I don’t buy it: Indies, chains and genre fiction

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Oh, I’m going to get in trouble for this . . .

For years, I’ve promoted independent bookstores far more than their shiny, muscle-bound counterparts. When I used to write a literary column for the Albuquerque Tribune, I extolled the virtues of these small businesses; they were the fortresses of free thought, the defenders of the little guy, the natural habitat for a flourishing small press.

Shopping at mom & pop stores was simply — and always — the right thing to do. I was a card-carrying member of the Small-Is-Beautiful philosophy.

That card remains in my wallet.

I believe that independent mystery bookstores (and other genre-specific stores) fulfill the mission described above. The Mystery Bookstore in L.A., Murder by the Book in Houston, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, The Mystery Company in Carmel, IN — along with other members of the IMBA — are a big reason I’ve been able to build my career.

But . . .

I’ve been rethinking my knee-jerk defense of general indies and my haughty attitude toward the chain stores.

You see, I’m in business. Few businesses survive on mere ideology; they need results.

I’ve been working at this job a long time (far more than the mere three years since publication) and am finally cresting a new wave. From this vantage point, I’ve got to say it seems to me that many indies can’t be bothered with the little gal anymore — especially if she writes genre or commercial fiction.

There are, of course, notable exceptions — Vroman’s in Pasadena, The Well Red Coyote in Sedona, the Treasure House in Albuquerque’s Old Town . . .

However, authors from small presses — even ones with sterling reputations and good sales — have told me they now feel like supplicants who must bear gifts in order to gain attention from general indies. Coop money, extensive mailing lists, free copies — all of these are becoming de rigeur.

Indeed, the booking coordinator at the University of New Mexico Press told me about an indy in Boulder that asked her to ask an author directly for $200 to fund a book signing.

What the hell?
(Don’t get me started on how much these signings really cost. I know from my years of work in PR that most general indies spend little, if any, money at all on them.)

I wouldn’t have thought much about any of this except that recently I’ve had stellar experiences in chain stores. Managers and employees uniformly have been thrilled to meet me. They’ve ordered a large amount of stock, asked me to sign my books AND slapped stickers on the covers with the assurance of people who are going to sell the heck out of them.

So, why continue to sing the praises of general indies when they often treat me — us — as peons?

I believe commercial fiction from small presses increasingly is losing its natural home in these boutique stores. Once known for staff retention, customer loyalty (because of staff retention), hand-selling and unique inventory, indies are beginning to look much more like their big-guy competition.

And, guess what? I’ve witnessed the same kind of old-school hand-selling at the chain stores that many authors (and customers) so snottily slam.

It’s true.

The reality of this shift is affecting my own tactics and marketing strategies. Still, I can’t help myself. I seek out and am delighted when I encounter an enthusiastic general independent bookstore.

They’re out there.

They’re the ones that understand that genre fiction is commercial. Commercial fiction is just that — commercial.

It sells.

And, after years of singing the same song, I’m beginning to belt out a new tune.

A NOTE:
During the next month or so, you’ll notice changes here at Murderati. Jeff bid us goodbye yesterday. Deni will do so tomorrow. Naomi plans to guest blog but will not be a regular after this Wednesday.

Watch us beginning December 3 for the new writers who’ll grace our group. I’ll announce the full schedule on Dec. 4.

For now, please join us in wishing Jeff, Deni and Naomi tremendous success in all of their endeavors.

24 thoughts on “I don’t buy it: Indies, chains and genre fiction

  1. JT Ellison

    Having witnessed the reception you got in a couple of big chains, I can’t disagree with your conclusions. I think we should give indies and chains our equal attention. Excluding any sales channel, small or large, will backfire eventually.

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Good morning, J.T.

    I think, in my convoluted way, that’s what I’m saying.

    It’s kind of like assuming that a woman doctor is going to always be more compassionate than a man. I can speak from experience that this isn’t the case.

    In the past, my attitude about the chains was so fixed in negativity that I didn’t give them a chance.

    That’s what’s shifting. At the same time, I no longer assume that general independents are my advocates in the world of literature. Frankly, I think this has to do with both genre and the fact that authors from smaller presses won’t bring in the big dollars that a well-known author will.

    Not yet, anyway . . . .

    Reply
  3. Naomi

    It’s a good strategy for a writer to continually bring new booksellers, whether it be chain stores or independents, into the fold, especially with the introduction of a new book. When I found my entry into a particular bookstore difficult (and this goes for the media as well), I just think, oh well, not this time. But maybe the next.

    Reply
  4. pari noskin taichert

    Wise advice, Naomi.

    There truly are an endless supply of stores and other venues we authors can use to our advantage — and we can benefit them as well.

    I think it’s important though, to examine from time-to-time, the efficacity of one’s marketing strategies to see if they’re really working. My former single-mindedness about independents didn’t hurt my career — but it may have blinded me to existing and easier opportunities.

    Reply
  5. Naomi

    Don’t you think that bookselling is such a relationship-driven industry that it’s hard to apply simple formulas or categories? What might be a more helpful model is described in that book TIPPING POINT. It talks about connectors, key people who have wide nets of contacts and influence. What’s hard, of course, is identifying those connectors in the book world. They are not necessarily going to have have websites or have a great Internet presence. And they differ for every geographic location.

    Reply
  6. pari noskin taichert

    I think you’re exactly right.

    The traditional bookselling model: book signings, books in stores, reviews in papers etc. etc. may be transitioning into something much more amorphous, unpredictable.

    We can certainly see that the marketing models of throwing a lot of money at some books doesn’t always work either.

    One could despair OR look at this period in the book publishing/marketing industry as one of tremendous opportunity.

    I’m just trying to figure out how to harness some of this flux and channel it into useful canals for my own career.

    Reply
  7. Elaine Flinn

    And, Pari – there is a built-in snobbery from some indies regarding mass market authors. I’ve been extremly lucky with indies, and I can’t complain – but I was rudely turned away from one of Northern California’s most ‘prominent indy’ with a sneering reply when I inquired about a signing. ‘Mass market?” she laughed. “Oh, no – we don’t bother with those writers. Not enough money for us to take the time.” And one indy in Portland said as much the same to me in front of a few customers standing in line. And I can’t say enough for the chains who kept my books up front and center for longer than some hb’s!

    On a lighter note-much luck to Jeff, Deni and Naomi!

    Reply
  8. spyscribbler

    Bless their souls, but I’ve seen the following out of the mouths of a few authors. They cry, “support the indies! support the indies!” and at the same time, they ask their readers to leave reviews at amazon.com.

    Don’t they know that you can’t leave a review if you don’t buy the book there? Which is it? Do they want me to support the indies, or support their career, LOL?

    Reply
  9. Lorraine T.

    That last comment is not correct. You do not have to have bought the book at amazon to leave a review. You may need to be a customer, not sure about that. I’ve posted reviews on amazon of books I’ve bought used on ebay, etc., even of some arc’s sent me by the authors.In my area of CT, all the indies have gone out of business. It’s either B&N or Border’s -20-25 miles down the highway, or the Internet.Lorraine

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    Elaine,Wow. I’ve heard of bias againt MMPB in reviewing, but never in stores. Oh, well. It’s just so darn odd to me to think that people would be that hung-up on the packaging — as if size matters.

    Um . . . well, it does . . . I guess. Although Maria Muldauer said it brilliantly: “It’s not the meat, it’s the motion.” If the story and storytelling is good, what does the thickness of a cover matter?

    Hey, Spyscribbler,You’re right about some people wanting to stand on their soapboxes at the same time they’re holding a hand behind their backs and wanting payoffs.

    All I can say is that many of us in this biz live with ambiguity. It makes us want to make declarations, to somehow make sense out of a confusing and illogical industry.

    Mind you, I’m really not complaining. Hey, I’ve beat my chest just as loudly as those you criticize.

    But now, I think I’ll live in the muddy waters for a while and see how life is in there.

    Reply
  11. Sue Trowbridge

    I bought Pari’s books at Bookworks, an indie store in Albuquerque. I enjoy shopping at indies when I’m traveling because they just tend to have more personality than B&N and Borders, which look the same whether you’re in Phoenix or Portland. When I took Pari’s books up to the counter, the cashier looked at them and exclaimed, “Oh, her mother in law shops here all the time!”

    Reply
  12. pari noskin taichert

    Hiya, Sue,Indies do tend to have unique personalities. I think that’s one of their main selling points as opposed to the big chain stores.

    The two main independents in ABQ — Bookworks and Page One, both ooze individuality.

    Bookworks looks the way we used to think bookstores should — crowded and warm and welcoming. And it’s true that my mom-in-law is one of their biggest customers . . .

    Reply
  13. pari noskin taichert

    The trouble with family as connectors is that, often, it doesn’t occur to them to be CONNECTORS .

    Bill, I wonder if Elaine would tell us the name of that Indy . . . privately or in these comments. Hummmmm?

    Reply
  14. Sandra Ruttan

    I’m going to get slammed for saying this. I already know someone will read it and think it’s my sentiment and bitch about me behind my back…

    But I was on a panel last January with another author, and she told a really interesting story, about some of the Canadian MIRA authors. She said that some of the independent bookstores in Ontario that focused on mysteries refused to carry MIRA books outright.

    The MIRA authors maintained, however, that MIRA was a wonderful publisher and that they were very happy to be with MIRA.

    The only thing that makes me conclude is that no matter who your publisher is, you might face difficulty. Sometimes from big chains. Sometimes from independents. I have nothing against MIRA at all and I’m actually offended that a publisher would be banned from any story carte blanche for any reason other than quality. Just because MIRA is a division of or affiliated with Harlequin doesn’t mean it doesn’t publish damn good crime fiction.

    Reply
  15. Deni Dietz

    The first Colorado Springs indie owner I approached (when my first book came out) said, “We don’t carry Walker books.”

    I said, “But I live 8 blocks away and I wait tables at the Olive Garden and I can send people directly to your store.”

    “Can’t change the rules for you,” the Book Sleuth owner snarled.

    Oh, dear, I gave away the name πŸ™‚

    What was really dumb is that I bought all my books there. And immediately stopped doing that.

    Another indie: I introduced myself to the manager and said with great enthusiasm, “I’m a local author and my first book is due out in 2 months.”

    She said, “So…?”

    Snotty R her. I left the store, my cheeks burning, and never returned.

    When I told the manager of a B Dalton’s that I waited tables and could send people to his store (to buy my book), he took Rush Limbaugh off the middle of the “fan” above the cash register (well, Limbaugh’s first book, not Rush himself) and put “Cheesecake” up there, instead, between the latest Stephen King and the latest Anne Rice.

    B Dalton’s, a mall store, NOT an indie, sold 98 books the first month and I hit the bestseller list.

    More recently, an indie in California didn’t want $200, but did want me to GUARANTEE 200 customers.

    Yeah, right.

    Reply
  16. pari noskin taichert

    Sandra,I don’t think you’ll get slammed. What you state is what another author said. The important element is that there are all of these strange biases out there. It beats the hell out of me why people are so married to them.

    Of course, I admitted one of my own in the original post.

    Deni,Holy cow. Those are awful stories — but thank you so much for illustrating my point with such precision .

    The B.Dalton in Clovis sold hundreds of my hardcovers there. Alas, it closed with the demise of the mall in that town. But, boy, the people there treated me like royalty.

    Reply
  17. JT Ellison

    That’s an interesting story about MIRA in Canada, I’d like to find out who had that issue.All I know is every bookstore I’ve been in, large, small and in between, I’ve gotten nothing but a warm reception, an offer to come back and sign, and some great new contacts. They’ve all been really excited to hear about MIRA, about my debut, about the Killer Year books… hell, I direct them to this blog all the time.Great topic, Pari. Maybe we need to revisit this one.

    Reply
  18. pari noskin taichert

    Actually, I’ve asked the booking coordinator at UNM Press to write a guest blog. She’s still working on it. The thing about her is that she comes from an indy background. We’ve discussed the issue I brought up becasue I felt so strange about it.

    I can’t wait to read her piece.

    I’m glad this post struck a chord on so many levels. It’s nice to get discussion going and to learn about others’ experiences — both good and bad.

    Reply

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