Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

“People Like You Are Killing Bookstores”

Invasion of the Orb Men CoverBalticon 45 was a great experience. Gary and I had a lot of fun and met many new people whom we can count among our fannish friends and who have already had a measurable impact on Channel 37’s direction as well as its popularity in the community. But there was one sour note, and I’m taking a break from laying out a newsletter to get it off my chest.

In addition to posting serial stories every week, Channel 37 sells e-books — “enhanced” versions of completed serials plus other books and stories that we have written outside of Channel 37. (And soon, some very cool audiobooks). So at our humble little vendor table at Balticon, we weren’t selling Channel 37 books, but rather giving away cards with QR codes to get to our site and learn more about us. It was also the official debut of Invasion of the Orb Men, my first SF novella.

So there we are early on the first day of the con, when this genial-looking older fellow comes over to the table and compliments me on the poster of the Orb Men cover that we had on display. We strike up a conversation and he asks about the book. I start telling him about it, and then he stops smiling and cuts me off abruptly. “You lost me at ‘e-book,'” he said. “I’m a bookseller. People like you are killing bookstores.” He continues on in that vein on for a minute or so before eventually walking away — not in a huff, but obviously not happy.

Throughout his complaint, I didn’t say anything — neither defending, placating, or apologizing. I just let him take his evidently heartfelt frustration out on me. Looking back on it, I think it’s because it didn’t really bother me that much. I felt then, and I feel now, that I have absolutely nothing to apologize for by selling my books in digital form. Online book buying flat-out blows the doors off of bookstores — and I love bookstores. I used to work in them, and I’ll still patronize indies until they’re gone. But they don’t have the monopoly on access anymore, and I seriously don’t have a problem with that. And I buy most of my books online now — from the publishers, direct from authors, through distributors like Amazon and Smashwords, through indie collectives like ABEBooks, and however anyone else wants to make them available to me.

It’s not going to be easy for the next 5-10 years for anyone in publishing, whether traditional or digital. There will end up being a Titanic-load of losers and a few winners shivering in the lifeboats. And that sucks for everyone involved, no doubt about it.

(On the other hand, when the big houses close, the streets of NYC will suddenly be awash in twenty-two year old editorial assistants panhandling for bubble gum, offering to sort Dumpsters into slush piles, and carrying “Will Be a Tastemaker for Food” signs. I’d buy a ticket to see that.)

So yeah, maybe I’m one of the guys who’s killing your bookstore, though judging from our sales numbers so far you’d be hard-pressed to prove it. I don’t know. But I think you’d be better off putting a lot of the blame on the publishers for sticking with models of publishing, distribution, rights, and royalty payment originally developed in the early 20th century while the Web was busy showing everyone who cared to look that there were vastly more efficient ways of handling those things. Blame the telcom and cable companies for making Internet access available to everyone and their dog for pennies. Blame customers for preferring to shop from the convenience of their own home instead of having to get in their car and drive to your store.

On second thought, I don’t think I’ve done that much to kill bookstores. Sorry.


Categorised as: Channel 37 | Life the Universe and Everything | The Kids Today

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6 Comments

  1. Ryan Adney says:

    Books, like records, will never completely go away. However, the low cost of the eBook ecosystem will allow publishers to take a chance on an author outside the traditional confines of what would be considered marketable. Also, the eBook evolution will allow individuals the chance to self-publish. Dickens self-published, why can’t other authors. I think when it comes to the written word more books is preferable to fewer. eBooks are great (my wife loves them), but I like paper books too.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Agreed, it’s a poor defense of the current publishing model to just say that some people are comfortable with it, and that’s why it shouldn’t change, although that seems to be the best argument most people can come up with.

  3. sottovoce says:

    During a bumptious panel at Balticon about the future of publishing, Robin Sullivan, founder and president of the phenomenally successful indie press Ridan Publishing, absolutely hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that traditional publishing is based on the venture capital model. Publishers front a huge amount of money and assume all the risk, and therefore are properly entitled to expect they will reap the majority of the reward in return.

    Ridan and other indies like them don’t have deep pockets, and so they can’t operate that way. But what’s really changed in the game is that they don’t want to operate that way. Ridan recruits aggressive writers who are out there pounding the pavement selling their own stuff and building up their own audience, and the (comparatively smaller) cut of sales that goes to the publisher is used to advertise and promote the authors in venues they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own, like booths at big shows and ads in the trade pubs.

    Ridan’s authors are business partners with the publisher, not content-generating lackeys for them. They’re also hard-headed businesspeople who don’t have delusions that the validation of “being discovered” by a publisher should counterweigh being paid a fair freakin’ wage for their labor. And more and more talented authors, agents, and editors are beginning to agree with them.

  4. Change is hard, but to layer blame on someone whose ebook exists outside the boundaries of “normal” publishing–and likely wouldn’t be published by a “traditional” house, much less find shelf space at a bookseller–is laughable.

  5. sottovoce says:

    The irony for me was that the dealer’s room was awash in small and micro publishers selling new printed books, including Ridan, but I noticed that he didn’t go up to any of them to discuss selling their books at his store.

    Gun. Foot. Aim.

  6. sottovoce says:

    The same thing happened at this year’s Baltcon, but I missed him because I was on a panel when he came by to rant. This time, we had a print book for sale, and our table-mate had two. He bough none of them, nor inquired about ordering them for his bookstore.

    Of course, if he’s still in business a year later, I guess that means e-books are taking their time landing their fatal blow.

    In fact, judging by the number of podcasters, bloggers, and other tech-savvy “new media” authors who were selling print books at this year’s Balticon, I’d say that print is very healthy. Big publishing may be on life support, but that’s an entirely different issue.