules from the corporate office.

Here’s my question. If local authors are zealots about reading, what are the chain stores doing to hold their allegiance? B&N is concerned about the Great White Shark called Amazon, but in the meantime, they are also being nibbled to death by the little fish – independent writers and the new publishing.

While independent publishers get a sense of sales through Amazon rankings, this doesn’t take into account how many books are being sold directly from the publisher (some of whom are also the author) to readers, to indy bookshops, to book clubs, to pharmacies, etc. If 10,000 writers are selling a modest 100 copies each, that adds up to a million books, none of which are sold through B&N.

Meanwhile, the smart local Indy bookstore has front line management that can evaluate the business opportunity at hand. They are small and flexible. They can see the opportunity on the local landscape and have an interest in building a relationship with their local communities.

If Chester County Fiction was sold in our local B&N, would we have sold an additional fifty copies the week before Christmas? Possibly. But we’re a small press. We have day jobs. We’re not trying to stave off bankruptcy. Instead, we promoted the hell out of our local independent bookshops during the Christmas season and helped strengthen the bond of our indy bookstores and the local writing community.

So this is the point I’ve been wanting to write about in the new year, and then this week my friend, book cover artist Larry Geiger, sent me this awesome Salon article entitled “Indies battle Amazon – by becoming Publishers.” Written by the renegade writer Steve Almond, (who I saw speak in October!) it details how one Florida indy bookshop, Books & Books, has created their own indy press and how this “represents a heartening trend in the brave world of publishing.” It’s an interesting story and is similar to what indy presses have done in Chester County and across the country. It’s an exciting time for those who can adapt and change, and disheartening for those who don’t.

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