Most of us have been busy shopping for gifts. This year, I've heard lots of folks say they're boycotting the Corporate America sellers in favor of "Main St." If it's true, they're helping to strengthen their local economy, right?
Only in part.
In my neighborhood is a mom-and-pop produce place. I love that store. Besides being part of our local economy, their goods are usually the same price or cheaper than the supermarket. There's one catch. Much of their produce is pre-bagged, so I can't choose my own pieces and I have to take 4-6 of each. But, hey, if I can save 50% on Florida grapefruit or Mexican bell peppers or whatever, I don't mind checking the bag carefully and taking a set quantity. And it feels good to support a local store.
However, I still buy some produce at the supermarket. Why? In the summer especially, the big market carries the harvests of farms within a 50 mile radius. They even list the farms who provide the produce. Supporting local farmers is as important to me as supporting local indie stores. If my little indie store sold more local farm produce, I'd be absolutely faithful. But in my mind, the farmers have to come first. If they disappear, our local food economy disappears.
How does this translate to the book industry? I find lately that the prevailing opinion is "Indies good, box stores and Amazon evil." The people spreading this simplified view of the economy are only looking at the retail level of it. No one seems to be stating the publishing-level equivalent--"Small presses good, corporate publishers evil." And no one is mentioning the workers who actually manufacture the product, your friendly self-employed book farmers: the authors.
The majority of writers (at least the vast majority I know) are truly the sweatshop laborers of the industry. For the months of work put into a novel, even from authors who can write quickly, the average amount earned over the time that book remains in print is almost always less than minimum wage. If you add in the hours an author spends on promotion of that book, and subtract expenses for travel, advertising and the rest, sewing stuffed animals in China starts to sound like lucrative work.
I know truly amazing indie stores who support authors in all kinds of way. They not only stock my books (or are willing to order them if a customer asks), but they also aren't afraid to deal with legitimate small presses. They have a pile of books waiting for me when I do a signing. They ask me to sign a couple copies for the store before I leave. They publicize my appearance. They talk about my books before I arrive and after I leave. They do this for all their local authors and ones passing through on tours, and in return, the authors send customers their way.
In the last 5 years or so, though, I've come across an increasing number of indies who seem to order books only from big corporate publishers, even if they've scheduled an author event or are a dealer at a conference. The majority of authors I've appeared with at signings in the last year have had to schlep their own books to events. What's up with that? I realize that some small presses play fast and loose with industry standards, but mine doesn't. Yet many bookstores won't even call to ask questions.
Amazon, evil empire that it is, at least gives all authors a little shelf space and a page on which to promote our wares. Amazon might be huge and making profits hand over fist, but right now, they treat authors better than the rest of the industry.
I'm not saying shopping at indies is wrong. Far from it. I do my best to support the good ones. I have a link on my website to help readers find indie bookstores near them. All I ask of indies is that they support authors in return. We can help you sell more books. Really.
All of us as readers need to take a closer look at who's taking our money and where it's going from there. The economy doesn't only exist on the retail level. How many bucks are making it back to the guy down at the bottom? I've known too many authors who've quit writing the last 5 years because they just can't take the frustration and inability to make ends meet. And that breaks my heart.
We have to support our book farmers first. If they disappear, bookstores disappear.
Elena (who's getting too old to schlep books)