Wednesday 9 September 2009

You won't find this in ths shops; or, why authors should stop pretending to be Indie when they stuff their books in Borders

Remember those adverts for 100 greatest b-sides of 1950s records by people you'd never heard of? You always had to send a cheque to Admail 54 (they were in Plymouth, I think) because "this offer's so good you won't find it in the shops".

That's what being Indie in the book world's all about, isn't it? Doing it all online, getting people to order from Amazon, sticking two fingers up to the whole bicks and mortar and paper establishment.

Well no, it's not. It's about valuing quality over consumerism; about cherishing specialist knowledge; about appreciating a great job, beautifully done. As long as I've been arguing about he future of the literary world, I've been pointing out the business reasons as well as the cultural ones why independent bookshops will increasingly thrive as Borders and B&N flail.

By independent bookshops, I don't mean "a shop just like Borders only smaller and owned by a strange man in cords with a ginger cat for his sales assistant". I mean shops that have a passion for books, a deep knowledge of the literary world, who can act as trusted reading companions for their customers, and probably have at least one area of specialism you just won't find in the mainstream sheds.

I mean shops like The Albion Beatnik in Oxford, buried in Jericho, a part of town so cool you need to take mittens just to walk down the street in summer. The Albion Beatnik sells hyper-hip fiction. But it also devotes half its floor space to books about music and the Beat Poets. And its online arm, Jazzscript, just sells books (including a whole library's worth of novels) about jazz.

It's become really trendy to "support your local bookshop". Authors are always plugging the cause. Great! Well, yes and no. First, I'm not a sentimentalist. I don't really see that "local bookshop" is the right thing to support. Not unless it gives readers that extra something. I'd rather see people supporting independent bookstores, in the sense outlined above. That really is a good cause. It's campaigning to give readers quality.

So it's great that authors support independent bookstores. But come on, guys, you can do a bit better than you are!

If Ian McEwan, for example, insisted that his next book was ONLY stocked in indie bookstores, THAT would be a serious statement. Sure, his sales might be a bit lower. But it would drive money to the Indies. Why not? Because his publisher wouldn't countenance it, of course. You see where I'm going with that.

All of which is by way of announcing that Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, unlike those Admail Classics, IS available in the shops. But you'll only find it in the Indie shops. Easy for a nobody like me to say - that's like a bloke down the pub saying "I'm not going to sell out and play for Manchester United". Well I HOPE if (heaven forfend) I ever get as big as Ian McEwan, I will still only sell my books in Indie stores. There may be a time in between when I sell out - I want toe arn a living. But I don't want to be stinking rich. I'd rather throw all my support behind the Indies and earn a little bit less for me and the mainstreams, thank you.

So far the book's in stock at - you guessed it - The Albion Beatnik (where thers's going to be a big party to celebrate at the end of October). It's also at Jaffe and Neale in Chipping Norton later in the week (Independent Bookstore of the Year in 2008). And next week I'll be checking out Indie stores in London - suggestions welcome.


  1. Nice thoughts. I agree with a lot of the sentiment, but there are independent bookstores and then there are independent bookstores. Some independent bookstores don't support independent authors because they "can't seem to get their books in." At least Borders does consignment with local authors. And in fact the local Borders by me has a whole section dedicated to local authors. Some Indie bookstores I've dealt with turn up their noses. I'm not self-published, I am legitimately published, but still they just "can't seem to get my books in." I guess I'm just not legitimate enough. Independent bookstores don't necessarily try harder. They are not all like Bluestockings in NYC who does in fact get my books in and who does book me for events and who does support local, provacative, and interesting independent thinking authors. But don't assume all local indie bookstores do that. You're lucky you have one who supports you. I hope you promote the hell out of the stuff you have there so both you and the bookstore benefit.

    Good luck in your work.

  2. Hey Dan

    Great post and congratulations on your book hitting the (uber-cool) bookshop shelves!

    Have you seen the site? They link indies together with an online ordering service to help them compete with the corporates. I've found some great stuff on there from indies all across the country :o)

    I realise that my book will, unfortunately, be part of the corporate machine, but hopefully some indies will stock it too :o)

    All the very best of British!

    M xx

  3. Hey, Sue. Thank you so much for coming over (& for the RT). Yes, I have to say it's a two-way street. Although I'd qualify that - I wouldn't want my local store to support my book just because I was local. I'd like to think they like the look of it when I bring it in. On the other hand, part of what an indpendnent book store should be trying to do is unearth gems - and they can do that by puutting the material there for local people to discover - which can lead to some truly reader-inspired success stories.

    I think I was trying to make the point you made only couched it in conciliatory terms for fear of being flamed. I don't approve of supporting "indie bookstores" just because they have a tag attached to them (that's really just big branding writ little). I believe in supporting them because they bring something valuable to the literary world. And that's not all of them by any means. Oh, and I've been to your website (the one linked to on twitter), and your books look like they'd hook me right in.

    I am very lucky with the two places I have mine so far. The Albion Beatnik are laying on a wine and music evening (the book is set in the Eastern European art/music scene, so this will be perfect) and have even said yes to me inviting along a performer of choice to play after I've done my reading.

  4. Miranda, I'm gobsmackulated that you've come to say hi over here. Thank you! I've heard a huge amount of good things about abebooks.

    I do hope the Indies of Oxford will be stocking Fairytale. With your musical roots, I'm sure Albion Beatnik would love to. Do you get to play much still, or has that gone by the wayside a bit with the writing? Your music was absolutely lovely.

  5. I guess I can agree with you to a point. :-) The books I write...they aren't "edgy" or artsy, or meant to be literary masterpieces. I write romance/suspense/horror, genre fiction - books that are merely meant to entertain awhile, to help someone escape into a different world and forget their own. They really have no higher purpose than that. And the types of stores you're saying we should support, would never carry my books - because they aren't "indie" enough, not "literary" if you see what I'm saying.

    So while I agree we should support those niche stores, I also need a place to sell my books (and buy books like mine). I'd love to see my books on the shelves of an independent bookstore (not that we have any here that would carry what I write), but I can't say I'd complain about seeing them on the shelves at Hastings, either.

  6. Sorry, Jamie, I should have been clearer. I'm not saying at all that all authors should exclusively have their books at independent bookstores. I was talking about the likes of Yann Martel, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan. I was making the point taht lots of literary authors claim to be supportive of independent bookstores, but could be doing a whole lot more.

  7. From the sound of the conversation, it may be more prestigious(and difficult) to attract the attention of an independent bookstore than it would be to hit it big, which is not that far fetched of a thought.

    I'd imagine that the average joe is(in most situations) easier to please than someone who understands writing and its many functions.

    That being said, I believe that the authors you mentioned do belong in independent bookstores. They have earned their stripes.

  8. dude, I totally know book stores like that! I was at one up in seattle and they had TWO orange -- er, ginger? -- cats and a guy in cords. Ye-ah! It was a used book store, though, which is my favourite kind.

    I'd kill to go to your book party. Any volunteers?

  9. @Rhys absolutely they do. That's my point. They belong there and because they're quite rich enough, it would be great to see them supporting fantastic indie bookstores by ONLY being there

    @Sarah - what, volunteers of people for you to kill! Sure I could rustle up some of those. Hey, I was reading a blog about Fresno earlier!
    I'm hoping it will be a great gig. If the music and reading thing works I'm gonna hire a music venue for the next one (The Albion Beatnik's just down the road from The Jericho Tavern, where Radiohead used to play)

  10. Hey now we cats have our uses in bookshops! We dust with our tails. We arrange piles of books. We keep the mice away. What more could you want? All bookshops need a cat!

  11. If I go into a bookshop with a cat in it, there's a danger I'll end up taking the cat home as well as a bagful of books

  12. Interesting food for thought here. I hope your book is doing well.

  13. Hey, Deb. Thank you so much for coming over, and for the kind comment you left over on Angie's blog.

  14. Why limit our books to book shops?

    I'm going to see if I can place my books in independent shops of any kind at all.

    Living on a small island with a thriving tourist industry - means there are often people on the island looking for something to read who might appreciate something light and entertaining that isn't just about rich women being unfaithful and going shopping ;)

    So come next season I will be visiting the 'tourist' shops/supermarkets and thrashing out some mutually beneficial deals - involving them stocking a couple of books and me pushing them on the internet so that tourists know what they stock as well as my books.

    I will also leave my number with the shops so they can call me in case a reader would like their book signed personally.

    How many poets offer a bespoke drive by signing/delivery service :))

    As I said before anyone likes my work they have me for a fan - like it enough to buy it they just might end up with a stalker :))

  15. What a great idea. You could even add that you will come and read to them on a deserted cove on the beach.

    Great you should mention other shops, because I've been thinking I'd love to have Songs for sale somewhere in Camden Lock market - one of the shops that sells corsetry/emo gear. Why not!? Just because it's not a bookshop doesn't mean they can't sell books.

  16. I'm hoping that one of the great experiences on Kefalonia ( a trip on a qualified marine biologist's traditional caique to snorkel and meet and learn about the mediterranean sea-life) which inspired one of my funnier poems - The Sad Story of the Sea Cucumber - might be enhanced by having a copy of one of my poetry books on board with that poem in it :)

    It is going to go into the Blue poetry book of course.

    But I might do some short leaflet/chapbooks with it in for him to give out for free as well if he agrees to it.