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Monday, March 07, 2011

Hard Times At The Bookstore

The insolvency of Borders in the United States has created quite a ripple effect throughout the publishing world. I certainly wouldn't want to be working at some of their creditors these days. Penguin alone has lost $41.5 million in the process.

It's been interesting listening to what my fellow authors have had to say about this situation. The same people who were decrying the impact Borders and Barnes and Noble (and Chapters in Canada) were having on the independent booksellers, are now wringing their hands over the demise of Borders.

Yes it is bad for us. As authors, our incomes are based on a percentage (a surprisingly small percentage) of what publishers get for selling our books to bookstores. The loss of one chain the size of Borders can put a publisher under, leaving writers without royalties. A friend of mine lost a great deal when Stoddard went under a few years ago (thanks in a very real part to the actions of big box booksellers.) If your publisher is out of business, you aren't going to see any royalties, even if your books get shipped off to remainders stores to satisfy the creditors further up the food chain.

Today I learned about one of my favorite small chains. Joseph-Beth Bookstores had stores in Ohio and Kentucky. They've been under Chapter 11 protection since last fall, and now it doesn't look like the creditors are willing to wait for them to reorganize. I always loved doing an author appearance at their stores. Their subsidiary, Davis-Kidd, had stores in Nashville and Memphis. These stores had very knowledgeable staff, and they did great pre-appearance promotion for the authors who came to their stores. I was lucky enough to visit them on four separate book tours.

Many people are pointing at the ebook readers as the cause of the demise of stores like this. They may be right, but only partially. The economy over the last three years hasn't helped the retail industry, especially those that are selling what might be described as discretionary purchases. When someone is worried about paying the mortgage or car payment, something has to give. Five-dollar cups of coffee, dining out, and, yes, books and magazines, all take second place to the 'non-discretionary' expenses. Not so coincidentally to all of this, ebook readers took off during this period.

I have to admit that I was worried about my career as an author. I had been shopping two projects to agents and publishers for the last two years. I kept hearing the same basic response: "It's a great story and you're a wonderful writer, but..." The "buts" were usually that publishers were looking for the latest vampire/witch/zombie novel, or that bookstores were afraid to stock books by people whose names weren't King, Patterson, or Grisham.

There is a certain amount of truth in it. Vampires, witches and zombies are big sellers these days. Unfortunately for me, I do not write about vampires, witches or zombies. Stephen King could put out a book of Bangor Maine telephone numbers and the damn thing would sell.

But people are still reading books, and they are still reading books that are not about vampires, witches, and zombies. They are even reading books that weren't written by Stephen King. What has changed is where they are buying them. Online book sales have exploded over the past 10 years. Amazon is now the biggest bookseller in the world, and amazingly, they don't just sell books about vampires, witches and zombies, and they carry books by authors whose names are not King, Patterson or Grisham.

They've even sold a lot by a guy named Kirkland.

A few months ago I decided to take the manuscripts for the four books that I still hold the electronic rights to and put them onto Amazon's Kindle platform. It's brought new life back to these books. In the first month, I made more royalties than I had in the previous year for the oldest one.

A number of friends of mine have decided to try publishing their books themselves, eliminating the publishers and agents. They are pricing their Kindle versions at an unheard of price of 99 cents. They've found that what they lose in lower per book royalties at that price, they more than make up for with the quantity of books they are selling.

So in the next couple of weeks, I will, through my own imprint, publish Crossbow, one of the titles that agents and publishers like, but were unwilling to take on (no vampires.) It will be available as a paperback, for those who still like the feel of a non-electronic book in their hands, and as a Kindle edition.

Hopefully, it's an experiment that will work well.

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Gordon Kirkland At Large

Writings and Wramblings from the Wandering and Wondering Mind of Gordon Kirkland