I’m confused

Why don’t independent bookstores and small presses get along?

dolan morgan
May 27, 2014 · 5 min read

Over the weekend, I stopped by the independent bookstore in the small town where I grew up — and left feeling pretty crappy. Here’s the single sentence that blew me away:

“We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses.”

Let me say that one more time.

“We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses.”

Though I always make a point of popping into the shop whenever I visit my old town (the place made an enormous impact on me as a reader and as a writer), I went this weekend with a little extra purpose: my own first book is slated to come out on a new press this August, and of course I’d be delighted to see it on the shelves at the store that nurtured me.

“Are you able to stock books distributed through SPD?” I asked.

“We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses,” she said (no matter how many times I hear it, I’m still boggled, so I just keep repeating it, waiting for it to make sense). “Unfortunately, we are only able to work with two distributors.”

Beyond my own disappointment, this statement all too clearly illuminates an absurd problem in contemporary publishing, and one that is really worth solving.

We’re all familiar with the broad strokes of today’s book landscape. Amazon is sucking up sales, bullying publishers, changing everything. Big-box outfits close or struggle. Enormous mergers shake the foundation. Old paradigms fall, new ones erupt. Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria.

Okay, that last bit is Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters, but you get the point. Things are rough out there. The stakes are high for all involved, from writers to presses to stores to readers.

So, in the face of such uncertainty, and amid a tide of doom prophecy, the determined work of independent presses and bookstores alike is impressive and admirable.

Independent bookstores have survived and even expanded when big chains could not, often by fostering local community through events and groups and social outreach. It’s a staggering accomplishment for a market many thought could be crushed and eliminated.

Small presses, too, have thrived where larger counterparts stumbled. If this Great indie Press Preview from Electric Literature is any indication, independent publishing is alive and flourishing, taking risks and flying in the face of what should happen when behemoths like Amazon push the bottom line. Risk is the first thing to go when every penny counts, but independent presses defy the squeeze and deliver high quality, diverse content.

So that leaves us with two amazing entities, the book-loving communities of small independent books stores, and the rich catalogs of small independent presses, both fighting to stay afloat (and succeeding) in a changing industry. Yet all too often these would-be-friends are not in the same place.

(I’ll just drop this in here again for good measure: “We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses.”)

This is a real shame for so many reasons. Take one extreme example: an enormous portion (the majority?) of contemporary American poetry exists in the world of small, independent presses. Yet: these books largely don’t make it to the shelves of small independent bookstores, meaning that contemporary American poetry largely doesn’t make it to the shelves of indie stores. It feels as if these parties should find easy allies in one another; for example, “SPD is currently the only distributor in the country dedicated exclusively to independently published literature” — that sounds like the kind of claim an independent bookstore might be interested in. And “an independent bookstore whose mission was, and is, to be a place where words matter, where writer meets reader… fiercely committed to putting the right book in the right hand” seems like the kind of place an indie press would want to connect with.

Yet it’s not happening.

Of course, indie presses and indie bookstores are not universally distanced from each other. In fact, I chose to work with WORD in Brooklyn to design an indie press reading group because they have been so supportive of small presses (they have a section of the store devoted to them). Yet even at stores committed to small presses, it can be very difficult to bridge the gap.

A lot of presses have scant information about how they are distributed. And when the method is clear, the policies of press and store do not always align. Establishments like WORD are able to work with many indie presses, but not all. Likewise, many indie presses are equipped to work with many independently owned stores, but not all.

The distance is not without good reason. A small independent bookstore has limited space, and stocking books that might be unfamiliar to readers can be a real risk. Often, titles from small presses can’t be returned — which presents an untenable arrangement for many small businesses. Likewise, small presses can have limited print runs, rendering individual copies more precious and liberal distribution prohibitive.

And obviously it’s worse in places less dedicated to supporting small presses (which would be…most cases). For example, when I asked about doing an event and stocking small press books at another store near my old home town, their representative asked me to fill out a special form — which I was disappointed to discover was intended for self-published authors. When I tried to explain that I was not talking about self published work, but numerous books made available through a number of distributors, and when I asked if they had some option for work that landed between the two extremes of vanity press and the big houses, I received no reply. For this bookstore, apparently, small independent presses don’t even exist. There are the big publishers and then there are people printing their own work, with nothing in between. That’s like me saying to a small bookstore owner, “Independent bookstores aren’t real bookstores like Barnes and Noble or Amazon, they’re just basically dudes selling their stuff on the street, right? I mean, what’s the difference? Get a job, independent bookstore owner.”

Quizzically, too, it is often easier for many small presses to make their way into big suppliers. The Small Press Table at Barnes and Noble Union Square in New York is a formidable collection. And if we follow this fact into the future, we can see some unfortunate outcomes. We might envision a scenario where our Amazons and Barnes and Nobles are the main purveyors of small press work, the main centers of innovative, risky fiction and poetry, while small independent bookstores are the peddlers of mainstream catalogs, the hubs of safe, homogenized best sellers.

I don’t think anybody wants that, and it seems far-fetched (right?), but right now we’re in this goofy middle-ground where awesome book sellers and awesome books are not always connecting.

I’m at a total loss for how to resolve all this, but I can’t shake the feeling that small bookstores and small presses should get along. And I can’t shake the feeling that, however great the reasons behind it might be, it’s bonkers to say “We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses.”

How can we make it easier for great independent booksellers and great independent presses to be friends?

    dolan morgan

    Written by

    Stories. Poems. Pictures. Murder. // author: INSIGNIFICANA (CCM, 2016) That's When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014)

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