From what I understand, book sales traditionally fall into the toilet around the holidays, or at least ebook and self-published book sales do. That makes sense: people are buying things for others, we don’t typically give digital gifts, and self-published stuff is usually too genre-heavy and niche to give as a present anyway. None of that lends itself to an uptick for self-published sales during holiday gift-giving season, and that’s fine.
Similarly, there’s a push around the holidays to buy locally from small businesses and handmade sellers, and small bookstores are usually included in those lists of who you should buy from. I don’t have qualms about that in theory, it’s great–really–but also I have some feelings when I think about it for longer than a second. And since this is my blog I’m going to share those feelings, and I’m sorry about that.
Is your local, one-off bookshop a great store? If you have one, then yeah, probably! It’s likely cute, quirky even, run by a really nice couple with a cat named something like F. Cat Fitzgerald that sleeps in a box by the register. It might even offer a lot of value to your community with book clubs and space to have local meetings and outreach programs, not to mention the fact that it simply employs people for what is hopefully a fair wage. So I want to be clear: I’m not anti-little bookstores. And also to be clear, I get the detriment the big baddies like Amazon are to the world at large. Hell, I have genuine guilt about being exclusive to the Zon and lining Bezos’s pockets with the couple pennies he’s made off my hard work just so he can pay his employees next to nothing.
But here’s the thing (and I’m shocked the big five publishing houses haven’t capitalized on this yet): the small bookstore makes being self-published almost impossible, and it makes being traditionally published even more gate-keepy than it already is.
That statement, to be fair, is mostly based on my opinion, but again, this is my blog. Don’t use me as a reference, use this as a point to start a little thought conversation with yourself.
If you’d like to publish a book and get it into a local shop without a publishing company, you have to pay upfront for that book to be physically produced and then sell those copies to a store. And dependent on how niche your book is, you might only have a few readers who access that store who would even be interested let alone willing to purchase a physical copy at full price of a work by an author they’ve never heard of. So you need to get a handful of copies into hundreds of stores all over the country to succeed in getting just a few readers at a huge overhead cost to yourself, and that cost comes after the costs of writing software, developmental editing, copyediting, line editing, beta readers, cover art, formatting, proof copies, and we haven’t even talked about shipping and advertising let alone returns.
But that’s self publishing, and self publishing is, well, vain, right? It’s technically a business, and no one else told you your work was good enough, so you should have to finance it. Fine, real authors, authors who deserve it, ought to go through a publishing house and get someone who believes in their story and talent to do all the ground work. Then the house can send off the copies to all the little bookshops in America, and everything will be just fine. But do any amount of research about gatekeepers and publishing and you’ll see a plethora of articles for and against it, but the overwhelming understanding that it absolutely exists, and that while we’re making some headway in the gender category, overwhelmingly white authors are the ones running the industry and getting published. (Here’s a little more info on demographics, not specific to publishing fiction.) And I don’t have numbers for it, but the stories that are being told are likely those of the same people as the author (which makes sense, write what you know and all that) but we all need diversity in story telling, and we need that diversity to come from people who have lived those experiences. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped reading a book because the characterization of the whole one female character in the story was based solely on her fuckability, now extrapolate that to race, disability, orientation, and experience in general. Who’s telling these stories, and where are they being published?
That’s where the giants come in. They give all of us more access to get our words out from the big five to the smaller, indie-ish presses, to the self-published. Sure, Twitter does the same thing, and it’s sort of a hellhole (and, yeah, self publishing can be like that too), but it also genuinely allows us to share our day-to-day and real-world lived experiences. Social media can be terrible, but it’s also made a huge cultural shift in many ways for the better by providing access and a platform. And the dreaded Zon does that too.
Do I think there’s room for both a giant market like Amazon and your little bookshop on Main Street? Yes, definitely! I don’t want you to deny F. Cat Fitzgerald a fresh bag of Greenies and force your Wednesday Westerns and Wine book club to relocate to Cheryl’s backyard she-shed, especially not in the winter. I’d just like you to keep in mind that a small bookshop is doing a small-scale version of what Amazon is: they’re shipping in books (but only the most popular, sellable ones, or the ones they think you’ve been conditioned to want) mostly by only major publishing houses and selling them to you at a premium price. But what those little, local shops probably aren’t doing is offering you digital books (which are better for the environment) or any voices that haven’t been plucked from the slush pile or been churned out by a room full of ghost writers under a popular novelist alias.
I didn’t mean for this to come off as anti-traditionally published books. I believe there is a significant merit to going through that slush pile, working together on editing, spending a lot of time in taking a draft to a finished, formatted piece of work, and presenting it to the world. Traditionally published books are, on the whole, usually much better (I say as a self-published author), but for $20 they should be! What I intended was to point out the little flaw in the “buy local” shtick that I understand is well-meaning but doesn’t take into account that some of these stores–especially local bookstores–are filled primarily with the most mass-marketed things, and often doesn’t get to the heart of the sentiment of buying small and local.
Basically, what I’m saying is, if you want to support a small business, you could buy from a self-published author. We rarely market ourselves that way, but holy shit are we ever exactly that. We employ almost all freelancers (who are their own small businesses), and are tiny teams of one doing work that comes from the very bottom of our hearts. We might not be local to you, but we’re as small as small business can get.
P.S. I’m not saying you should buy your mother-in-law a weredragon paranormal romance with questionable sex scenes every six pages, but if YOU are into that sort of thing consider sinking $0.99 into a stocking stuffer for yourself this season, and then you can feel a little less guilty about buying your brother that air fryer on Amazon.
P.P.S. I don’t write weredragon paranormal romances, so don’t get excited, I just want you to support people who do.