Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Comment: Blogs, Books, and Anti-Indie Backlash

Friday morning at BEA I attended a panel discussion titled "Blog 2.0: How Blogs Continue to Re-Define Author, Publisher and Reader Dynamics." Other bloggers (Ed, Max) have commented on the perplexing fact that the panel contained not a single literary blogger (i.e. one who reviews books and book news). The closest thing was the presence of Kyle Crafton of Media Bistro (which hosts blogs, including GalleyCat, runs writing classes and contains advertising but isn't exactly a blog) and Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch / Publishers Marketplace (which is more of a newsletter, and which I admit I've stopped reading because it's more about publishing personnel than books, and because I got tired of the ads for the pay version of the site). The other panelists were Ana Marie Cox (i.e. D.C. gossip blogger/fiction writer Wonkette), Dan Berstein (author of the book BLOG!), and Marcos Zuniga (famed force behind the political blog Daily Kos).

The panel did come up with some interesting insights: Berstein predicted that there will be a convergence, not a war, between print and online media; Crafton outlined options for making money as a publisher through author blogs; Cox admitted that she started her blog because she couldn't get hired to write what she wanted to write; and Zuniga stressed that blogs are not about blogging, but about identifying strong voices in particular niches, without gatekeepers to moderate content. Michael Cader had the most quotable statement of the panel, when he actually defined what a blog is: "a website that showcases an individual voice." He hypothesized that this is significant in the rise of individual over institutional voices, surmising that each of the panelists had begin their blogging ventures because there was no place for what they wanted to say in the available print media outlets.

There was a good mixture of current bloggers and curious potential bloggers in the audience, and I hope this and other panels sponsored by ABA and BookExpo will lead to an increased publisher and bookseller presence in the literary blogosphere. As I mentioned in the link madness, the proprietor of Book Court in Brooklyn bravely stood up and mentioned what his store is doing online, which is very impressive, and Atomic Books in Baltimore is still my standard for what a store website/blog can be. I think a session where we as booksellers share tips on making our individual voices heard on the web would be immensely useful.

The strangest moment in the panel, however, came when I asked that question to the assembled bloggers: how can we as booksellers, individual voices as opposed to the monolithic voices of Barnes & Noble and Amazon, learn from bloggers how to form coalitions and make our voices heard? Wonkette politely suggested a bookstore community chat room, though it seemed obvious none of the bloggers had considered the question before. Then Mr. Daily Kos spoke up (if I remember correctly) with his opinion that independent bookstore are "whiners," telling customers they should patronize them "just because they're not corporate," when there's no reason to do so unless the independents have something to offer the customers to make it worth their while. It seemed like a strange thing to say (or at least strangely expressed) in a room full of ABA members, especially from a markedly leftist figure, but as he had also expressed the opinion that people who read blogs don't read books (a statement which is contradicted every time someone reads this blog or any of the links on the right), I felt somewhat comfortable deciding that Mr. Kos is just speaking from a different experience that may not have any relevance on the actual experience of those in the book world.

The trouble is, he's not the only one. Tyler Cowen recently wrote a story for Slate titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Good For? Not Much," which posits that "Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case." He argues that internet culture has filled the need for obscure/offbeat books and commentary that indie stores once did, and that those who cry for their preservation are for the most part elitist snobs. And Bookslut, in a Book Standard article entitled "Jessa Crispin Says Quit Griping About Where to Buy Books," argues that it's just not that big of a deal whether we shop at chains or indies, and we should all stop "keep[ing] the debate alive—infinitely and uselessly."

Before those of us who love independents write these commentators off as consumer zombies/tools of the Man/irredeemable Snarks/heartless moneygrubbers who value a discount over their soul/etc…. it's worth stopping to ask where this backlash is coming from, and even whether we can learn anything from it. To me, the fact that such commentary exists is evidence that the independent bookstores' message that it is better to shop indie than chain has reached a certain critical mass that demands commentary. And that can be a good thing. For each one of these critical opinions (who, it can hardly be denied, are cultural elitists themselves as well), there are many book buyers who have realized that they do have a choice when they buy books, and that that choice might matter.

And to be honest, is it possible they might have a point. It's funny that both Cowen and Crispin site Laura Miller's book RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS as one of those unreasonable voices crying out for support of the indies as a political consumer act, when the first few chapters of her book (which I'm working through slowly) challenged me as a bookseller with some of the same issues they bring up. It's true: as ideologues of literature and community, we as independent bookseller can become elitist snobs, disregarding the experience of many who need discounted books for financial reasons or live too far away to frequent an indie bookstore. Some of us snub literature we don’t think is worthy, some of us sniff at people who value discounts or convenience, some of us turn snarly when chains are mentioned. I have been to (and even worked in) independent bookstores where the selection of books was insufficient; the staff was snobby, or sullen, or unresponsive, or undertrained; the physical space was unappealing. Bottom line: just being an independent bookstore doesn't mean you're a good bookstore, and you can't expect people to shop with you out of pure moral virtue.

However, I believe there are, in fact, ethical reasons to shop at an independent as opposed to a chain, if it is possible. As studies posted on the ABA website show, independent retailers circulate a much higher percentage of their income back into the local economy, as opposed to funneling it away to corporate offices. Indies have a more transparent relationship with their community, and are directly accountable for whether their actions please their customers. And then there's the intangible stuff like quality of life, community, the serendipity of a new face and a new book, which, say what you will, doesn't happen on the internet in quite the same way. There's a value in the slowness of real-time interpersonal interactions that is in a way a political act, a counterpoint to increasing corporatization and homogenization.

I don't think chains or the internet are evil. As some have pointed out in commentary on Cowen's article, these sources have made books available to readers in some areas that have no independent bookstores, and we can hardly fault them for that. And some chain stores have awesome employees and serve their community well. And I think that some independent bookstores will not survive if they try to rest on their ideological laurels without, as Kos points out, offering something that customers want to come in for.

Come to think of it, that's what I spent three days at BEA doing: learning ways to make our store a place that people will come to and shop in. We do think independent bookselling is more ethical and fulfilling than chain bookstores, but that's not what we're selling. We're selling good books, and books people want, and a good experience, and a good value. We're offering community and culture and connectedness. It's not a right to experience these things; it's a wonderful, treasured privilege, and all of us who can should count ourselves lucky, and not entitled, to be a part of it. We should be understanding of those who can't experience that privilege, and work to make it more available.

I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I think the backlash against indies, especially by those on the web side of things, is just the beginning of the growing pains of a new convergence of those individual voices to make independent bookselling more truly appealing and accessible and vibrant than ever before.

What do you think?