Asking a complex, perhaps unanswerable question (as I did last week with "What is an independent publisher now?") was admittedly a mischievous attempt to elicit observations rather than conclusions. It wasn't even scientific; more like asking, "What is a planet now?" (I'm looking at you, Pluto). But several brave souls accepted the challenge anyway and we'll be hearing their voices for the next few weeks.
Florrie Kichler, owner of Patria Press and president of the Independent Book Publishers Association, offered a straightforward answer: "What sets an independent publisher apart is his/her commitment to publishing as a business. Along with that comes the dedication to publishing excellence, which includes creating and delivering to the reader professionally designed and edited products--whether one or thousands of titles; whether via POD, offset or digital; whether on an e-reader, iPad or smartphone.
"The beauty of independent publishing is that in the end, size really doesn't matter--nor does the technology used to produce the content nor does who the author is. What matters is the independent publisher's focus on his or her publishing business--that blend of sales, marketing, editorial, production and promotion that serves as the launching pad for publishing success."
After a recent MPIBA trade show panel--"Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"--that generated some heated conversation, Libby Cowles, community relations manager at Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., came away thinking about self-published books in particular.
"As the gal who handles any and all requests from authors here at Maria's, I am very aware of the increase in requests to put self-published books on our shelves," said Libby, who also posted about this issue recently on the bookshop's blog. "Generally, we have carried local authors' work on a consignment basis when it's not available through distributors; this support of local authors feels like an important service to our community. However, as a store with limited shelf space, I'm beginning to wonder how we can say yes to each and every local, self-published author who comes in the door?"
Cowles cited indiereaderselects.com as "an interesting idea" and one that might help readers and bookstores "sift through independently published books," but she still wonders "how do 'legitimate' small presses play into this? I've always thought of 'independent publishers' as small presses--you know, not the 'big guys' in New York. But the game has changed so much that now any author who has a box of books and a website can call him- or herself an 'independent publisher'--or, actually, you don't even need the box of books anymore, since we can POD. So... does creating a company name and a website make you a publisher? And if so, can that be okay somehow? I think there's a feeling out there that it somehow delegitimizes 'real' publishers. Doesn't it also increase our access to a variety of voices, opinions and ideas? How can we, as indie booksellers, maintain and protect our core value of getting the unheard-of gem into readers' hands, offering an alternative to the big box sanctioned bestsellers, without getting overwhelmed by the numbers of books out there?"
More good questions.
Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, called the term "professionalism," as I had used it last week to define legitimate independent publishers, "problematic":
"When used by established publishers in the skirmish between self-publishing and independent publishing, I think the word may imply a sad defensiveness. (The source of that sadness, I think, is that--as you point out--these battles are occurring when we are all trying to figure out whether we can, or will be allowed to, fit within a new publishing world.) I so much appreciate the courageous publishers who enter the fray without worrying that worry--publishers like Two Dollar Radio and Archipelago and OR Books, and many independents established long ago--so much that I would rather discuss content. I appreciate these efforts as I admire new local journals (like Denver's Il-literate) and the very concept of samizdat novels--all efforts to bring writing to readers separate from the quick murky stream of corporate publishing, reviewing and bookselling. And as I've said stubbornly for a couple of years, I believe that soon it will matter again what one publishes more than how one publishes it. Quality will out.
"So 'professionalism' seems to me a potentially defensive term. It's as though we use the quality of the artifact bearing our colophon as an assertion that we matter. I'm tremendously proud of the professionalism with which the extraordinary people at Unbridled address the world of publishing--from the sometimes perfect beauty of the design and production, to the brilliance of the marketing, the clear structuring of the sales efforts, and the respectfulness with which we try to address the rest of Bookworld. I'm proud of the people who work with me, proud to work with them. I believe them all to be professional. And I believe our efforts in the realm of American fiction over these past six years have been significant. But the professional aspects of the collective effort at Unbridled Books are not the source of whatever significance we may have."
We'll hear more from Fred, as well as other voices in the book trade, next week. Halloween is approaching, so maybe exploring this issue by hearing voices is not such a bad way to celebrate during scary times.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1311.
What do the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show, marathon runners and the Dead Sea Scrolls have in common? If you answered St. Paul, Minn., you receive partial credit, but the correct response is a bit more complicated.
Certain themes inevitably emerge when you talk with booksellers and publishers over the course of a weekend. By the time the MBA show ended, two words seemed preeminent for me. While one--community--is familiar, the other is a concept we haven't talked about as much during recent, often perilous, times for our industry--longevity. I kept hearing about plans for the future, not just plans for survival, and this is a significant change.
Outgoing executive director Susan Walker said that although attendance was down slightly compared to last year, traffic in Saturday's exhibit hall "was interesting in that it stayed quite steady all day long. We had comments from both booksellers and vendors that it was a much more productive show. People were there to do business. It was an industrious show."
I'll write in more detail about some of the MBA panels in future columns, but one of them spoke directly to the potential breadth of a bookstore's reach and responsibility: "Beyond Customer Loyalty: Creating a Community of Customers."
"We realized there was a limit to what you could do with customer loyalty within the four walls of your store," said Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan. "The ultimate goal is to become the voice of books in your community. The more you knit the fabric of your community together, the stronger it gets."
"The essential part of my business plan is to have these partnerships with the community," added Lanora Hurley of Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis.
Authors spoke of their connection to indie booksellers. At Friday's book and author breakfast, Laurie Hertzel (News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist) recalled her childhood affection for a local bookshop where she "learned the joys of a small, well-edited bookstore and that never went away."
Jonathan Evison, author West of Here, expressed his deep appreciation for independent bookstores ("You're the people who are feeding my kids!") and read his short essay, "A Booksellers Love Story," which ends "Now, ask yourself: where else are you gonna' get this kind of service but an indie bookstore?"
During the "Moveable Feast" author lunch, Joan Steffend (...and she sparkled) observed: "I know people come in for books, but I also know people are looking for connections."
And at the Midwest Booksellers' Choice Awards reception, Ethan Rutherford, marketing/publicity manager for Milkweed Editions, accepted an award on behalf of the late Bill Holm for The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems. "Bill received a number of awards over the course of his life," Rutherford said, "but he would have found this one particularly satisfying for just this reason. Bill knew better than most writers that we're all in this together: writers and readers, publishers and booksellers. And in this case, we have a writer, a publisher, and booksellers who are all fiercely independent."
Kathy-jo Wargin, author of the MBCA Honor Book Moose on the Loose (illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello), agreed: "The indie bookseller is, without a doubt, the sustaining heartbeat of a community."
The acceptance speeches were still resonating when Chris Livingston, MBA president and owner of the Book Shelf, Winona, Minn., paid tribute to Susan Walker by invoking the heart again: "Susan has been the heart and blood of this organization."
After the show, Susan and I talked about her time with MBA since her first day in the autumn of 1987. "Over the years of running the association, I think we've been able to create something that's been genuinely useful to the members," she said. "I'm really proud of what we've accomplished as an association. I think the MBA has a lot of integrity. They work well together."
Independence and community; heart and the long haul.
|At MBA: Susan Walker, flanked by authors Suzanne Collins and Tony DiTerlizzi.|
The answer to my original question is that St. Paul also hosted the Twin Cities Marathon last weekend, and the streets and hotel lobbies were filled with a community of runners preparing for Sunday's race. Meanwhile, just across the street from the RiverCentre at the Science Museum of Minnesota, an exhibition featuring fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls also included a new Saint John's Bible, "the first complete, handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned in 500 years."
Spending the weekend surrounded by book people, long distance runners, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a new illuminated Bible, I couldn't resist considering the implications in terms of history and longevity. Booksellers and publishers, like the marathon runners who kept leaving me in the dust as I walked to the RiverCentre, are in this for the long haul.
Longevity is the result of imagination and hard work. I keep thinking of the Saint John's Bible, which Fr. Eric Hollas--in a short film accompanying the exhibition--called "the one thing that we'll probably be remembered for 500 years from now. The buildings will go... and oddly enough this one piece of artistic achievement will probably still be here." Books defy time and foster community.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1301.