Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Big Box Store Dilemma

I desperately want to unequivocally support local, independent bookstores. Certainly, I go out of my way to spend time and money at Uncle Hugo’s, which is not only independent and bricks and mortar, but is also one of a vanishing breed – the science fiction and fantasy specialty store. I also try to push customers their way. For a long time they were the only store in the nation that sold new copies of the out-of-print books by other me.

Uncle Hugo’s is a writer’s dream. They’ve always ordered a lot of my books, hand sold them to customers with similar interests, they rarely send back “returns,” and they’re generally warmly disposed when I call begging for signing time when a new book’s release date rolls around. They’ve supported me despite a career change, and has always had a very broad definition of what constitutes SF/F and has always carried a number of paranormal romantic titles.

For their sake, I would wish all big box bookstores to be swallowed by the monster from the deep (or at least suffer tragic, mortally wounding sales.)


Then I go to somewhere like Rockford, Illinois, and have a fantastic signing at a --gasp-- Barnes & Noble, and suddenly I don’t know how to feel about all this.

I don’t think I sold particularly extraordinarily at Rockford. I probably sold a half dozen books (possibly a few more), but there was a surprising amount of foot traffic considering that this store was a stand-alone building in a big box store oasis that had more parking lots than trees. Because there were people wandering around, I was able to sell a few books based on my aggressive business acumen (which is to say I harassed someone into buying a copy of TD&D). I also handed out a fist-full of postcards advertising the next book, telling potential customers that the postcards were FREE, and if they decided they wanted the book after all, they could always come back and pick up a copy I’d signed. Hopefully, that sort low-pressure of approach will move even more books. Who knows? More to the point, B&N had ordered a fair number of TD&D and not only had signs all over the store announcing my presence, but they also had one of their friendlier staff walking around showing off copies of my books and telling people they had a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to meet a real, live romance author.

Plus, they bought me coffee.

It’s hard to hate people who buy you coffee.

I will never, ever abandon my local, independent bookstores, but there are certain advantages to these large box bookstores. You might find this counterintuitive, but I have had a lot easier time booking signings at remote venues by contacting big boxes. Once, when Shawn and I knew we were going to be traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, I tried like the devil to get any independent bookstore to give me a signing. I called several months in advance, but got bumpkin for a response. The most famous independent bookstore in Phoenix, Tattered Cover, explained to me that I could have a signing, IF I was willing to pay them. “Book signings, you understand,” the manager sniffed, “don’t net us any profit. If you want to rent space from us, you can. Fifty bucks an hour.”

I blanched. No way was I going to rent out a space in a book store that also promised absolutely no support in terms of publicity – It wasn’t even clear they’d order books for me. So, I gave up on the independents. I went on-line and searched for a B&N with a science fiction reading group. By chance, there was one in the Phoenix area, I called them and talked to their community relations person and had a signing scheduled by the end of a ten minute phone call.

That Phoenix signing was a big seller. I sold over sixteen books AND I met the reviewer who reviewed Other Me’s first novel for Romantic Times. The trip was a humongerous success.

And they bought me coffee.

Did I mention the free caffeine?

What do you think? Big box = evil? Or?


Jane said...

Okay, I consider myself uniquely qualified to answer this post, since I own an independent occult book store in Minneapolis, and my first full-time job was with a chain store (Waldenbooks . . . pre-B&N days).

Go where they want you. All the big box guys are staffed by real little-box types of booklovers. If the independents are too incompetant to want to schedule and host events, then they don't deserve to stay in business.

Our store philosophy on signings is that signings are there for the author and for the customer. It's a service we provide. If we were trying to stay in business competing on volume, we would go out of business. People come because we are BETTER than the big guys, not because we are independent. We do not and will not charge an author to come to our store unless the author is charging the customer. Our profit comes from our rabidly loyal customer base.

Any event that is fun and generates energy is good for business. Any independent bookseller that is throwing of that hoity-toity vibe is going to start losing customers and then whine that the bigshots put them out of business. They put themselves out of business because they didn't care enough to support the writers and the customers.

OOOh, that store REALLY pisses me off!

Naomi said...

My impression (which could be unfair) is that literary-type independent bookstores don't want to host genre authors unless we're, say, Neil Gaiman or something. They want to be hosting the Next Big Literary Thing. I've signed at one independent SF bookstore out of area -- Pandemonium, in Harvard Square. They were incredibly welcoming and helpful and even provided me with a coffee plus a bowl of goldfish crackers to snack on, which they called "Author Chow."

Uncle Hugo's rocks. So does Dreamhaven.

Success Warrior said...

I'm not an expert but I would have to say that you go where the people are that help you. And it seems odd to say that it wouldn't help the store. Anything that brings people to the store or helps them advertise has got to help some, especially if they make a habit of it.

reader Kurt said...

Go where you feel welcome, be it big or small. Give the independents first crack at it, but if they're not excited about you signing, how excited are they about selling your books? We're lucky to have 2 great independent SF stores in Minneapolis, but we're the anomoly.

We had a great turnout at the Uncles for the first volume, let's hope it's just a big next time.

CV Rick said...

We all go to the "big box" bookstores because they do things the independents can't.

My favorite bookstores are independent: Birchbark Books, Arise, Dreamhaven, Uncle Hugo's, Majors and Quinn - in that order. I've even taken people (local and out of towners) on Bookstore shopping tours.

Despite the selection of bookstores in Minneapolis, I still wander through Borders before a movie or visit the Har Mar Barnes and Noble periodically. The selection is tremendous and I like to see what's new in all the genres. I like to put my hands on the new books and turn the pages and look at the author bio and read a page or two.

When one consumes as many books as I do, one needs to know what's out there and what to put on the list. I buy from the independents first, second, and the big box stores third.

I'll be at one tonight, as a matter of fact - for Brandon's reading/signing.

You shouldn't feel any guilt for furthering your career, allowing you to expose more people to your books. It's in the writing that people will get to know you and experience your ideas, your justice, your morals, even your utopia, if only in a bit of dialogue. Challenge them with the written word, not with your absence at their bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Actually, until I went to Uncle Hugo's, I'd developed a deep hatred of independent bookstores because I'd had the misfortune of working in one under some really bad management (the store has since gone out of business). I like big bookstores because... well, I wander around and no one offers to help me. ;) I don't like to have my book zen interrupted. That being said, I LOVE Dreamhaven and Uncle Hugo's because the staff there is so nice and dedicated and it's a whole store full of books I'm actually interested in reading! :D I'll buy books from just about anywhere, actually. I like the way they smell.