A great piece in the Seattle Times this week about how small publishers can thrive and compete thanks to print on demand and the rise of ebooks. In fact, all of the advantages self-publishers enjoy today are just as beneficial for small presses. You can cut out costly returns, print no more books than those you sell, and small presses can build a backlist that stays relevant and fresh for the rest of time.
Late last year, there were a handful of great reports on the health of independent bookstores. Check out this one at the Washington Post and another from NPR. I’ve been following the rise of indie shops for a few years now, back to when I worked in one. And I’m seriously considering opening a bookstore of my own (I blogged about what it would look like here).
It raises the question of who we should be pulling for as the publishing industry pivots and swerves. Not that we need to take sides at all, but I do find it curious that there is more of an outpouring of love and concern for the major brick and mortar chains and the Big 5 publishers than there is for everyone else. Are we rooting for Goliath? I think we are.
Amazon is often seen as the problem. But “Amazon” is a name for technological innovations that were going to happen whether we wanted them to or not. We might as well shake our fists at gravity. A lot of people are going to choose price and selection over any other concern. Which is why major publishers grew so big and why independent shops shuttered in the first place.
I remember going to see You’ve Got Mail in the late 90s. Back then, the giant and the boy with the sling were clear. Now, not so much. One of those boys-with-a-sling moved to Seattle and went from selling books out of his garage to the largest online retailer in the US. The question is, who is he dinging with his river stones?
It occurred to me a few months ago that perhaps we are slaying giants, and we just don’t realize it yet. Customers who prefer low prices and vast selection are now shopping online. The big boxes are hurting (Borders is gone and many pundits are counting the days before Barnes & Noble joins them). Independent bookstores, meanwhile, are seeing roughly 10% growth, year on year, for the past three years. It reminds me of how Yellowstone National Park restored an ecosystem by reintroducing wolves back into the environment. The wolves keep the deer population in check. The deer were rubbing on saplings, which prevents new forest growth and affects dozens of lifeforms downstream. The wolves were the little guy. The adorable deer were the menacing Goliaths.
Our Author Earnings reports have highlighted the strength not just of self-published authors but also of small presses. The digital revolution is making it possible for mom-and-pop publishers to compete on a level playing field. Look at the system we are bemoaning the loss of: It means five behemoth publishers paying tons of money to control which books greet you as you walk into a cavernous space just as much crammed with toys and gifts as actual books. Are we really going to miss this? Or are we going to welcome the return of bookstores that cater to their communities, where local business owners thrive, and where thousands of individual presses support a lot more authors.
Hollywood’s blockbuster model of low-risk re-makes and sequels has been working its way into publishing, and that has not been a good thing. That is another Goliath being slayed. Replacing this is a world in which every rural town, no matter how small, has a digital bookstore in each living room, bedroom, and pocket. Replacing this is a world in which anyone can hone their craft, publish their works, and find a reader or two. Replacing this is the rise of independent bookstores, the rise of reading, the rise of literature, the rise of working-class writers, and the rise of all those myriad publishers who in a previous age were conquered and consumed by what we now call the Big 5.
Don’t get me wrong, I hope the major publishers survive. The world can’t have enough Davids.