Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Need for Loyalty in a Saturated Consumer World

I read this story from Eugenia Williamson in the Boston Phoenix with an eyebrow cocked. It opens with news that indie bookstores are hot property in Boston right now, and goes on to explain how the big chains - B&N and Borders - are suffering from not jumping into the digital market fast enough and are now "closing outlets." I'm all for wishing these big bullies away and celebrating the sustainability of the indie bookstore, but I'm not sure I agree we are out of the woods just yet. Here's hoping! (I appreciate the commenter that mentions how unfortunate it is she didn't go a bit further out of town - something I'm guilty of myself! - to check out Back Pages Books in Waltham.)

What I do love about the article though, beyond this lede, is the way Williamson talks to both booksellers and literary agents, getting both sides of the story and presenting a wider picture of publishing, from what's selling to publishers through to what's selling to readers. It's all the same process, after all, but we have a tendency to talk about them separately, which runs the risk of making the whole industry more complicated than it really is. It was interesting to hear agents talk about what genres may get lost in the move to e-readers - reference are gone, genre fiction is next supposedly - and which are doing better than ever - business books, cookbooks, etc.... This doesn't address the fears about how we are going to allow for new experimental voices, especially in literary fiction, if readers get used to paying no more than $9.99 for a new book.

I spent today in lovely Plymouth, New Hampshire, where I visited two bookstores, one new books and one used: the Plymouth Book Exchange and the Readery. In typical New England fashion, it's completely counter-intuitive which is which. In fact, the Book Exchange is new books while Readery is used. Because Plymouth is a somewhat small college town, these bookstores were the main ones, as far as I know. The person I know who lives there said she goes to a Borders when she visits friends in New York. As we looked around these stores, it was like going back in time. (I'm sorry to say that as I know it sounds so condescending.) The new bookstore, which clearly did most of its business in textbooks for Plymouth State, has an odd mix of books - self-help, random fiction titles, some genre fiction mass markets. They were not marked down at all - they cost the price on the book. I was reminded of the B. Dalton in the mall where I grew up, which I have written about here before. Meanwhile, at the used bookstore, there was ample genre fiction. In fact, there was a big sign about what authors' books they'd take - mostly romance writers - with a note (I believe) that said nothing pre-1990. Someone came in and asked the woman about their policy and she also mentioned that they won't buy hardcover fiction, interestingly. They did have a general fiction that had some decent literary titles - Michelle Cliff, for example - but it was quite limited.

We come back to the problem of a limited market. Omnesha Roychoudhuri's new article in the Boston Review is getting a lot of attention, as she takes on Amazon and its business practices, and the potential impact its having on literature and reading. (Hooray for the BR getting all the attention!) This is where I recently was reminded of this concern many have that new novelists will have no market if readers expect only cheap books. Roychoudhuri quotes literary agent David Gernert as saying, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s Ford County, for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?” A fair point. The article nicely sums up, though sometimes in a slightly sloppy fashion, a lot of the problems with Amazon's style of cornering the market and then abusing the producers. (Ted Striphas nicely lays this out in a larger context in his book, The Late Age of Print, which I'd highly recommend.) But one of Roychoudhuri's detractors in a comment below states,
A lot of indie bookstores went down (or are going down) because they are too elitist, too focused on handselling what they consider to be "great literature" instead of great reads. If I get on Amazon and want to buy a beach read, I don't get sneered at by some indie bookstore clerk with an eyebrow ring and a condescending attitude. Amazon makes suggestions, but no judgments. I have been in way too many indie bookstores where the staff was unwelcoming, unfriendly, ill-informed and frankly unpleasant. No wonder people prefer to buy online.
I am guessing I wouldn't agree with this person's politics, but the point remains. What if your local indie bookseller is not handselling the books you want to read? What if, as in the case in Plymouth, they have too limited a selection for you? And what about the so-called brown bag factor - the benefits to buying online / digitally, so no one knows what you've bought? Roychoudhuri discusses Amazon's creepy auto-recommend feature, which is based on complicated system that favors certain titles and publishers. But this reader is saying s/he wants an impersonal recommendation.

The counter to that argument, I suppose, is that it's not as "private" as you think. Just because ordering a book on Amazon will not make your neighbor's 16 year old daughter working behind the counter at Molly's Books raise her eyebrows doesn't mean no one is keeping tabs on your purchases. Amazon's computers are watching, and even moreso with Kindle purchases. It may be more abstract, but buying online means your purchases are in fact being monitored more than ever.

Honestly, I think back to the cashier I referenced in my last post, at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston. The reality is that we all shop in different places, and customer loyalty doesn't have to mean absolute monogamy. There are places I will always avoid - I'm staring at big fat you, Walmart - and places I'll always favor - indie bookstores. I hope my favoring those stores will help them thrive, and I'll keep hoping that until I'm with Eugenia Williamson, glowing in the warmth of a healthy indie bookstore world, even right here in Boston (and the larger Boston metro area).


Christopher said...

Are there independent bookstores in Boston proper?

Brian said...

There is Jamaicaway Books in JP (, which may or may not be Boston proper. Otherwise, I think only used bookstores, such as the Brattle ( and Commonwealth Books ( Sadly, Symposium Books closed their location in Kenmore Square recently - they sold remainders mostly. They still have locations in Providence, RI (

Brian said...

Oh, and the Raven (also used) opened a pretty nice store on Newbury Street not too long ago (

Christopher said...

And those are the stores considered "hot commodities?"

Brian said...

No, so you're right. The article was talking about the Boston metro area in general and not stating outright on ongoing problem: there are no independent (new) bookstores in Boston proper. More on this to come!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Trident. Also, to be fair, Book Exchange had a well-stocked cultural studies section with a charmingly idiosyncratic mix of academic and trade titles.