Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Amazon AND indie booksellers can succeed without trying to murder one another

I found an infuriating link on Twitter this morning entitled "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller."

I'll let that sink in for a minute.
Obligatory shot of a bookstore. Image by Polifemus on Flickr.

I was and will probably always be an advocate for indie booksellers because a) I always believe in supporting local businesses and b) I've enjoyed being an employee and a patron of indie booksellers for years. However, I'm also a huge fan of Amazon. It's convenient, it has a lot of great interface features, I can get books that would be impossible to find otherwise, etc. etc. etc. So I find it difficult to compare the two. It's kinda-sorta-but-not-really analogous to comparing, say, Wal-Mart and your local clothing store. Wal-Mart sells convenience (okay, they sell cheap plastic crap) in large quantities; the local clothing store may buy small quantities of quality product. Amazon and indie booksellers generally sell very similar or identical products, but the difference is the venue and the experience.

Customers of indie booksellers often don't go into the store with targeted intent. They go to browse, to see what's on the shelves, to handle the books. It's a tactile experience. Customers on Amazon may browse too, but more often I think people go on the site in search of something specific. They may find impulse buys and recommendations, so to speak, but mostly it's a targeted experience. I have to speak anecdotally, of course, since I haven't done any consumer studies.

There are a few factors working against indie booksellers. The first is, of course, Amazon's ability to stock huge quantities of millions of books and distribute them internationally. Indie stores are limited to a smaller, local group of patrons. The second and maybe more salient point is that Amazon can do a passable-to-good job of emulating the brick-and-mortar store experience. Notice the very slick visual displays of products and recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history (creepy but useful). It's super easy to browse, but importantly, super easy to find what you want. An indie store can't compete with Amazon in that regard. Customers have to rely on the booksellers themselves to find a certain item or to recommend books. This is hardly a travesty, but as the linked article mentions, human employees can't match computer accuracy.

A notable exception to the indie seller's local patronage is its seller's ability to distribute through Amazon's marketplace. Both the stores I worked in did up to 10-15% of their daily business this way (very rough estimate based on personal experience). All of these books were used copies of mostly out-of-print books that Amazon didn't stock. This is the indie seller's strength. Amazon's Marketplace virtual storefront is driven largely by these indie sellers. Amazon makes a tidy profit from commission on these items. I think this is actually a great concept: out-of-print and rare book distribution in one central location. Indie sellers can (and do, to a certain extent) use the Power of the Amazon Megalith (tm) to their advantage.

The problem is that indies just can't compete with Amazon when it comes to the biggest part of the market, which is new and recent releases. Indie booksellers do not "mark up" their product. They sell books for the list price, which is set by the publisher. Amazon marks products down. For every indie that can sell one copy of Dean Koontz's new novel for $25 (which they bought for not much less), Amazon can sell it for, say, $17, because they bought a bajillion and they have a distribution agreement with the publisher and so on.

All this means that indie booksellers are going to have to evolve. I'm not arguing that they're in some ways outdated and outmoded. I'm saying they shouldn't have to compete directly with Amazon. Why not work with the ways they can be successful? There will always be room for second-hand books and out-of-print books. Why not also take a cue from indie clothing stores and acquire small quantities of quality books--from, say, indie publishers? Wouldn't that be a match made in heaven? What if every indie bookseller only acquired books from indie publishers? Potential exposure and business for everyone. Indie booksellers can carry beautiful special edition hardbacks--pieces of art for book lovers who enjoy having physical books. There's a market that hasn't yet been tapped, and Amazon hasn't made special efforts to do so.

I'm really not here to debate the worthiness of Amazon as a business entity. I'm wary of it. I have a lot of problems with any company that seeks to create a monopoly. But I also think that because of its size and frankly genius business policies, it's provided some fantastic opportunities for consumers. I mean, you can get a Kindle for $79 now. A lot of people can benefit from this: people who don't live within easy driving distance of a bookstore, for example. They don't have to pay shipping on an e-book. A more significant example is visually impaired people who can't read print books. E-readers, Kindles in particular, provide a viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional book distribution. They make it so people who may not otherwise have opportunities to do so can have access to readable material.

I don't understand the Slate article writer's claim that consumers should not support local businesses like bookstores. Buy from corporations, fine, but the idea of avoiding a small business because hrr drr they're not Corporation X wrongheaded and frankly stupid. As an author, I would rather you buy my book from a local business or (gasp!) directly from my publisher. Supporting small/local businesses is better for the economy and better for you--ergo, better for authors.

Don't get me started on his last line, which claims that Amazon is "saving literary culture." Literary culture is not just one entity. It is possible to enjoy the convenience and accessibility of Amazon while also purchasing quality product of a slightly different kind from your local bookstore. Literary culture will evolve, survive and thrive even in a terrible economy because people need books. It's true that consumers require different things now and indie bookselling is a little slow on the uptake--but it needn't always be that way.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Balancing personal taste with a critical perspective

A lot of students tell me that they don't like a certain piece of writing because it isn't their preferred style of reading or writing. To quote one student, "If the style of writing is not what I prefer to read or write, I can’t handle it."

I'm all for allowing students to dislike certain pieces. They ought to form opinions about literature. Hell, there are some styles of lit that I just can't stand. I think what annoys me about the student's mindset is the implication that because the student doesn't care for something, or if it doesn't fit the student's definition of "good," it isn't legitimate and it lacks quality. Last year I taught Push, the novel by Sapphire. If you've never heard of it, look it up. It's grim. It's dark. Some students didn't like it for those reasons and didn't think it was "real literature," so they shut off, they complained to my boss, and I even had two people drop the class because they didn't want to read it.

To a certain extent, that's legit. It's their choice what they read and what they don't read. But to use a metaphor from Tiger, you can't say that a well-cooked corn dish is bad because you don't like corn. If it is technically, objectively well-cooked, then it's well-cooked. The same goes for writing. There are objective aspects of writing and reading--maybe not the same ones as cooking, granted, but a reader/editor can (and should be able to) acknowledge that a piece of writing has value and quality even if it is not to the reader's taste. Take Faulkner. I'm probably un-American in my dislike of Faulkner, but his writing is simply not to my taste. However, I still teach a couple of stories that are, objectively, very good. That is, they fulfill the purpose the author intended them to fulfill. They're not to my taste, but they're still fine examples of how a short story can be written.

I find that many (too many) people analyze stories on a completely subjective level, absolutely without any effort at critical thinking. They think that being a critic will take the fun out of it. Or something. I find exactly the opposite. Attempting to analyze theme and meaning deepens the experience for me and opens up new levels of appreciation for stories I like on a subjective level as well as stories I wouldn't otherwise like.

This brings me to editing. I've been a professional writing critic for a number of years on several different levels in several different capacities. I've read a lot of writing that was shitty objectively, and I've read a lot of writing that I struggled to appreciate but accepted anyway because I could see that the writer was achieving his/her/zir purpose. This capacity to appreciate that which you may not subjectively enjoy is a key skill for an editor to cultivate. If you edit professionally, you will read genres/styles/stories you don't care for. It's vital to understand the difference between aspects of a work you don't like and aspects that aren't successful or effective.

The best advice I can give in order to understand this difference is to assume that the writer is doing everything on purpose. Assume that the writer meant to choose that particular word or make that shift in authorial distance or twist the plot that certain way. You can question whether the author's choice is effective overall--that's your job as an editor, after all--but consider the author's purpose first. Does it fulfill that purpose? Does it fulfill the story promise? Then consider getting over it.

I've struggled with this myself. Some of my students/editing clients have written pieces that I absolutely would not read if I had the choice. They're just not the type of stories I enjoy reading for pleasure. I've had to train myself to consider what the author is trying to do and to help him/her/zir do it more effectively, for his/her/zir intended audience. Yeah, this is difficult, but as a teacher it's unfair of me to dock points because a story is not to my taste, and as an editor it's unfair of me to ask the writer to write what I want them to write.

Feel free to make a note of what you like/don't like/aren't sure about, because your input as a reader counts, but if you ever think, "I don't like this story/I think it's a crappy story because I hate zombies" (yeah, sorry, I really do hate them), take a step back and question yourself. Do you think it's crap because you find it cliche, or are you having a knee-jerk reaction to your hatred of the shambling horde? If I hadn't let my then-boyfriend talk me into watching Dawn of the Dead because of my unreasoning hatred for zombie movies, I wouldn't have grown to appreciate the parody aspect of the movie and understand its message. I grant that my skepticism of zombies in general lead me to question what possible value this 90-minute romp into absurdity had. That's not a bad thing. It made me a more critical viewer, which then likely allowed me to experience the movie in a deeper, more meaningful fashion.

I'm not saying that a reader/editor can't have opinions or can't dislike something on a subjective taste level. I'm advocating critical thinking. There's a lot of literature out there that is not to my taste, but some people like it and I can objectively understand why they like it. I found my intelligence constantly insulted while reading The Da Vinci Code, but I can understand why a bajillion people bought it and loved it. Many readers liked it for exactly the reasons I hated it. I wasn't Dan Brown's intended audience and that's okay. I would still have edited the fucker to death, but in the service of helping the author fulfill his purpose, not making the book into what I would rather read.

Whether you love or hate something you read, I think it's important to consider why you had that reaction. Understand that you may not be the author's intended audience, but consider whether the piece of writing works before you pass judgment.