Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Local Crusade

Kurt Vonnegut display at BookPeople in Austin.
Allow me (Liz) to start with a disclaimer.  Normally we steer clear of politically charged topics in this space because our passions are generally literary or humorous...or possibly perverse.  We're booksellers at heart, and as such we are also mercenaries.  While we mostly talk about the books we love, both Gianna and I believe that the more important issue is that people are reading, period, and we'll pretty much sell you anything in print.  Even if it's Twilight. (We didn't have to sell Twilight, mercifully.  Not that there's anything wrong with a vampire romance set in high school, or, like, a 200 year-old preying on a high school girl.... but you should totally buy Twilight. I'm Team Jacob!  (I don't really know what that means.)) A literate culture is a thinking culture, and a thinking more likely to get the joke.  I wondered how many people caught the Of Mice and Men reference in the Saturday Night Live skit last week, for example.  The following entry, however, is influenced by my personal bookselling history and political beliefs, and I do not claim to speak for Gianna, other contributors to this blog (should there be any), or the companies for whom we work.

I'm pretty sure that I see either a tweet or Facebook status update every single day that espouses the foodie movement.  Eat local ingredients, shop at farmers' markets, zucchini tastes better than a Snickers bar, etc.  I am a failing foodie, mostly because I have the palate of a seven year-old.  I watch Top Chef because I like to watch passionate and talented people throw down with the competition...and I like it when CJ's broccolini (I don't know what that is, by the way, or if I even spelled it correctly) comes out of the cooking device looking like cat hackings.  It's the same reason I love figure skating--nothing's better than Sasha Cohen going splat at the Olympics.  The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!  Excellent.

Where was I?

Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado.
Foodies. Right.  I don't understand how it is that everyone seems to agree at least philosophically that eating fresh ingredients and consciously shopping from local carrot pluckers is the ethically correct action...and then they don't pay attention to where they buy their other goods.  Just like the rampant and repetitive postings about the importance of local food, I see at least one article a week declaring that books are a dead medium and that all bookstores will fail.  And I'm going to state it, particularly as we head into the holiday season and  national retailers fall over backwards trying to undercut one another: price matters, but source matters more.

Again, I realize that I'm personally invested in buying books from local bookstores because a large part of my job is selling books to these stores.  My job is directly connected to the success of Random House titles at these stores, many of which we feature on this blog (and we'll continue to do so).  The people who work in these stores are my friends.  I want to make sure they keep their jobs.  I also want to see that my community--I identify as both an Austinite and Houstonian, having lived in Austin while working at BookPeople and currently residing in Houston with my Random House job--thrives and doesn't look like every other place in the world of sprawl.  I believe that my money should by-and-large support locally owned businesses and the people who toil in them everyday.  I believe in paying taxes.  Taxes pay teachers and teachers teach reading and readers buy books and book buyers keep me employed.  Hakuna Matata and Circle of Life, etc etc etc.  It matters.  It matters when you buy a toy at a large retailer because you've been told it's cheaper in massive advertising campaigns, and then you decry how manufacturing jobs have been shipped to China.  Who shipped them there?  That retailer, by demanding that manufacturers devalue their goods to the point that sweat shop labor is the only way to produce those toys.  The choices we make as consumers are the differences between failing and thriving, locally, nationally, and globally, as a country.

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
The state of Texas, where I reside and whose governor currently claims success for a balanced budget, is bankrupt.  Social services are non-existent, and to maintain the campaign facade of economic frugality, thousands of teachers are now unemployed or face future unemployment.  It'll be interesting to see what happens when all the nursing homes close too and suddenly the people so vehemently opposed to the "liberal" (and I would argue that "liberal" means humanitarian) agenda are forced to wipe granny's butt themselves.  It ruins the aura of McMansion living, you know?  Tax dollars pay for teachers, and they subsidize health care facilities, and they guarantee a quality of life which I think generally everyone supports.  At the same time, in Texas, there is a political battle raging over the issue of collecting online sales taxes.  I admit that I regularly shop online; it's easier to find clothing for my six foot frame and size eleven feet.  I do try to shop from local businesses with an online presence, however, and keep my tax dollars close to home...and not shirk my responsibility of paying those taxes. That's money that pays for the teachers producing future readers who support bookstores who keep me employed so that I can buy stuff from stores, and so on.  It's important. Cheaper is not the only factor in consumer awareness.

The book industry currently is a maelstrom of change.

E-readers became the hot gadget a couple of years ago, instantly changing the ways that publishers and booksellers think about bookselling, and certainly changing the ways that readers think about books.  E-books, by their very nature, are an online market.

At the same time, price wars for physical books among national retailers over the last couple of years have trained consumers that books aren't worth $25 but a fraction of that.  In order to gain a customer following, they've regularly and deliberately sold books for a loss.  Books ARE worth the prices charged.  There are writers, editors, publishers, designers, printers, marketers, sales departments, human resources, warehouse workers, customer service representatives, and booksellers, etc, that all have to earn their livings from that $25.  General retailers that sell a wide variety of products make up the difference in their losses by selling consumers toasters at a higher price; bookstores generally don't have that option.  In order to stay in business, they need to charge what the book's worth, and keeping bookstores open is important because...?  Remember the circle of life stuff earlier?  Money stays in the economy, and we all keep our jobs and granny stays in the nursing home and junior doesn't end up as some illiterate beast-child.

Judith, Tom, and Pippin the dog, at
Octavia Books in New Orleans.
On top of the economic value of local bookstores, though, there is also the social currency.  These are the taste-makers, the local farmers markets of the book world.  They--along with librarians, and some other big mouths in the blog world, and once upon a time Oprah--help consumers find those magical stories that inform our lives.  At some point, a bookseller read Of Mice and Men, recommended it to customers and teachers who began to teach it in schools, where it became a cultural reference point, and last week that bookseller's work appeared in a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Books provide joy, adventure, knowledge, and shape everyday conversations.  They are art pieces for which their creators slaved for sometimes decades (well...not James Patterson, perhaps).  They are important.  And the booksellers largely are the key to finding those diamonds among the thousands of books out there.  You read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because your friends read the book, and they read it because booksellers all over the country were saying to their customers, "Check out this book.  I really think you'll like it."

So let's go back to the e-book issue.  Amazon has the Kindle, Barnes and Noble has the Nook, Apple has the iPad, Sony has the Sony Reader, and there are a dozen other reading devices out there.  The e-book world has opened for the other readers, and consumers have the freedom to choose where to spend their e-book dollars.  Most e-readers will support books purchased from Barnes & Noble, but also from Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, or BookPeople in Austin, or Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, or Tattered Cover in Denver.  In other words, e-book customers with devices (other than Kindles; Amazon is proprietary) have the ability to continue to support local businesses.

The prices?  In the book world, publishers became concerned enough about the devaluing of e-books by retailers that they established what's known as the Agency Model.  What it means for consumers is that publishers establish the value of an e-book.  When The Blind Assassin e-book is on sale for $5.99 on Amazon, it is also on sale for the same price at BN and Apple and Google E-Books, the e-book provider for the local bookstores who provide an e-book service through their websites.  You as a consumer aren't shopping for cheaper, so you can select where your dollar has the greatest impact to you, your friends, your community.
Some books, like Sondheim's
lyrics collection, don't work
as well in the digital format.

I'm often asked if I read e-books, and if I prefer a format.  I would argue that I read books, and in a variety of formats.  I read hardcovers, I read trade paperbacks (the size most of most of those book group picks), I occasionally read a mass market (the grocery store size), and I read e-books.  I read many manuscripts for work, and it's more cost efficient and environmentally conscious for Random House to post digital manuscripts rather than Xerox thousands of pages for reps across the country.  I also buy e-books occasionally.  And I buy them from a local bookstore.

Several weeks ago I took up my Chuck Palahniuk reading challenge and, for the first time in about four years, I read paper books exclusively.  I delighted in the tactile joy of reading books in this format.  I will always be a book collector; in my mind, my books are a scrapbook of my life, and even if I read an e-book manuscript, I want to own the physical reminder of that book to mark that period in my life.  I want the authors I admire to sign those books, like signing a painting.  I buy my books from local bookstores, though, and I also buy my e-books from local bookstores.  I owe it to my friends and colleagues and my community.

Google provides e-book services
for local bookstores, and for
most e-reading devices.
The book business is notoriously tough, and yes, some bookstores--most notably Borders--have closed.  Ten years ago, bookstores were considered successful if they could make a 2% profit for the year.  Now most stores just pray to stay flat.  The stores that have great customer service and unique personalities, though, are foundations for their communities and some of them are thriving.  I would point back to the food industry.  Think about all the "only x percent of restaurants survive the first year" stats, but also think about the foodie culture that makes restaurants tourist destinations across the country and chefs into celebrities.  Bookstores should be vacation destinations too, and booksellers should be celebrities.  Once upon a time, Oprah could mention a book she loved and millions of people who trusted her taste scrambled to buy her picks.  We have local bookseller celebrities all over the country, and I'd argue that they are far more in tune with the books out there, the gems that enrich our lives--they know you and your towns and they are Oprah on steroids (and often with more tattoos).

As the holiday season approaches, I humbly plead that you consider the greater implications of every dollar you spend.  Give books as gifts, whatever the format, but choose wisely.  The content may be the same, but the book's value varies dramatically.  Become bookies.


  1. I didn't realize I could get e-books through a local dealer. I'll give it a try. Which stores near Houston's Montrose offer the service? I love Blue Willow but it's soooo far away.

  2. Brazos Bookstore sells e-books through their website. Murder By the Book owner McKenna Jordan says that they will be selling them by December. Buying from Blue Willow still keeps your money circulating in the local economy as well.

  3. My family and I live in Virginia, but whenever we visit Austin, it is not considered a complete trip until we have gone to BookPeople. I love it, my husband loves it, our five year old daughter loves it. I could spend hours there. In fact, I have spent hours there. For me, a trip to BookPeople IS a vacation.

  4. I'll look for e-books from a local bookstore and I just bought a "real" book.

  5. price matters, but source matters more...Just became my new tag line.

  6. Love the line "Books are the scrapbooks of my life." And really love exploring the ones that I scribbled in, copied from, dog-eared and hid under my pillow. Thanks for sharing.