December 22, 2011
Be One of the Five Thousand
by Dan Simon
December 22, 2011
A few years ago there was a movement urging people to buy books as gifts. It was an important issue then, but not nearly as important as it is now.
Independent bookstores are experiencing a modest renaissance. Ten new stores have opened up in New York City alone. The older bookstores that have survived the retailing wars of the last thirty years have done so because the people working in them were resilient and became incredibly creative and knowledgeable. They are a generation of teachers now.
In recent weeks Amazon made available a price check app so its customers could browse store shelves and then purchase from Amazon. If I may make an immodest proposal, go to Amazon’s Search Inside the Book to browse, then go to your local bookstore to buy. The absurdity of a world with just one huge store isn’t a hard notion to grasp. None of us would want to inhabit such a world. Yet we take for granted the richness of our universe without thinking we have to do anything to keep it so. (It isn’t Amazon specifically that I’m against, it’s the idea of market dominance through extreme price cutting. Were it not for that aspect, I might be writing that Amazon adds tremendously to the quality of the marketplace for books.)
Publishers are hostage to the vagaries of the retail sector and the ongoing revolution in people’s habits relating to information and entertainment. Whichever parts of the retail sector are healthy benefit good publishing. But the unhealthy parts—a struggling economy and an ever-changing cascade of new business models and shifting reading habits—pose challenges. At this moment, just months after the demise of the nation’s second largest bookstore chain, the challenges have never been greater.
The threshold for empowerment is low. Publishers and our nation’s bookstores aren’t looking to sell millions of copies of most books. Typically, an independent publisher is looking to sell just 5,000 copies on average of even a great book. That means that every librarian, every bookseller, and each and every reader has an important voice in deciding what gets published and which books stay in print.
E-books are an interesting development. They add to the range of reading habits and lifestyles; they also add to the efficiency of what has always been a fabulously inefficient industry; and, yes, they reduce the size of the market for printed and bound books. But the big question isn’t about format, it’s about price. The strongest decision you can make right now as a reader is to not always go for the cheapest price you can find. Pay more to get more.
What are booksellers looking for? I think they’re looking for us to be forceful in our choices about where we buy. Studies show that dollars spent in the local economy save huge numbers of good jobs, whereas dollars spent at international chains kill jobs and hurt communities. Every time you buy local you’re doing something for your friends and neighbors as well as yourself.
Books aren’t going away. They continue to be the primary source for new ideas. They tell our history. And they point us in the direction of our future. So consider yourself reminded. Be one of the five thousand people who keep book culture alive. Read books, talk about them. Give them as gifts.
Dan Simon is the publisher of Seven Stories Press, which is based in New York City.