What’s Wrong with Indie Bookstores

Indie BookstoreAlthough the term “Indie” derives from the word independent, its use means more than simply self-governing. The “Indie” sub-culture of the music, film and books, includes those producing artistic works and doing so outside of, or perhaps in spite of, the corporate commercial gatekeepers. Indie is not just about “going it alone” or “keeping all the profits.” The Indie badge of honor is to produce and distribute unique and talented voices regardless of whether those voices meet the perceived  conventions of commercial value or dictated popular market viability. Being Indie isn’t an adjective that describes independence, it’s a word that embodies a spirit and an attitude.

Indie artists and supporters are one part rebel and one part entrepreneur. They are the agents of artistic and cultural change. In fact, their spirit drives today the things that will be the commercial success of tomorrow. Indie music and film have changed the landscape of their respective fields. The change occurred through the support of entities that provided venues for public recognition. The Sundance Film Festival provided a venue for independent filmmakers. A place for their work to receive public notice when the Hollywood movie houses closed the doors. It is not perfect and certainly the MPAA still works against Indie films through unfair rating practices, but it is still much further along and audiences have an opportunity to view more than just the latest round of rehashed themes and plot lines. You Tube and Itunes embraced the Indie movement and gave musicians a place for discovery. Music stores had little interest in anything not distributed by record companies. They didn’t adapt and today barely survive. The music store lesson is one that should serve as a warning to Independent Booksellers. Unfortunately, the latest news suggests they are not listening. Instead of small independent booksellers embracing the Indie writer, they have opted for a different path. One who’s inevitable conclusion has already been revealed by Waldenbooks and Borders

Indie bookstores love the idea that Barnes & Noble teeters on the brink. The thinking is that with the last national brick and mortar chain gone, the Independent book store will cash in on the book buying market. They should be the natural venue and partner of Indie authors – except they are not. Indie authors’ best hope lies in the corporate giant and the bane of retailers, including Independents – Amazon. Amazon supports Indie authors while the vast majority of Independent booksellers treat them as the plague. Independent booksellers aren’t being very Indie at all, in fact they aren’t shaking things up, they are not being different, and their behavior suggests that “buy local-support Independents” is little more than a catch phrase of marketing that capitalizes on a spirit for different that they do not embody.

Independent booksellers may be proud of their independence, but in truth most are little more than Barnes & Noble without the corporate structure. They want support, they want the public to rally about their “spirit” of freedom from corporate rule and yet…they follow the exact same corporate ideals and models as the giants who have fallen before them. Some will claim they support Indie authors, but on closer inspection most of that support comes at author cost or is really little support at all. They simply follow the same operational practices as chain bookstores but don’t possess the ability to compete on cost. When they offer Indie space, they often require some kind of set-up fee, they limit the number of books they’ll display to five or so, and they require authors provide the books on consignment. In other words, their “support” is in the form of limited space, high author cost, high commission keeps, and no out-of-pocket expenses. A no risk model which predicts no reward.

The Independent stores argue that they need to make money. I agree, making money is the goal of every business. The bad news is adopting the business model used by the corporate book stores makes no money. Boarders used the model, Barnes and Noble uses the model, and the former is closed and the latter is not making money. After Blockbuster killed the Independents, they killed themselves. Blockbuster isn’t being replaced by a new wave of Independents, its being replaced by streaming video and DVD kiosks. Independents booksellers will do no better using corporate and commercial strategies than the corporations who invented and failed with those strategies. They will not survive simply because they are “local” or sell good coffee. They will survive if they can offer new and unique items and not the same old best sellers you can get for 30% less on Amazon or 20% less in Wal-Mart. And where is the new and unique coming from? The writers that they don’t want to work with – the Indie Writers.

Recently, Amazon approached the Independent bookstores with an offer. Amazon sells them Kindles for 6% off retail, bookstores sell them to customers and each time a customers buys an eBook from Amazon, the store gets a 10% commission. Many booksellers refuse. They see Amazon as the competition and the offer as a Trojan Horse. They believe that by denying Amazon access to their customers they can prevent the inevitable. Right. Barnes and Noble tried, they even engineered the Nook – guess what? It didn’t work.

The Amazon deal is a great opportunity, if the Independent bookstores are willing to actually be Indie. Selling Kindles means they can engage and promote the Indie Authors. They can direct their customers to an eBook purchase and keep 10% of the sale. They can use it as a platform to discover the best-selling independent ebooks, stock their stores with those in printed form, and work out distribution deals with Amazon or the authors. Instead, they are putting their collective heads in the sand and waiting for Barnes and Noble to fail so that they can be important in the eyes of the Publishing Houses and the Consumer. It’s a path to demise. Independents will survive in some areas but ultimately Amazon will open brick and mortar and do to the booksellers what Wal-Mart and Home Depot did to local owners.

It’s unfortunate because I think local artist, writers and musicians would love to partner with local independent bookstores. The public would love a new and interesting place to read, listen and to purchase the unique . A marriage between Indie spirits could make a difference in the marketplace. It could foster new things and enrich our culture. Instead the goal of Independents is to be the next Barnes and Noble, but more likely they will be the next Music World and Borders.  And that’s what is wrong with Indie Bookstores…too many of them don’t have the Indie Spirit.

24 replies »

  1. “Independent booksellers may be proud of their independence, but in truth most are little more than Barnes & Noble without the corporate structure. They want support, they want the public to rally about their “spirit” of freedom from corporate rule and yet…they follow the exact same corporate ideals and models as the giants who have fallen before them.”

    God what an insight. I’m gunna share this post with some more established writers I know. Every independent book owner should read this post.

  2. Reblogged this on inkposts and commented:
    A great post from Writing in a Dead World by Raymond. In it he looks at how Independent book sellers aren’t as independent as their name suggests, and how they’re looking to go the same way as physical music retailers (and some film ones if you include Blockbuster) if they don’t adapt. It’s an issue that most people have probably overlooked, but indie book stores have always had this attitude, and it’s about time someone addressed it:

  3. I think perhaps that your comments are an over simplication of the issue. I agree that evryone needs to make money however with that said many of the people who work in what is defined as independent bookstores do it for the love of the word. Let’s face it these people who work in bookstores or own them a lot of them can make a lot more money else where. My case in point is a book store called Hatchard in London. It’s been there is 1700s. The store is now owned by a much larger comglomerate but the traditions has continued exact as they were in the 40s and prior. There is a book store in Los Angeles called Book Soup. Writers come to read from their new works but more importantly I’ve discovered authors I would never have discovered any where else. At the end of the day if a company annot make money there it can remain viable.

    • Colin- I would say my comments are more a generalization of the issue rather than a simplification. And as you pointed out there are a few examples of those who embody “indie” but on a whole they do not. And as you pointed out they could be making more money doing something else- I’m suggesting they could make more money doing what they love but doing it a little different. Thanks for stopping by and commenting- opposing points of view are always welcome here!

  4. Great post, just don’t understand why book stores don’t realize that any sale is better than no sale. Logic dictates that to survive you need a lot of sales regardless of size.

  5. This was an eye-opening article. I’ve never thought about it, but you’re right. It’s not the local bookstores that support local writers – it’s the biggest multinational megastore in the world. I’m sure plenty of Indie bookstores still do, but overall, the best place for an unknown author to develop a following is now online.

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