Fight the power…kind of.

If there’s anything an author likes more than the prospect of publication, it’s getting down and dirty with a new cause to fight for (I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I’m going to go with the theory anyway). And what to my wondering eyes should appear this evening but this article about the latest battle: boycotting Borders.

For, er, not selling your books.

Okay, that’s not really the whole story. Essentially the furor stems from Borders deciding to substantially cut back on the new sci-fi books they carry, mostly for cost-cutting reasons (Borders is in bad financial shape, in case you haven’t heard)…all of which has much of the sci-fi community up in arms, not surprisingly. As io9’s article discusses, writers from Gregory Frost to Tobias Buckell to Pat Cadigan have run into this problem, despite pretty solid sales of their earlier books, and as a consequence some of them (especially Pat) have floated the idea of getting back at Borders the old-fashioned way: walking out and taking their new books with them. (Which seems a bit like quitting before you can get fired to make you feel better, since I thought the issue was that Borders won’t buy these books to begin with, but I digress.)

On the one hand I’m sympathetic, since there’s no question that a lot of the massive stores have shockingly pathetic stock (seriously, when you have every new Princess Di biography known to man and no copies of The Faerie Queen, there’s trouble right here in River City, folks), and I’m all about supporting local bookstores (when I can find them, since many have been knocked out by branches of said massive stores). But on the other hand, as a soon to be debut author (well, in fiction anyway) myself, the thought of going into big time chain bookstores and seeing my books on the shelves is, well, pretty freaking cool, and I doubt that I’m alone in feeling that way. And it strikes me that Borders is not likely to be doing this out of hatred for all things sci-fi, but rather out of the desperate knowledge that it has no idea how to restore itself to financial health and is trying to consolidate as best it can (for more on how well this kind of thing usually works, see Boutique, Electronics).

Still, there’s no doubt that something is up–as Frost points out, his first book sold well, but apparently not well enough to warrant space for the second one…and since Borders refuses to tell anyone what sales would be good enough for them, there really aren’t any tea leaves to read in the first place. I think this whole issue basically boils down, then, to three conclusions:

1. There’s no doubt that Amazon has badly hurt the brick and mortar store…but there’s also no doubt that the brick and mortar store was never quite as much the salvation for authors some said it was. Of course bookstore employees are always valuable selling resources, and the people who do this are dedicated and smart…but they’re also bookstore employees, and thus they ultimately don’t call the shots on what books do and don’t get carried in the first place. That said, I think there still is a place–and a significant one–for the brick and mortar store, largely because it is the browsing experience that drives people to get out to stores and not just sit in front of their computers doing book searches all day. But don’t expect the brick and mortar store to be able to carry every book everywhere, and don’t get annoyed when they don’t have your favorite author immediately to hand…since they are not Amazon, and have to maintain costs at some level. Which brings me to:

2. Independent bookstores are where it’s at. I don’t really have anything against the big chain stores (see above comment about the coolness factor), but as Frost and others point out, there’s pretty much no argument that indie bookstores are just more likely to carry stuff which isn’t the fifth variant on Princess Di or Harry Potter than a big chain store. So supporting them is definitely the way to go, and more useful for you if you’re a dedicated brick and mortar person; if you’re concerned about cost, you should be at Amazon anyway, and if you’re in the browsing mode, indies will offer more of what you want in the long run. And while we’re on the subject of browsing:

3. Libraries don’t suck. Really. I know it’s anathema for some authors to bring this up, in part because libraries order a few copies of books rather than as many as they can sell, but this is a big error for the following reason: people who frequent libraries talk to other people about the books they find there, and those people buy books, or at least request them from their local librarian. And librarians, of course, are pretty much the be all and end all of book lovers. Get a librarian on your side as an author and you’re well on your way to getting noticed by that library’s patrons, which can have all kinds of dividends down the road. Since the publisher for The Third Sign does a good portion of its business in the library market I might be a trifle biased, of course, but ultimately I plan to do readings and signings at indie bookstores and even a chain store or two in addition to the library world, besides the ubiquitous Amazon presence…and down the road, of course, I hope to be in any and all venues I can.

So I’m not sure I’m on board the boycott Borders bandwagon as much as I’m on the check out the alternatives train. But don’t worry, you’re not sinful and unclean if you venture into a chain bookstore. Unless you pick up another Princess Di bio, in which case there really wasn’t hope for you to begin with.