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What Counts As Indie In Books?

I love the idea of Indie. Finding a true independent in a world filled with big, powerful organizations is a lucky thing, like finding a four-leaf clover.

So, I was excited to discover IndieBound this morning. IndieBound is the web site of an association of independent bookstores. It describes itself as follows: “A product of ongoing collaborations between the independent bookstore members of the American Booksellers Association, IndieBound is all about independent bookstores and the power of “local first” shopping. Locally owned independent businesses pump money back into the their communities by way of taxes, payrolls and purchases. That means more money for sound schools, green parks, strong police and fire departments, and smooth roads, all in your neighborhood.”

I’m all for shopping locally, so how is IndieBound supporting the local economy? Do IndieBound booksellers shop locally?

To answer this question, I looked at the publishing houses that IndieBound lists on its July 2014 Indie Next List, a collection of books that are recommended by the owners of independent bookstores for reading this month. The publishers of the books on the list are as follows:

Harper (The Queen of the Tearling, Volume 1)
St. Martin’s Press (Landline: A Novel)
Viking (One Plus One: A Novel)
St. Martin’s Press (That Night: A Novel)
HarperCollins (Last Night at the Blue Angel: A Novel)
Random House (The Quick: A Novel)
Bloomsbury (Flying Shoes: A Novel)
Putnam (The Appetites of Girls: A Novel)
Doubleday (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands: A Novel)
St. Martin’s Press (The Glass Kitchen: A Novel of Sisters)
W. W. Norton & Company (Dry Bones in the Valley: A Novel)
Viking (Dollbaby: A Novel)
Harper (The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War)
Mulholland Books (The String Diaries: A Novel)
St. Martin’s Press (How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky: A Novel)
Penguin Books (Em and the Big Hoom: A Novel)
Knopf (The Girls from Corona del Mar: A Novel)
Simon & Schuster (War of the Whales: A True Story)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies)
Simon & Schuster (The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennett: A Novel)

independent booksellersPractically all of these publishing houses are big, established companies (Mulholland Books is one possible exception in this long list). None of these publishing houses are located anywhere close to my neighborhood. They’re centralized operations with offices in places like New York City, shipping large numbers of books worldwide.

The independent bookstores that make up the American Booksellers Association may have independent business models, but they don’t appear to very independent in their taste of books. They promote books from the same few big publishing houses that Amazon and Barnes and Nobel promote to readers.

When I think about the value of an independent local bookstore, I think of the promise of well-read managers who keep their eyes out for unusual books from unusual sources. That’s not what the bookstores associated with IndieBound seem to have in mind, however. Their embrace of independence seems to end with their own businesses. They aren’t promoting independent authors, or truly independent small publishers. They complain that they don’t have the time.

“It is unrealistic to expect busy booksellers, who conduct business with hundreds of established vendors already, to take them on, reading, evaluating and setting up separate vendors for each title,” complains Marion Abbott, co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s independent bookstore in Berkeley, California. If the owners of independent bookstores like Mrs. Dalloway’s won’t bother to take the time to consider independent authors, however, why should readers bother to take the time to walk through their doors? If they’re merely going to sell the same books sold by the same publishers as every other bookstore in America, what’s the point? A bookseller who doesn’t have time to read books from multiple sources is lazy and boring – not the kind of source I’d want to take recommendations from.

To be fair, for the most part, independent authors and small publishers aren’t promoting independent bookstores. Authors who self-publish tend to do so through operations set up by enormous book retailers, like Amazon. Independent bookstore owners are infamous for rejecting these self-published books out of hand, in part because they despise big online booksellers. Independent authors, in reaction, often don’t even bother to approach bricks-and-mortar bookstores any more, selling even their physical books purely online.

This dynamic has resulted in the creation of two groups, each calling themselves independent, while in fact depending upon centralized publishing companies.

What might happen if independent writers and independent bookstores found a way to cooperate, to bring truly independent books to independent-minded readers? What would it take for any such system to remain independent, instead of becoming just another tool for centralized corporate control?

One thought on “What Counts As Indie In Books?”

  1. Dave says:

    Rowan, having been an indie bookstore for many years until 2006, I wish there had been a way to broaden the inventory by going local, but the economics of that just don’t work anymore. Local and lesser known writers produce some dreadful stuff along with some pretty good, but when the pretty good finds an audience the next thing you know their small publisher is selling the title to larger publishers who promptly cut deals with Sam’s Club and WalMart.

    I could buy popular titles from Sam’s Club for less than I paid at the publisher. I think you will find that, for the most part, the independent stores that remain are owned and operated by people who own their own building and don’t have to make a living at it. It’s a hobby for them.

    Most indies made their money on backlist, special orders, gift sets and anything that came in a series. It’s all gone, Dude. If I do it again, I will go into used and rare books; much better margins, but I believe I am seeing a decline in that market as well. Who needs a dictionary? I can type any word on Bing and get enough on it to suit most needs. Reference books are going away.

    The IndieBound site is interesting, but I come up with different numbers when determining how much of the $100 spent locally stays local. It’s more like five dollars when you account for cost of goods sold, $50, rent, $5-$8, insurance, utilities, etc. Just the rent alone is going to the property people who send most of it to New York bankers as interest on their commercial property loans. Utilities are rarely locally owned and so on.

    I got out of the biz when Amazon had changed our bottom line enough to warrant it. I’ll get back into it when we have a big enough solar flare and have to once again communicate with each other using ink.

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