Friday, October 2, 2015

A New Kind of Indie Bookstore

Last Friday, JJ Marsh of Triskele Books posted an interview with the author and illustrator Patti Brassard Jefferson. The interview is not about Jefferson’s books but about her bookstores—specifically, her idea to open P.J. Boox, a physical/online bookstore specializing in the works of self-published and small-press-published authors. The store was due to open yesterday, and you can find more information about it at its website.

To me, this sounds like a really interesting idea. It hasn’t been tried before, so far as I know, and a few kinks need working out before I sign on. The proposed arrangement is not yet the partnership of which I dream. Essentially, it differs little from the consignment system that bookstores currently use for non-trade-published books—when they accept those books at all. Authors and publishers pay to rent space in the store, pay for the online setup, provide the physical copies of books to sell (including shipping costs). In return, they receive 95% of sale prices via Paypal. But they have to take the sales figures on faith, and if they live far from the store, they depend on the store owner to promote the books. A committed, knowledgeable owner may do just that, but it seems pretty obvious that the owners have a guaranteed income stream from authors and publishers, who pay up front, and a much smaller income from sales. Authors and publishers, in effect, are gambling that exposure will raise their sales enough to cover the start-up costs and make a profit. A fairer arrangement, to my way of thinking, is for stores to buy the books from authors at a steep discount (say, production cost plus the author’s regular royalty), which would allow the stores to sell the books at a price that competes with the rates online. Then both sides get something from the transaction, and everyone benefits from sales rather than shelf rentals. 

Even so, the idea of a bookstore focusing on the “little guys” is both clever and promising. It recognizes that good self- and independently published books exist and that promotion in bookstores is as, if not more, important for their authors than for those picked up by commercial publishers. It adds a layer of curation: covers and text have to look professional, reassuring prospective readers that books meet basic standards. It responds to readers’ preference for books they can see: all books face out, displaying those beautiful covers to attract the eye. And it acknowledges the important role traditionally played by independent booksellers, who know their stock and their clientele and can talk up works to individual customers, just as librarians do.

So a big cheer for the innovators, best wishes to Ms. Jefferson for success with her bookstore for indies, and hopes that her venture will prompt others to follow suit. As the e-book and associated print revolutions continue, the number of Hidden Gems continues to rise. Having more ways to discover such books can only benefit readers, writers, small presses, and the bookstore owners willing to bring in non-trade-published books for sale.

Variety is the spice of life, as they say. So let’s hear it for the adventurous cooks!

Image from, no. 22079092.

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