Books without Borders
A few weeks ago, I found out that my latest book would not be carried by the Borders bookstore chain. Anywhere. At all. Worldwide. Not a single copy. Lest you think that the book did something bad to earn this treatment, the novel, Lord Tophet, is a lead title from Random House’s fantasy/science fiction imprint, Del Rey Books, the sequel to Shadowbridge, a novel that Borders did carry. In fact, Shadowbridge received glowing reviews and went back to print twice in its first six months. You might think, “Say, that’s kind of impressive.”
The reason Borders decided not to carry the new book is that, according to them, its predecessor didn’t sell “as well as anticipated.” It sold; it just didn’t sell enough for Borders. What’s enough? I have absolutely no idea. Nobody else seems to, either.
My local Borders bookstore had multiple copies of Shadowbridge, all of which went out the door within the first month. However, no more copies were ordered to replace those once they’d sold, thus making a good case that the bookstore’s order pre-determined the sales numbers of the book, creating its own self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as a fait accompli that allowed them to offer a pre-capped sales figure as reason to reject carrying the book’s sequel. Caveat scriptor.
Now, don’t worry. I’m not forgetting that Borders is a business. Far from it. All I’m saying is that Borders isn’t a book business. It pretends to be because it used to be. It began life as a bookstore, but it has now determined that the thing to restrict and reject in order to increase profits is…that’s right…books.
Even more ironic, perhaps, is that many of the stores are titled, “Borders Books & Music,” and the other product that’s been cut—by as much as two-thirds—is music. But I digress.
Systematically over time, the proportion of book space in the chain stores has shrunk to make way for party favors, stationery, greeting cards and other tchotchkes that return a higher profit per square foot of real estate. This isn’t to suggest that Borders is some evil empire. As a company, it’s grasping desperately at straws to stay afloat.
Two decades ago, the world of bookstores changed dramatically. The Dickensian image of the local bookshop as some strange, alluring, secretive place full of ancient knowledge and dusty tomes fell by the wayside. As recently as 25 years ago, shops of this sort speckled New York, London, Paris and towns all across the countryside, across the globe. No doubt a handful endures in places where the rents haven’t tripled. Then along came the corporate chains with massive buying clout and deep-cut discounts, and the small, eccentric bookshops started to die off. So long as the chains carried the broadest selection of books as well as giving buyers a big discount, we didn’t much mind.
We have bought into the grand Maguffin of chain store promotion: cheaper prices. Those musty antiquated bookstores out of Henry James and Ray Bradbury stories would offer you the widest choice of titles they could fit into their shop, even if they only carried a single copy of each. And if that copy sold, it would be replaced because, well, if one person wants it, odds are that someone else wants it too. Right?
The book business has two termini: publishers and bookstores. One offers the product; the other sells it. Historically, the book business has never been much of a moneymaker. People get into the industry because they love books, or at least the idea of them. Most small presses started because somebody felt a niche was not being represented, a voice was not being heard, or they loved literature so much they wanted to be a part of the process. (This is also why individuals self-publish — they want their voice to be heard, even if perhaps that voice doesn’t belong in the larger stream of literature. They don’t make any money from doing it, either. They pay for the privilege.)
Publishing, then, has never been a stratagem for great wealth. The idea has long been that you get lucky with a few best-selling titles and those pay for the far larger list of books that sell moderately well — what’s called the midlist — and even those really don’t sell at all.
The engine driving publishing cannot provide a steady increase in profits. While the profits from a J.K. Rowling can pay for hundreds and hundreds of titles that won’t sell spectacularly (but which the publisher considers to be important or elegant books) nobody can predict a J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter is a phenomenon, not a business model.
When the million-copy bestseller is required every quarter, you have a business model doomed to failure — either you publish fewer titles, or fewer copies of those more complicated, subtle, and dare I say it, difficult books.
You can call this an elitist view if you like. But the simple fact is the more difficult or quiet a book is the more it asks of its reader, and the fewer readers it’s going to have. We do not train our children to think critically or about complexity any longer. We make them pass “No Child Left Behind” tests instead. What that means for publishers is, if you want to make money, publish more simple, easy, lowest-common-denominator books.
When the entertainment conglomerates jettisoned the smaller, difficult, unique voices of fiction, many of them were able to find new homes with smaller presses that arose in the gaps. Using a streamlined business model at a time when books could be typeset on a laptop, small presses have sprung up across the world.
Thus, on the publishing side of things at least, the future has held hope in the form of smaller presses. No small publisher wants to fail, but none of them is deranged enough to use a business plan that demands each book be a bestseller. Although many small presses do fail to survive (for a host of reasons), their cause in general is the cause of literature for the exchange of free thought, debate, discussion, and the beauty of well-turned craft.
Bookstores, for their part, came against that borderless phenomenon called Amazon in 1995. That year, Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com which now operates separate stores in the UK, Germany, China, Japan, and elsewhere. Without needing to maintain stock — without needing a shop at all — Amazon.com offers virtually every title put out by every imprint, in multiple languages. No “physical” chain can offer all this.
Yet, what stores actually have to offer is the pleasure of tactility. Whether it’s a book or a compact disc, there is nothing like being able to handle the physical item itself. Readers like to touch the thing we want, and for that reason, no matter how many clones of Amazon.com abound, we still would rather enter our local bookshop. If all that’s left is a megastore, we will grit our teeth and go in.
But what happens when a bookstore, solely driven by market forces rather than people, decides what you can and cannot choose to read? Your freedom starts to erode. You might not instantly recognize this the way you would if, say, your favorite supermarket chain stopped carrying milk because they made a bigger profit from diet sodas.
But it’s more than that.
You know those books on the front tables when you enter the store? The ones you just assumed were being presented to you because there was something special or important about them? You thought perhaps that they were bestsellers, right? Remember that entertainment conglomerate model demanding ever-increasing profits? In another exercise in predetermination, the chains take money from publishers who pay them thousands of dollars to feature certain titles, thus dressing those titles up in bestseller’s clothing. If you took your books, approached a bookstore, and offered them money to place your titles by the front door, this would be called graft. When publishers do it, it’s called business.
Writers who don’t get preeminent backing from their publisher are already pushing a Sisyphean rock up a very big hill while the more-favored competition is racing to the top. And, as in the myth, tomorrow when those struggling writers pen another book, they’ll still be behind that stone, or maybe two stones now, since their sales figures will not reflect well upon them. Fait accompli? Absolutely. Free market? Pish and tosh.
The bigger issue, however, is that as readers we are, all of us, being told what to like, what to pay attention to and what to ignore, not on the basis of reviews or critical analyses of the works in question, not from anything that has to do with the quality of the writing (God forbid); but purely on the level of economics. The publisher is required by its owner to turn out bestsellers with assembly line regularity. The dying megastores need the extra income at the same time that they have begun to winnow other titles by those already handicapped authors. In the frenzy of rewards and discounts and product placement, the entire industry has completely lost sight of what it once was in business to provide: Good books. We the readers are the ultimate losers in this rigged game.
My solution is no different than all the writers who’ve shouted from the battlements before me: Buy your books from independent bookstores; the ones that have survived the onslaught, the ones that we hope will arise to fill the gap.
If you’re in the U.S. and you don’t know where such stores are, go to www.indiebound.org and look them up. If you want to compete online with Amazon.com, go to Powells.com or AbeBooks.com. But if you love the tactility of the book, then buy locally from the small shops that are struggling to maintain your right to pick up an assortment of good books and flip through the pages.
No doubt you will pay a little more and as a result be more selective of what you choose; then again, some knowledgeable employee who truly cares about those books might listen to your description of what you like and lead you, like the narrator of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, to new writers, new delights, and new ideas. And then you will find yourself paying for things that the megastore has decided you shouldn’t see. But they do have just the cutest gift wrap…
Gregory Frost’s latest novel, Fitcher’s Brides (Tor Books), is a recasting of the fairy tale of Bluebeard as a terrifying story of faith and power in 19th century New York State. Fantasy author Jeffrey Ford wrote of it: “Just phenomenal. The story retains some of its fairy tale nature but it takes no prisoners. I heard him read a piece of this at the KGB in New York before I got the book, and the prose sobered me up out of a solid drunk.” Frost has been a finalist for almost every major award in the fantasy field: Nebula Award, James Tiptree Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Hugo Award, International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award. His shorter work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Magazine, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and more; and in numerous award-winning anthologies such as Nalo Hopkinson’s Mojo: Conjure Stories; Snow White, Blood Red, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Some of his work has been included in the Best New Horror collections edited by Stephen Jones. Frost’s latest stories are “Tengu Mountain,” in Datlow & Windling’s anthology, The Faery Reel, “So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair,” in Weird Tales magazine, and “Dub,” in Weird Trails, a faux-1930s pulp magazine anthology edited by Darrell Schweitzer. In June 2005 Golden Gryphon Press published a collection of his short fiction, Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories.