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Hey, all. This is your friendly neighborhood bookseller. I’ve been working at one of the oldest independent bookstores on the West Coast for about two years now, and I love my job fiercely. There is nothing quite as wonderful as sharing the books you love with people and getting paid for it. As retail jobs go, it is the cream of the crop — but, as with any job, it does have its bumps and quirks. One of them is the lack of understanding of how bookstores operate (or how retail stores operate.) And why would there be understanding? Bookselling can be a mysterious process even to those of us on the inside, with new technologies and trends changing the landscape every day. But, over time, some frequent questions pop up that are easy to answer, and I’ve tried to collect some here.
If I sound a little snarky in some of my answers, don’t take it to heart. Booksellers love book lovers, and unless you get rude or belligerent with us, most of the time we’re happy to share what we know. My sarcasm is just an inborn trait.
Q: Do people really still buy physical books?
Yes. E-Books are an exciting new technology in a lot of ways, especially in the field of self-publishing (we’ll get to that in a minute), but the very fact that you’ve stepped into a bookstore indicates that there’s something about the printed word that still has appeal. Maybe you don’t like the glare of a screen or the fact that your digital books can disappear at any time on the whim of a corporation that might not even have incentive to carry them in three years. Maybe, like many book lovers, you like the tactile experience of flipping through pages and smelling that old paper smell. Maybe you just like having them. The fact is, e-books just aren’t as universal as a paperback — you can store a whole library on a Kindle, sure, but you can’t lend your favorite e-book to your best friend or wrap one up for your niece’s birthday. Print is a long way from dead.
Q: Why does this book cost so much more than at Amazon?
Short answer? We don’t exploit labor and ruin communities to make a quick buck.
Long answer? Bookstores, publishers, and authors all have to make money to stay afloat and get books to you in the first place. A bookstore pays overhead costs that Amazon doesn’t have to consider. You’ll be familiar with a lot of them from your own home: rent, utilities, taxes, health insurance, vital “furniture” like cash registers and computers, and (of course) the cost of buying and shipping the books themselves so we have something to sell you. The hard-working booksellers who make sure the store looks great and that you have the best possible shopping experience also have to, you know, eat. Those costs are true all the way up the chain to the distributors, the publisher, and the authors themselves, who would also really, really like to eat this week.
Amazon, on the other hand, is just a giant warehouse of stuff that they’re selling to customers at a loss. Wait, so how do they stay afloat if they actually lose money on books? Well, it helps that — financially — they don’t actually care about books. It also helps that they employ abusive labor practices and destroy local economies to cut costs.
So what’s up with their prices? Is it all from cutting corners in the rest of their business model? Yes and no. Amazon can charge you, the customer, less for a book because they don’t pay the publisher as much as a bookstore would for the same product. Why? Amazon maintains a stranglehold on publishers by holding site advertising hostage in exchange for obscene discounts on the books. It’s dirty and it’s cheap, and it’s slowly killing the industry.
Basically, buying your books at a bookstore versus at Amazon is like the difference between buying an omelette at a nice cafe versus ordering an Egg McMuffin. The price difference has nothing to do with the eggs.
Q: Okay, but why should I buy my book here instead of online? What’s my incentive?
Aside from taking a stand against the insidious corporate takeover of our democracy, buying locally also promotes healthy economic ecosystems in your community. The taxes you pay when you buy a book at your neighborhood store go into the roads, schools, hospitals, and public services that you use every day. The employees are your neighbors, and supporting their place of business means we can support your place of business with our wages. Lots of bookstores offer community services and partner with libraries and schools to get your kids excited about reading and learning.
You’re also helping authors. Most professional authors make less than $10k from their work every year, and that number is only getting worse as publishers scramble to stay alive while also paying their quarterly blood tithes to Amazon. Career authors with modest sales are dying out in the mad rush for bestsellers. Buying a physical book at a local bookstore puts the most money into your favorite writer’s bank account and sends a message to their publisher that they are valuable enough to keep around. You wouldn’t have any books at all without them, so why not make sure they can make a living from their work?
Can’t afford the extra $10? That’s okay. Booksellers aren’t going to flail you alive for buying what you can afford. Times are tough for us, too, and we get it. Personally, I go to my library if there’s a book I want that I can’t afford — it helps them get funding, it improves my community, and it signals to publishers that my favorite books are in demand. If you want to support authors on a budget, the library is the place to go.
Wherever you decide to buy your books, a bit of etiquette advice: don’t tell us you’re getting it at Amazon instead. It’s rude.
Q: I don’t have the title or the author, but I think it’s blue, and it’s really popular…?
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Q: I’ve self-published a book and I want you to carry it. Can I bring excerpts/copies/fliers/promotional DVDs for your whole staff?
No. God, no.
Look, we love writers. Why would we be in the business of selling books if we didn’t? At my store, we’ve been lucky enough to host launch events and signings for really fantastic local authors who have seen great success. We are all about the writing community.
We have a certain expectation of professionalism from writers, which self-published authors are often…lacking. When you come into the store and try to pawn copies of your vanity press memoir off on the cashier, that is a red flag. When you insist that your book is very popular on Amazon but don’t know if it’s available from Ingram, that is a red flag. When you send a spam-y email to every bookstore in the area written entirely in Comic Sans, that is a red flag. If you’re disorganized, rude, or just out of touch with how bookstores operate, it telegraphs, “Don’t take me seriously, because I’m not taking myself or my business seriously.”
There are other factors to consider, too. If we do decide to carry your book, how are we getting it? A lot of authors come in and expect to be able to drop off a box of paperbacks, but not all stores sell on consignment. Most of us get our books through a third-party distributor like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, or (until recently) Partners. Is your book available there? Is it returnable if it doesn’t sell? Do you offer a discount of 40% or better to bookstores? These are all factors. Most of the time, we can’t bring in books that don’t meet these criteria.
Understand what you are asking when you want us to carry your book. We already have hundreds of thousands of traditionally published titles. These books have been through a rigorous vetting process and have the backing of a respected publisher — and, more importantly, a professional marketing team. Bookstores do a lot of the legwork of promoting new books, but we rely on national campaigns to bring readers into the store in the first place. Your Facebook post with 50 “likes” just isn’t in the same league.
The fact is, self-published books are a hard sell. Exceptions happen — The Martian by Andy Weir and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi are both runaway successes, and both were originally self-published online before being picked up by a traditional publisher — but they are still in their early days. For now, if you want to be taken seriously and want your work to reach an audience, traditional publishing is the way to go. Be patient. Do research. Learn how to query agents and then do so. If your book is all it’s cracked up to be, you’ll make it work.
Q: How do you resist buying all of these wonderful books that surround you every day?
We don’t. Someday, they’ll make a spin-off of Hoarders just for booksellers. It’ll run for a decade and have special episodes about relapsed book junkies making shelves out of hardcovers and sleeping on a pile of paperbacks.
Q: It might be about WWII…?
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Q: Wow! How do you know a little bit about every book in the store? Have you read them all?
Ha. Hahaha. No.
Any given genre is going to have a dozen really, really popular books, and odds are you’re asking for one of them. Book trends come in waves. We usually have time to learn about all the bestsellers before the next batch rolls out, so if you ask any given bookseller about, say, the top literary title on a display table, they can probably give you a summary and a little information about how popular it’s been. We all have our specialties, too. Part of the job is listening to each other gush about hot new titles.
Also, to be honest, sometimes I just skim the blurb on the back and make a snap judgment. When you work in a bookstore long enough, you really can start to judge them by their covers.
Q: Why don’t you have this brand new book in paperback?
New books are almost always released in hardcover, kept in that format for about a year, and then re-released in paperback. There are some exceptions, but 99% of the time, this is how new releases work.
Yes, Amazon probably says that people are selling the “paperback” already. They’re illegally selling advanced reader copies. Don’t buy from them. You’re stealing from the author every time you do. Careers get ruined that way.
Patience, dear reader.
Q: Could you spend 20 minutes recommending books for me so I can make an Amazon wishlist and/or buy them on my Kindle?
Q: You probably don’t have this, but it’s historical fiction and one of the characters is blind…?
All The Light We Cannot See. Anthony Doerr. Again. Eternally.