BY GREG FIELD
An author slaves for countless hours on a manuscript for the same reason a bookseller slaves for countless hours in their shop. The author hones their text in an attempt to write something both entertaining and meaningful. The bookseller wants to hand sell the fruit of that writer’s work to a reader of schlock fiction. There is a sense of higher purpose that I feel is absent in the current self-publishing/digital publishing milieu. Being a likely (n00b) self-published digital author myself in the near future I will inevitably have to sell my product on Amazon. As a recently retired independent bookseller I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradox that presents.
Closing my bookshop hurt like hell and it was sad to leave without another owner taking over - but who’s buying bookshops these days? When I closed, customers were shocked. People expressed grief, they bemoaned the internet as the purveyor of death and destruction. It’s not really like that. Traditional publishing was riding for a fall.
Here are three business strategies - which one is more effective?
‘Sell ’em what they want for as much as you can charge.’ - Standard model
‘Sell ’em what they want as cheap as you can till you own the game. Then charge what you like.’ - Amazon model
‘Sell ’em enough of what they want to stay in business but try and publish something “good” while you’re at it.’ - Publishing model
Darth Bezos saw this fatal weakness in publishing and exploited it. Digital disruption of retail is a fact of life and traditional publishers were ripe for disruption.
The skills required to own and run a bookshop become more demanding as the digital disruption increases. Successful independent booksellers have to be masterful sales people and great at marketing and PR. More and more they are relying on their skills as event managers too. Booksellers also have to be hard-headed business people with the ability to project cash flows, manage tax issues, negotiate leases and get the best possible deal from suppliers. They have to be HR managers as well. Given the nature of the organised and ruthless competition, is it any wonder we are losing our local bookshops?
Personally I hope my decade owning a bookshop gives me some insight into my new work as a writer. During the helter skelter of Christmas trade two years ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a person in my head. That person was Professor Israel Wren: a hyperactive half-caste amateur sleuth with a penchant for birds (of the feathered kind). He’s since been joined by Gary Warburton, a boofy Aussie foil for a well heeled bloodhound. I’ve finished the first draft ofa murder mystery featuring Israel and Gary called ‘Death on Dangar Island’ and have been putting the second draft up on digital story-sharing platform Wattpad. I’m doing the Wattpad thing to help build an audience, but also to help me fine-tune the manuscript. Knowing my work is about to go live helps me focus on the more mundane aspect of writing - editing it so it’s readable. By the time I’ve finished this draft I’ll hopefully have a better idea about how to sell it. The most likely path will be self-publishing, but hey - I’m open to offers from traditional publishers!
In my last few years as a bookseller I tried to learn as much as I could about the digital world because I could see the changes happening around me. I garnered a passing knowledge of the interwebz and I’m hoping that and my marketing and small business skills will stand me in good stead for my app development venture. I recently started ‘Lazy Dad Studios’ with an old friend. Our first app, ‘Words4Cards’, is a library of phrases and sayings curated into categories for social occasions like birthdays, weddings and funerals.
Because the barriers to entry have dropped so low, the market for apps, like the market for ebooks, is being flooded with n00bz (like myself) pushing out product and competing for attention. This automatically floods the market and lowers the price while increasing competition. Hopefully, the cream rises to the top and the consumer benefits in terms of both price and quality. There is also an interesting fluidity about what apps are and what they actually do. To build a ‘cut through’ app these days means breaking new ground, not just in content but also in form. Novelty is king and the digital medium is so new and so malleable that surprise has become obligatory. I have a suspicion that some people want to take ebooks in this direction as well.
What are ebooks anyway? - I’m not sure we know yet. I’m not sure Darth Bezos even knows yet. What is immersive reading? Did you just click that link? Did it enhance your experience of this text? To me, the ‘Ooh where does this link go’ type of reading is very different to the sublime sensation of being wholly involved with a text. Does text really have to become something else to survive? Will ‘reading’ become just another multimedia experience?
We need to define reading and set it apart from other types of interwebz entertainment. And booksellers could be just the type of people to help do that. People who understand that text does not have to be digitally interactive to create a memorable ‘user experience’ will be valuable in the battle to maintain a love of the art of the written word. If these people have business, marketing and social skills as well, then this makes them even more valuable.
In conversation the other day I jokingly characterised traditional publishing as the Galactic Empire and digital publishing as the Rebel Alliance. I was immediately corrected by my (nerdier) friend who pointed out that traditional publishing is actually the Rebel Alliance. It’s traditional publishers who are the desperate fragments ofa once great republic banding together to fight an all powerful enemy. (Hence my previous references to Darth Bezos.) The Empire is Amazon and it is already in control.
Amazon sells ‘stuff’. It started with books and now it’s moved on to all sorts of things. I think its initial selection of books as a product was deliberate but not motivated by a love of books. If widgets were a more appropriate choice at the time then it would have chosen widgets. Amazon isn’t about books, its about money.
If Amazon is The Galactic Empire, then The Book Depository are the Sith; the very embodiment of the dark forces that conspire to rule the galaxy. The Book Depository had a very simple business plan: Make itself a big enough pain in the butt that Amazon wouldoffer to buy it. This is exactly what happened and now The Book Depository is part of Amazon and the people who founded The Book Depository can spend more time skiing at St Moritz or sunning themselves on Martinique. This is money, this is business strategy, this is technology - but this is not books.
I loved stocking good books and convincing people to read them - but they were always a financial risk. It was much easier to simply stock what you knew would sell. Would you prefer to buy a book from someone who wants to show you something new, something different, something ‘good’? Or from someone who is happy for you just to choose something yourself from a zillion titles?
When it all went right I felt like a Jedi! As a bookseller I used to take in everything about a customer; their appearance, their speech, what they claimed to be looking for!. Then I asked a few questions, like: ‘What was the last book you read and enjoyed?’ I’d also try to find out exactly why they enjoyed it. This data was cross-referenced against my product knowledge and hopefully an appropriate title suggested itself. While it’s true I never got someone to buy a book by just gazing silently in their eyes, there was definitely a sense of the ‘light side’ when placing the right book in the right set of hands.
I’ve heard the argument that social media and various book suggestion programs are the equal, if not the better of an expertly suggested book. Should you rely on your Goodreads or Facebook friends to decide which book you need? Should your taste in literature be influenced by an algorithm or worse still by an Amazonian sock puppet? This question has become even more important recently with Goodreadsbeing subsumed into the Galactic Empire of Amazon.
What will become of all the wonderful, knowledgeable, socially skilled curators of literature I know as fellow booksellers? For those of us already heading in a new direction it’s a wide open road and we have the skill set to thrive in the new digital world. For those still walking the floor, doing their best to put good books in the right hands - ‘May the Force be with you.’
Greg Field owned and managed an independent bookstore of the “dead tree” variety for more than a decade. Recently, he’s changed direction and founded app development company Lazy Dad Studio. He’s also writing the first in a series of murder mysteries: Death on Dangar Island. Greg is @GregPField on Twitter.