Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Expo America

Photo from Book Expo America Website

Traditionally, getting together with booksellers is one of the highlights of the year. It's an opportunity for publishers to crawl out from behind their desks and actually speak with people on the front lines. The exchange of information and ideas flow both ways, as booksellers learn about publishing projects while we publishers get the lowdown on how our work has been received (or not).

Book Expo America is the place where it all happens; the book fair that's got it all. This year in LA, it did have it all - except for the booksellers. I exaggerate - there were some wonderful, inspiring conversations, an exchange of ideas and worldviews, or at least views on the state of bookselling. But I think the conversations that began, "I used to be a bookseller before I was a... teacher, librarian, literary worker, film maker, etc., outnumbered those with actual booksellers. What's happened?

Independent booksellers are under siege in a market that is dominated by large chains and internet sites that can obtain, and in turn, offer discounts that render competition virtually impossible. More and more, if you wish to browse, seek out that title or titles that capture the imagination, and have someone who is knowledgeable make a recommendation, you can’t count on finding a bookstore that provides those opportunities.

While customers certainly appreciate a good discount off retail, this is costing us all. The community store that knows its customers and deeply cares about selection is an increasingly unviable economic proposition. This is in spite of the creative solutions that independents do embrace, such as specializing in a particular genre or holding events in their store.

Environmentalists remind us that diversity is the key to healthy systems. So while a good price looks attractive on the surface, we're left with less and less choice. And on the publishing side, there is more and more pressure to get on that bestseller list, or the project is not worth the investment. In fact, our bank manager once asked, "Why not just publish bestsellers?" We would love to, but there's a lot more to reading and the love of literature and telling stories than "bestseller or bust.” So hats off to those booksellers whose vision and commitment allow them to carry on. We value them deeply.

Rick Wilks

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