Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Bookstore Chain's Fix(i)

In the apparent slow death of Barnes and Noble, Dennis Johnson, founder of book blog MobyLives, and co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House, sees the karmic fate of commercial volume booksellers who're said to have crowded out the small-time players.

He notes that within 30 days, B&N has shuttered many of its US outlets. He's not sorry to see it go, but he's not happy with this development because, he argues, major bookstores such as Barnes and Noble also happen to be 'book showrooms' where people can preview books before buying them online; should such bookstores close, sales of e-books will also suffer, resulting in a domino effect that will hit every part of the industry.

So who'll fill the void left behind by the megastores? Indies, maybe or online distributors ... anything that doesn't squash a small business every time it rolls over. Besides, you don't need these companies to sell books these days. When author Joe Simpson felt bullied by his publisher over e-book royalties, he started his own publishing house - which also sells his own books, of course.

At home, local Malay fiction publisher Fixi is having trouble getting its latest publications into another popular bookstore chain. Around August last year, it decided to keep two Fixi novels, Hilang ("Missing") and Murtad ("Apostate"), off its shelves due to objectionable content that includes coarse language and (possibly) references to human gonads.

(...y'know, an official ban on books like that would leave a lot of bookstores with many empty shelves...)

But it seems that these were not the only Fixi books it had problems with.

Last December (not too long ago), this chain seems to have stopped taking four of Fixi's latest. Attempts by the publisher to contact the management have failed, and they're wondering why. Fourteen e-mails "in two years (between 10 December 2012 and 9 January 2013)", yo, and no official reply.

Later, Fixi released part three of this saga, which also throws a bunch of stats comparing online sales from their own web site and various book fairs with those from the chain, a rather long - and entertaining - way of saying, "No big loss, bro. We doin' fine on our own."

Fourteen e-mails and several Facebook nudges in two months may sound pushy, but at this day and age, a simple "Yes, we will" or "No, thank you" shouldn't be too hard to manage.

Perhaps this chain feels it doesn't need to explain its decision, or is it not convenient for them to explain? In light of the Borders employee's arrest over Irshad Manji's book, we probably shouldn't blame bookstores for being too cautious (a list of outlets carrying Fixi titles can be found here, or shop online at Fixi's web site).

Whatever the reasons, this bookstore (or rather, book-and-mostly-stationery store) chain didn't make itself look good by keeping quiet, and it no longer pays for corporations to be cold and aloof. Bookstores rely on people to keep them going, regardless of size, and these days the human connection is becoming a critical survival strategy.

The story (thus far) of Parnassus Books, which author Ann Patchett runs with former Random House sales rep Karen Hayes, is particularly inspiring, with regards to the founders' efforts and the community it's in, and how it appears to be bucking the trend that indie bookstores are dying.

"Amazon doesn't get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money," Patchett says. "If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves."

Some would argue that "it's only two years" and that, when it comes to the community spirit, we may be a long way from the folks at that corner of Nashville, Tennessee. But if there are more and more people out there supporting small presses like Fixi, perhaps the time when Malaysian publishers and bookstores can produce and sell what they (and not the powers that be) feel is all right won't be too far off.

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