I just came accross this article from 2001 about the virtues of Chain bookstores and immediately started wondering what your take on it would be.
I realize its focus is on very different qualities and effects than what I believe yours are when talking about chains but was curious nonetheless.
It's from 2001 though, not sure if things have changed much since.
Imagine me rolling up my sleeves. Here we go.
First of all, there's this:
The image of the big bad chains gobbling up brave little independents was crystallized in the 1998 Nora Ephron film You've Got Mail, in which the cute encounter involves typically, and preposterously, antithetical types.
I actually enjoyed this movie... right up until the very end. "Hi, you drove me out of business. I love you!"
However, just because I feel like the movie fails on a realistic relationship level, I'd say Ephron nailed it for the plight of the independent booksellers vs. the chains.
I don't have a degree in business, it's a common enough practice that when one business is doing well in an area, another company that sells the same product or offers similar services will move in nearby. It's not limited to bookstores - gas stations, salons, coffee shops - everyone's doing it.
I worked for the only bookstore in the mall. We had a clause in our lease that kept any other bookstores from opening. It didn't stop the chains from scouting out places just outside the mall, although luckily for us, none ever found a spot they liked. The closest thing was a Waldenbooks down the street which had just about the same floor space as Booksmith did and had probably been there about as long.
Still, when a B&N and a Borders opened up four exits down the highway, we felt it. It hurt our business, and unfortunately Booksmith's owner didn't quite have the savvy to fight back. We should have had a better niche carved into the community long before the chains came swaggering along; we didn't. While the chains weren't the ultimate downfall of Booksmith (that's another long, painful story), they certainly put a scare into us, and made those of us who cared about indies start taking a closer look at things we needed to do - not just to survive, but to thrive.
Next point, on the fear that chains will only carry bestsellers and smaller books/presses will get left out:
André Schiffrin, the director of The New Press and formerly the managing director of Pantheon Books, recently based an entire book (The Business of Books) on his contention that the takeover of publishing and retail by big corporations and conglomerates, including the book superstores, has impoverished the culture, leaving "little room for books with new, controversial ideas or challenging literary voices."
A look around any of the superstores will show that more risky and experimental fiction, more first novels, and more serious nonfiction are available to general readers all over the country than ever before.
It seems to me that Allen is suggesting this happy bit of risk-taking by the publishers is thanks to the chains. Yet, when you look at the debut novels that have become bestsellers, the buzz about them quite often started with indies. Cold Mountain was a hit in 1997, because independent booksellers fell in love with it. A year after this article was published, The Lovely Bones skyrocketed because of the indies. Not the chains.
So, by all means, applaud big publishing for taking a chance on new authors. But don't hand that credit to the chains. A book put out by an imprint of a large publisher is still a book by that large publisher. Allen cites Hyperion's Theia imprint (which I don't believe exists any longer, by the way) as one of these ground-breaking, risk-taking experiments. Theia titles were right beside the rest of the Hyperion titles in their seasonal catalogs; chain buyers would have seen them at the very same time they were deciding on numbers for Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.
And you know? Theia did have some really good books. But their placement in chains really isn't worth the pattings on the back Allen is handing out.
Meanwhile, show me a Barnes & Noble that's carrying a book by Meisha Merlin (although, they've just announced that they're closing - B&N might have already returned everything they possibly could.) So, all right. Show me a B&N or a Borders with a book from Small Beer Press and I'll be impressed. As a matter of fact, I searched, using their "check in-store availability function." Two stores out of 22 in the Boston area have John Crowley's Endless Things in stock. Small Beer is based in Easthampton, MA. So, tiny representation it the publisher's home state.
I will absolutely allow the argument that the book came out a year ago, and that hardcovers aren't often kept on shelves for more than six months at a stretch, but that rule applies just as equally to indies - later in the article, Allen chides indies for not having certain books in stock - titles that have been out for years and years. (Better examples of small press books' availability in the chains are welcome, by the way.)
I've realized while I've been writing that I have a lot more to say about this article, but I'd very much like to keep to my promise about posting on Tuesdays, so I'm going to break it up into pieces. I may go back and revisit some of Allen's other statements as well. There were a few that I've passed over (regarding the attitudes of people who prefer indies, and the brush she paints us with), and some that need better clarification.
Next time: the difference between customer service and bookseller knowledge in chains vs. indies.