Being an Author: Lessons from the Front

One of the more difficult (and humiliating at times) parts of being an author is setting up readings. Difficult and humiliating because you’re not always warmly welcomed. But it is enlightening. Big book chains have very strict systems for ordering books, which made it difficult and in some cases impossible, for various reasons, for me to read there. But what surprised me was that larger independent bookstores made things difficult as well–and were not as friendly as I expected.

For example, I tried to set up a reading in May 2009 from my poetry collection, Etymology, with the Boulder Book Store, a store I frequented when I lived in Boulder, Colorado. I was told that 1) my publisher (or I) would have to pay a “$200 promotional co-op fee which helps to cover costs of event promotions,” a rather large outlay considering the number of books likely to sell; and 2) that they’d have to see how the book sold off the shelf first before committing to an author event: “Once we see how sales progress, we then decide if we think we can draw in a large enough audience to warrant hosting an event,” I was told by email. 

I was shocked: The store’s founder, David Bolduc, was also a founding member of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA). The alliance was created because, according to its website, “Local independent businesses increasingly are being displaced by national chain stores that have become the dominant retailers of everything from books and office supplies to groceries, hardware, and coffee. As corporate businesses displace local merchants, America’s towns are becoming marked by stark uniformity and lack of human scale.”

Here was an independent bookstore, then, touting the importance of shopping at independent stores–but it wasn’t offering the same sort of loyalty to an independent literary press. As for selling off the shelf first–how many copies of a small press book of poetry would sell, exactly, without precisely the sort of promotion the reading was for? I didn’t try to do a reading there when I returned to the U.S. last month to read from Ephraim’s Eyes.

Interestingly, I was not told last year about the consignment policy, with fees ranging from $25 to $225, depending on the package, which I’ve noticed today on the store’s website. The latter fee entitles you, among other things, to a reading with two other authors. Perhaps it wasn’t available at the time. But the bookstore still charges a fee, even if split three ways. And it has created this second-tier system specifically for small publishers (and self-published books).  This seems to me an example of precisely the sort of corporatization and “lack of human scale” that BIBA suggests it opposes. So was the (seemingly) form response that I received by email. 

In fact, the local Border’s in Boulder was much warmer: They were very friendly and encouraging both times I contacted them, even though in both instances (for different reasons) their purchasing policies prevented my reading there. Their exchanges with me were, in fact, also more personal and encouraging  (the events manager said something nice about the cover, for example, so it was clear she’d looked it up) than those of the Denver-based independent Tattered Cover Book Store, which gave me a runaround when I called them in 2009 and responded with only a curt reply–that their event schedule was full–this year.

The good news is that I’ve been warmly welcomed by other (smaller) independent shops, who were happy to have me read without any fee. During my recent trip to the U.S., I read from my collection of stories, Ephraim’s Eyes, at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, where I also read from Etymology last year, and the Broadway Book Mall in Denver. Both were wonderful to work with. (The Ivy ordered Etymology directly from the UK publisher.) Ron and Nina Else at Broadway Book Mall even put out a spread of nibbles and drinks at no charge. In New Zealand, I’ve been warmly supported with readings and booksales by Bruce McKenzie Booksellers in Palmerston North in conjunction with the Palmerston North City LibraryUnity Books in Wellington sold my books at an off-site reading and at the store.  Thanks to all of those people who supported these readings.

Signed copies of Ephraim’s Eyes are available at both The Ivy Bookshop and Broadway Book Mall, should you be in the neighborhood; either way, please support these stores!

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