In Praise of Booksellers

The world of words and ideas lost another champion recently with the passing of Nancy Olson, the founder and longtime owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.  Nancy was a kind, warmhearted and generous person who loved books and loved authors.  When you went to Quail Ridge to promote a new book, Nancy drew a crowd, made you feel at home, and made sure everybody who came in the store in the days and weeks after knew about your work.

Nancy was an independent bookseller, and one of the most successful anywhere.  Booksellers all over the country knew about Quail Ridge and admired the way she ran her store.  Those who studied how she did it knew that she combined the two essential ingredients of any successful bookseller: a love of books and authors and a keen business sense.  She made her store a warm and inviting place, she was a master of personal service to her customers, and she knew how to promote and market.

Not all that long ago, there were thousands of local, independently-owned bookstores in America, a great many of them started by good folks whose main attribute was a love of books and writing.  Any town of any size had at least one independent store, and in larger communities there might be scores of them. 

Then along came the big chains with huge stores and inventories and great buying and marketing clout.  It was devastating for the independents, just as the mom-and-pop grocery stores fell victim to the Krogers of the world.  Hundreds of independents fell by the wayside.  But a few, like Quail Ridge in Raleigh, survived because folks like Nancy Olson knew that a love of books wasn’t enough.  You had to know how to count and how to let the world know what you were doing.

More recently, bookstores of every size and shape – chains and independents alike – have struggled in the new world of e-books and online ordering.  When you can turn on your Kindle and order an electronic version of the latest hot seller, or go online to Amazon and get a physical copy delivered in a couple of days, why bother to get in the car and drive to a bookstore?  The reason you should is that those booksellers who have weathered the storm give you individual service, host authors to tell you about their work, and generally make you feel at home when you walk in the door.

My books are available in all sorts of formats and sources, but so-called “midlist” writers like me would not exist if it were not for people like Nancy Olson.  When you enter one of their stores and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” they can recommend a book that fits your particular taste.  To a bookseller like Nancy, every customer is an individual, unique and special.

I sure do miss Nancy Olson.  But Quail Ridge Books and Music is still going strong under new leadership, and when I have a new book to show off, I’ll make a beeline for that place.  And I’ll feel unique and special, too.

The Indies Are Back!

I’m winding up a two-month promotional tour for my new novel with some really good news: independent booksellers are back.

Everywhere I went on my 20-city tour, I found independent book stores that are thriving; owners who possess that essential combination of a love of books and good business sense; staff who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and helpful.  It’s a dramatic reversal of a 20-year trend, and for midlist writers like me who depend on word-of-mouth to sell books, it’s the best news in years.

Here’s an example of what’s happening in a good-sized city I’m very familiar with: fifteen years ago there were perhaps a dozen independent bookstores of various stripes scattered about town, some of them doing well, others gamely muddling along, showing slim profits but having lots of fun in a business they loved.  Today, there is one full-service, general-purpose independent bookstore in this city.

What happened was the double-barreled onslaught of chain bookstores and Amazon.  Within a ten-mile radius of this one surviving independent, there were suddenly four big chain stores – offering a huge selection and bestsellers at loss-leader prices, cheaper than the independents could buy them.  Customers the independents thought were fiercely loyal bolted for the chains and their discount prices.  The bottom fell out of the independents’ business and one by one they agonizingly gave up – all but this one store, which struggled mightily but held on by its fingernails.

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Today, the landscape is profoundly different.  One of the chains went belly-up.  Two more closed their stores in the area of the city where the independent survived.  The last remaining chain is, in many parts of the country, closing stores and reducing inventories.  And many of the customers who shopped the chain stores are turning back to the independents, re-discovering what made them once-loyal customers.  That surviving independent in this city is seeing double-digit increases in sales from a year ago.  Life is good and getting better.

Independents still face an uphill battle.  There is stiff competition from the remaining chain operations.  Online booksellers offer books at discount prices.  And there is the steady and continuing movement to e-book formats, especially for fiction titles.  Kindle, Nook and Kobo have taken a big cut of that market.  But there are still huge numbers of people who insist on holding a real, physical book in their hands, and they are the core of the independents’ audience.

If you go into an independent bookstore and ask, “What do you have that’s good to read?” the staff will give you an informed suggestion, based on what they know about you as an individual reader.  If you’re looking for a book on a particular subject, the staff will help you find what fits your needs, and if it’s not on their shelves, they’ll have it for you in a couple of days.  If you want to spend an hour just browsing, soaking up the smell and feel of books while you have a cup of coffee and a muffin, you’ll find it a comfortable, inviting place.  If you want to meet one of your favorite authors peddling his or her new book, you’re likely to find them at an independent.  It’s old-fashioned customer service, married to modern technology and store owners with a keen sense of what makes a successful business. 

What’s happening these days with independent bookselling is a nationwide phenomenon, as noted by Fortune Magazine in a recent article: “The Indie Bookstore Resurgence.”  Author Verne Kopytoff noted that sales at independents grew 8% last year and are on track to do as well this year.  And membership in the American Booksellers Association is up 16% over the past five years.

Independents’ competition won’t go away, nor should it.  People who buy books and related items want choice, convenience, a good deal.  But for the moment, that immensely important part of the book culture that independent stores inhabit is the healthiest in years, and getting more so.  And the folks who are happiest about that (after the owners themselves) are scribblers like me.

Give A Bookseller A Hug

Some authors are shy.  I’m not.

I remember a bookseller telling me some years ago about a visit to her store by an author whose work I admire.  This fellow had a fine new book, which the store owner had read in advance of his visit and was eagerly looking forward to recommending to her customers.  She arranged an appearance for the author, drew a crowd, had plenty of books available.  But she realized to her chagrin that the author was a terminal introvert.  He mumbled a few pages from his book to the assemblage, didn’t take questions or comments, barely met the eyes of people whose books he autographed, and scurried quickly away as soon as possible.  It was not a successful event.

Contrast that with another writer whose work I like a very great deal – Pat Conroy.  Pat is warm, funny, self-effacing, accessible, generous, and enormously talented.  When Pat appears at a book store, he seems to reach out and gather people to him.  Pat’s writing alone guarantees him an audience, but Pat makes the experience of meeting him in person a treat.  And it’s all completely genuine.  Booksellers love Pat Conroy.

Booksellers have a tough job – especially independent stores whose very existence has been in jeopardy for years.  The big box stores, Amazon, the e-book tsunami, have decimated their ranks.  In one good-sized city I’m familiar with, there were perhaps a dozen fine independent full-service bookstores not too many years ago.  Now there is one.  The stores that have survived are owned and run by people who combine savvy business sense with a love of books and work hard to deliver personal service to their customers.

Mid-list authors like me survive because of the independents.  We love to have our books available in any store of any size, and we have come to embrace the brave new world of the e-book.  But independents hand-sell our books.  Walk into one and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” and the bookseller will have a ready recommendation.  If independent booksellers like an author’s work and are willing to recommend it, that’s huge.

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC     

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC  

When I visit a book store of any kind or size, my attitude is that I’m there to help the bookseller.  I’m grateful for the invitation and I love meeting and talking with readers.  I really like people, and I’m thrilled when someone thinks enough of my work to want to read it and hear me talk about it.  If I enjoy myself and genuinely connect with the folks who take time to come out, it makes a successful event for the store and leaves a warm glow that will last long after I’ve left.  I try to be just like Pat Conroy.

I’m embarking on a promotional tour that will take me to a lot of bookstores of all kinds in the next couple of months.  After the years of hard labor it took to bring my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, to life, this is the payoff, and I don’t just mean in monetary terms.  It’s a time when I get to tell booksellers and readers how grateful I am for having the work to present, and the opportunity to present it.

We’d be a poor, sad society if we didn’t have booksellers.  So visit a store, give the bookseller a hug, and take home something good to read.  If you visit while I’m there, I’ll be mighty glad to see you.  Hugs are optional.

Giving Birth to an Elephant

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Writing a novel is similar to giving birth to an elephant: the gestation period is very long, and when the dear thing finally pops out, you hope nobody notices that it has long, floppy ears.

Well, I’m in the final stages of labor.  My new novel, The Governor’s Lady, debuts August 29 at Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC.  My first four novels were birthed at the same great store, where owners John Barringer, and later Sally Brewster, have nurtured and supported my scribbling from the beginning.  You might call them the delivering physicians.

This book has been more than ten years in the making, and there were times I wondered if I’d ever finish it, and if so, if it would ever see the light of day.

The book publishing industry has changed dramatically in the time since my fourth novel, Captain Saturday, came out.  It’s mostly a bottom-line business these days, and midlist writers like me, even with decent publishing records, have a tough time placing a new work.  So many books of merit that used to get published with little problem now have a much slimmer chance of finding an audience.

I’m incredibly fortunate.  The Governor’s Lady will be birthed by a wonderful house, John F. Blair Publishers in Winston-Salem, NC.  Yesterday, I held the first copy off the press and marveled at the beautiful presentation Blair has made of my story.  Carolyn Sakowski and her staff have done everything right and given the work its best possible chance to succeed in the marketplace.  They’ve arranged an extensive promotional tour (www.robert-inman.com/appearances) where I’ll get the opportunity to present my book to booksellers, librarians, and readers.  It will also have an e-book edition for those who are making the move to devices like Kindle, Nook and Kobo.  I’m proud to be a Blair author.

Now, it’s up to me and my little elephant.  Readers will decide the merits of the story, and I’ll do everything I can to help the cause.  It’s where art meets commerce.  I’m proud of the work – the characters and the story -- and immensely grateful to everyone who has provided wise counsel and guidance along the way.

If you see me on the street pushing a very large baby carriage with a long-eared little darling inside, at least honk and wave.  We’re on a mission, and we need your good wishes.  A few bucks for the book would help, too.