Wednesday, June 03, 2009

More on Alexie

Shelf Awareness included more info from Sherman Alexie's panel at BEA.

About different sales venues for books:
Sherman Alexie, winner of this year's inaugural Indies Choice Book Award for Most Engaging Author and National Book Award winner for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown), said that his career was made by independents. In Costco, he said, "I feel like an eight-and-a-half pound jar of peanut butter." When he pays with a credit card in a chain bookstore, he said, maybe 10% of the employees notice his name, but in an independent bookstore, they see his card and begin whispering, "Is that him?" or "He's taller than I thought."

He also spoke out in favor of independents:
"I'm all for elitist bastards," said Alexie, "if you're an elitist bastard bookseller." The uniqueness of each store is based on who works there, he continued. "One of the good things we're doing [as a nation] is going back to local." He cited the film Smoke Signals [Alexie wrote the screenplay, based on his short story "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"], for which Alexie insisted that the film's publicist organize an event in Albuquerque, N.M. The publicist didn't understand why. "Because 100,000 Indians live there," he responded.

But Alexie has reason to be skeptical of the current digital landscape for books. Shelf Awareness provides better context for Alexie's thoughts - now mildly retracted or at least softened - on e-books and the Kindle:
"I'm the last author whose fiction is not available digitally, a lonely man on an island--I don't know how many of us there are," said Alexie. He called the e-book "the opposite of the Gutenberg press," adding, "Mass printing was egalitarian. Machines are elitism. Maybe because I come out of a poor place. Poor places have very little access [to technology]--still." Alexie also argued that a movement toward e-books could result in a few entities monopolizing and homogenizing books. "There's less chance for eccentric writers. Publishers will consider [in the acquisition process] the question, 'How will a book do electronically?' The Kindle homogenizes books, and e-books homogenize them even more."

Again, fair point! I'd like to see him write up an essay on this point soon and go into more depth, because most people are not hearing it at that kind of big, national level.

There is potential for digital books to reach niche audiences, but only audiences that have access to the technology. How do we account for that component?

I remember going into a used bookstore in Humble, Texas, all excited as I was in high school and had discovered how cool book culture could be. This store was full of very cheap mass markets - probably $1, mostly romance and westerns. I kept trying to find other things in this tiny space while an overweight, older woman stared at me, clearly knowing I was in the wrong place but refusing to tell me outright. But that was a niche readership being well served, and the people reading those books will not have access to a Kindle, other reader, or even a computer necessarily. How do we in publishing address that?


Christopher said...

This is a great argument from Alexie and the non-democratizing aspect of the Kindle is also something to reckon with, no? For a book to "work" you need the book and the sun. To read a Kindle book? Don't get me started.

However, that piece at the end? Humble, Texas? Awww, shucks. Just a lonely kid looking for books in Humble...that's all I am...just a humble kid looking for books in Lonely, Texas. For reals.

Brian said...

I'm going to take that second paragraph as earnestness rather than sarcasm, despite knowing better. First round next week is on you all the same, as penance.