NPR books posted this question on twitter this morning:
Hey readers, with the recent Amazon controversy did you make a point of supporting indie booksellers for your holiday shopping?
The results were predictable.
NPR books re-tweeted this reply:
@nprbooks This year, I bought everything from indie stores, rather than support Amazon. It cost more, but I hate bullies.
I’m coming at this as both a book worm and a newly published author. I couldn’t format my thoughts for twitter so here goes.
I agree with a lot of what Farhad Manjoo had to say in his slate article about indepedent bookstores. Like Farhad, my primary complaint about indies is that most of them are vastly over-rated. For every truly special store like Bookpeople in Austin, you have a whole slew of others that essentially bully you into shopping at them. That’s right, I said bully.
Sure, companies like Walmart and Amazon do some stuff that I find unsavory, especially Walmart where I don’t shop. However, indies can be just as bad. If you don’t shop at an independent bookstore, you’ll kill the literary culture in this country. If you don’t shop at indies, you’re not supporting authors. If you don’t shop at indies, God will smite a boat-load of kittens. You get the point. Indies bully you into not acting like rational economic actors in service of some great, nebulous social good. I’m not so sure about that, and I don’t like being told how to spend my money.
Thanks a lot NPR for making me sound like a raving conservative.
Amazon’s working conditions are another idea that indies have been floating around as a reason not to shop there. Earlier this year I attended a conference where the owner of the bay area’s Book Passage chided a breakout session about the evils of Amazon and its “slave labor”. Of course another Bay Area indie, City Lights, apparently doesn’t have a bathroom or at least one that they’d let my six year old son use. So either they have crappy (hah!) working conditions and make their employees hike to a open restroom or they didn’t have any issue making me and my son do the same during our “potty emergency”. Either way, they’re not getting my business again. I can shop at Amazon and have easy access to a bathroom.
At the same conference where I got chided about slave labor, I saw Scott Turow articulate his dubious support for stricter copyright and anti-piracy laws in service of defending the “literary culture” in this country. Of course, nobody said anything about the dubious ways the “big six” publishers treat their authors, which sounds a lot like “slave labor” to me. Maybe I don’t get the “literary culture”.
I grew up in rural Texas. The town where I went my last two years of high school was an eighty mile drive from the nearest Walden Books. I graduated in 1991 long before the internet and ebooks, and I can tell you that a Kindle connected to Amazon would have been an intellectual life raft for a bookish kid. I can imagine that the same is true today.
And this brings me to the heart of false choice between Amazon and indies: for most people there isn’t a choice. The argument boils down to access, class, and status. If you live in a town with a good (what few there actually are) indie and have the money to pay full price, go for it. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that there is anything normal about this. Further, don’t bully people about making rational economic choices.
And don’t categorize blue collar work as slave labor. I’ve worked in warehouses in the summer in Texas. It sucks, but that’s what I had to do to help put myself through college. Not everyone lives the good life up in Marin County.
As a newly published author, I can see more dimensions to this argument. Sure I’d love for me and my book to get the lavish treatment afforded to some by the “important” indies like Book Passage. But, let’s be realistic. I write genre fiction so I’m peripheral to the “literary culture” to begin with. Therefore, I’ll cast my lot with the likes of J.A. Konrath. We’ll go our own way with self-publishing or micro-presses like I did. We’ll embrace Amazon, print on demand, and e-readers as the fastest, most economical way to reach readers. If my book finds its way onto an indie’s shelves, that’s great, but for now, my novel is selling–and western culture has not collapsed as a result.
This sounds more bitter than I feel. Personally, I’m excited about the developments in publishing. I have faith that the industry will adapt. This faith includes the indies. In the meantime, let’s quit pretending that this debate really extends beyond a very narrow segment of readers and consumers and start living in this new literary world.