Go Indie or Go Home

The third leg of the Farewell (But Not Really) Tour started off locally, at The Comic Store—an independently-owned comic book store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where I was joined by Mary SanGiovanni). From there, it moved on to a pop-up signing in New Jersey, independently-owned bookstores in Rhode Island (where scholar Jack Haringa led a Q&A), and Vermont (where I was joined by Asher Ellis), before eventually circling back home again for a signing at a corporate-owned Books-a-Million chain store in Harrisburg.

The Comic Store has been hosting signings with me for almost two decades. Situated directly across from the Amtrak station, the owner very wisely stocks books and magazines in addition to all the regular fare you’d find at any other comic book store. That’s good for us, because he also happens to be a big fan of the horror genre (with Richard Laymon being his fave). Every time Jesus and I had a new book come out, we’d sign there. So have other local genre authors such as Chet Williamson. The store does a great job of promoting the events and hand-selling the books. More importantly, they keep the books in stock.

Independently-owned Books-On-The-Square in Providence hosted a wonderful, well-attended signing. They let folks linger and socialize after Jack Haringa finished his Q&A with me and I’d signed everyone’s books. Independently-owned The Book Nook in Ludlow, Vermont, was equally professional and delightful. Author Asher Ellis, who calls Ludlow his hometown, set the signing up, and thanks to his efforts and the efforts of the store’s management, it was a full house.

Now, all three of these are small, independently-owned shops. They don’t have the space or parking for a big blowout, and yet all three events were well attended. They don’t have the financial resources to stock a hundred copies of Pressure or The Complex on hand for the signing, yet at each event, we sold out, or nearly sold out, what they had. With those factors in mind—and also remembering that just a few weeks before, I’d moved thirty copies of Pressure at a Books-A-Million in the middle of nowhere West Virginia—you’d think a local signing at a Books-A-Million in Harrisburg would go well, right? I could probably move at least fifty copies there in three hours’ time, correct?

Sadly, I never got to find out.

That’s because Books-A-Million corporate decided to arbitrarily cancel the signing at the last minute.

I’ve known Jim, the manager of that Books-A-Million, for nearly twenty years. He hosted one of the very first signings I ever did for The Rising. Back then, he was managing a Waldenbooks. Then a Borders. Now a Books-A-Million. Jim is a fan of the horror genre. Early in their careers, he hosted one of the first book-signings for John Skipp and Craig Spector. When the signing was over, he had them sign the card table they’d been seated at. Years later, he had Jesus and I sign that same card table. But Jim is more than just a fan. He is the quintessential bookseller—knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and able to anticipate what his customers want and need. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Jim hand-sell a book to a dubious customer. His love of books and reading are infectious. He transfers them to his staff and his customers.

Bottom line? Jim and I could have sold a lot of books during that three-hour signing had a vice president at Books-A-Million not decided on a whim to cancel the event with little to no notice.

Neither one of us ever got a reason for the cancellation. All Jim got was an email, saying “Cancel it and return the books.” I didn’t even get that. Why would a vice president do something like this?

Because Books-A-Million and their biggest competitor, Barnes & Noble, are not run by people who love books, who are knowledgeable about books, who enjoy books, or—in some cases—even want to sell books. Understand, I’m not talking about the individual bookstore level. I’m not talking about the managers on the ground, or their staff, or even the regional managers. No, I’m talking about the people at the top—the people who are not booksellers, and yet are managing bookstores, and trying to sell books the same way one sells soft drinks or clothing or exercise equipment.

My circle of friends and acquaintances include many booksellers, both indie and corporate. I hear this repeatedly from the latter, in private. Over the last three years, I’ve featured several former Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble employees on my podcast, or on my blog, who have said the same thing. I’ve also reported on the continued financial failings of both stores, as financial quarter after financial quarter after financial quarter, their profits continue a grim, slow slide. You know what Barnes & Noble blamed their most recent holiday season sales slump on? Adele. That’s right, the singer, Adele. According to Barnes & Noble corporate, the reason they lost money during Christmas of 2016 was because Adele didn’t release a new album. I’m not making this up. Google it if you don’t believe me.

A retail expert recently told CNBC that with the expected upturn in the economy for 2017, lower unemployment, and higher consumer confidence readings, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million won’t be able to blame the consumer for poor performance. Instead, they will have to look at how they perform as merchants and retailers. The best way for them to do that might be TO TRY SELLING BOOKS instead of toys, apparel, food, coasters, and all the other non-book related items that fill their stores. The Big Two claim that book sales are down, yet their biggest competitor—Amazon—and their other competitor—independently-owned bookstores—say otherwise. Book sales aren’t down. People still buy books. They just don’t buy them from Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. And why should they? Buying a book is an experience. Let’s take a horror reader, for example. A horror reader wants to go to the store, find the horror section, and browse. They want to look through the books, see if there’s a new Simon Clark available yet, pick up a book by an author they never heard of, grab that Sarah Pinborough novel they keep hearing about. Except they can’t do any of this in Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble because they don’t have a horror section. The horror reader will have to go through general fiction, and science fiction, and sometimes romance, and occasionally even metaphysical studies (no bullshit—I know of a Books-A-Million where the manager insisted on stocking all of Jonathan Maberry’s backlist in the New Age/Metaphysical Studies section, for no reason at all other than they were a fucking idiot). And after the reader has gone through all that trouble—chances are eighty percent likely the store won’t have the book they are looking for anyway. If they ask, a helpful employee will say, “We can order it online for you.” And then the horror reader will politely decline and go home and order it online from Amazon, who still has a horror section, and who most likely has the book in stock.

So, what does any of that have to do with the reason for my cancelled signing? Because I highly suspect it was that type of corporate thinking that led to the cancellation. Some vice president looked at the event, saw that it was in August, saw that Pressure had come out in June, and decided that the store should no longer be stocking or selling the book, and should instead focus on whatever had just come out that week.

Throughout this tour, the vast majority of my signings took place at independently-owned bookstores. You can count on one hand the number of corporate chain bookstores I appeared at—Bradley’s Books in DuBois, Pennsylvania; Barnes & Noble in Tucson, Arizona, and Orlando, Florida; Books-A-Million in Beckley, West Virginia; and what would have been Books-A-Million in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In each of those instances, it was because the staff and manager were booksellers who work around the systemic ineptness of their corporate overlords and know how to sell books.

When this column started, I told you I was going to examine the history of our genre over the last twenty years, and what has changed, and what remains the same. In bookselling. In publishing. In touring. In society. And in myself. For the last thirty-four weeks, I’ve done just that.

Were I to do this again in another decade, I could write about the death and disappearance of Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. Because make no mistake, that’s coming over the next ten years. Indie bookstores and Amazon are the way of the future. Independent stores will cater to those readers who love books, who love browsing through the shelves and seeing what they can find. Amazon will cater to the casual reader or to the folks who don’t have access to an indie bookstore in their region.

Big box bookstores? They’ll go the way of Circuit City and Woolworths, and that will absolutely suck for the good people who are employed by them.

But for the average reader?

The average reader won’t even notice, because those big box bookstores are already gone from their minds.

Need a Doctor Who scarf or a set of bamboo coasters or a Moleskin journal or anything other than a book? Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble have you covered—unless of course you decide to instead buy those things at Wal-Mart or Target or online.

Need a book? Get it indie, or get it at home.

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

1 thought on “Go Indie or Go Home”

  1. Exactly. Barnes & Noble has been dead to me for a long time. They don’t have anything that I want, and if they did, I wouldn’t be able to find it anyway. Independents are the way to go. My favorite being Borderlands Books in SF. It makes me happy to support indies – writers, publishers and authors.

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