Monday, September 11, 2006

Ask Yourself this...

Saturday I drove to Carmel Indiana to hear what Jim Huang had to say about the state of publishing today. Jim is an editor, author, publisher and independent book store proprietor, and he does all of his jobs well. So I figured the drive would be worth my time. What he had to say was certainly thought provoking.

He started by asking, “What was the last book you read for pleasure and where did you get it?” Only one in four of us had purchased the book from an independent bookseller. One in four checked his out of the library. Jim said that when he asks a group of readers, “How did you come to read a particular book?” a lot of people have trouble answering. Readers pick up a book on impulse, or because they saw the movie, because it was reviewed somewhere, or the reader knows the author. Most people don’t know what they’re doing when they buy a book. They may go into the bookstore to buy a particular title, and even in chains, they may be greeted by a clerk trained to say, “May I help you?” who can find that title. But in most bookstores, they don’t get much more help. They rarely encounter a clerk who’s read the book that they’re considering. Even more rarely do they find someone who knows another book they‘d like if they’ve read all their favorite author’s work. In most book stores, staff aren’t trained to answer questions like “What should I read next?” or even “Can you tell me about this?” if what the reader wants to know is more than the book’s placement on the bestseller lists.

All of which sounds like a plug for independent bookstores. And it is. Independent books stores cater to individual readers because that’s what they do. Chain book stores and (and Target and Wal-Mart and Osco Drugs) do a good job of selling the best sellers, the latest self-help manuals, and the romances that go in and out of print in four weeks. They don’t do such a great job of selling new or mid-list writers, or of keeping them out there long enough to be discovered by a wide audience. Which is why it’s a good idea to support your local independent book store.

Jim also asked us to consider who’s publishing the books we buy and how. Typically the publisher gets 50 % of the cover price, the store gets 40%, and the author gets 10%. If the book is sold at a discount, everyone gets less. Large chains usually sell best sellers at a discount to get readers into the store where thy might make other purchases at regular prices. They make their profits on volume. Small books stores can’t do that. They also have to sell a lot of non-best selling books. And while 40% of a $25 book may sound like a large profit, think about how many books you have to sell to pay the rent each month. And the electric bill. And the staff. How often have you been in a small bookstore and had to fight your way through the crowd to get to the cash register? Booksellers also have to deal with distributors who give much better deals to large publishers and chains, and who often won’t carry the books of really small publishers. That means booksellers might have to order that obscure title you want directly from the publisher. And there are hundreds of small publishers. Many small publishers make it really hard—offer only a 20% discount for the seller, or charge for shipping, or both! Some don’t even send out catalogs!

So this probably sounds like one of those inflammatory exposes you see on the nightly news. Some other industry is going to hell along with the rest of the world. And I’m just one person. What do you expect me to do?

What you can do is support independent booksellers, and buy books from publishers who try to keep their authors in print, who maintain the authors’ backlists. You can get the latest best-seller at the public library. If you’re going to put down your own cash, consider the policies of the publisher you’re supporting. If you don’t know those policies, ask an independent bookseller or an author. Those who plan to stay in business have made it a point to know. If you’re on the verge of selling your own first book, don’t be so rushed to see your name in print that you sign with a publisher that makes it difficult for booksellers to get or profit from their authors’ books.

Consider this: Whether you intend to or not, you vote with your wallet. As Jim Huang put it. “Where you buy a book has a consequence. Where you buy a book will determine what you end up with. Think about what kind of business you want this to be and who is working to make this the kind of business you want.”

Still with me? Here’s something else to think about:

Real forensic science is not CSI. Forty percent of the “science” on CSI is science fiction—made up by imaginative screenwriters. Much of the rest is distorted. You knew that. What you may not know is that in many jurisdictions in this country, suspects are not being arrested before they commit other crimes, or are being released because the forensic evidence is not being processed before the statute of limitations expires. This even in serious cases—rape, and aggravated assault and battery. (In Britain, they are so serious about funding forensic science, they do DNA testing for burglaries.) In the US, most forensics labs are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of evidence collected by law enforcers hoping to head off allegations that the cops “didn’t do the DNA.” Even though DNA figures in only a small percentage of cases, DNA is getting most of the funding. This year, the Senate voted to appropriate $18 million for Coverdell Act funding; the House has voted zero dollars.

So what can YOU do?

Simple. To find out more about forensic science—NOT JUST DNA—read Connie Fletcher’s book, Every Contact Leaves a Trace (St Martin’s, 2006). This is not like doing homework—you’re a fan of crime literature, right? And Connie's book is a terrific read.

Then go to and learn about The Crime Lab Project and the Coverdell Act. (The site also has links to real, reputable professional forensics organizations.)

Then CALL OR E-MAIL your representatives in the US Congress (The Crime Lab Project site has contact information if you need it.) and tell them to support funding for the forensic sciences.

Isn’t that easy?


ab said...

About independent book shops: You can end up in a catch 22 situation there as well as in the chains. That is, they order six copies of your book because you are not famous, sell them, and then do not order any more. Why? Because you only sold six copies... In another store with a dedicated seller who knows his/her job and has a genuine interest in new authors, the same unknown book can sell by the hundreds.

Still, I support the indies. There are after all more book oriented than the chains, even if they are copying the chains more and more.

Thanks for the tip on forensics.

The Home Office said...

Bizarre coincidence led me to your excellent blog. (John Mcnally's blog about Ursula LeGuin, to another blog to you.) Even more bizarre, I started reading Connie Fletcher's book on the ride to work this morning. Having already read What Cops Know, Pure Cop, and Breaking and Entering, I had a good idea of what to expect, and Fletcher looks to be right on her usual form. Her books are invaluable for anyone writing in the crime genre, or for anyone just interested in what cops (and now, forensic investigators) deal with on a daily basis.