Industry Talk: Indie vs Chain

There's been a lot of talk on one of the mystery writers list about Indies and Chain Stores. I confess, this is something very close to my heart. As a writer and as someone who wants to see my local economy come back from the hardship of the last few months, I have a vested interest in seeing any bookstore succeed. Here in Brunswick we recently lost our local Indie bookstore. I have a ton of memories wrapped up in that store. My parents idea of a good Friday night was to go to dinner and then go to the bookstore to see what was new in stock. I bought my Nancy Drew books there, my comics, my first romances... and Gothics.. and mysteries... I could go on and on. This store was also the hub for our writer's group. The store had graciously hosted us in their meeting room for years (in return, we bought more than our share of the great food from the cafe). It was sad to see it go. There has been a lot of talk that the new Borders in town was responsible for it's downfall. But I don't think that the total blame of ANY store's demise can be blamed on a chain store.

In my earlier life, I worked for a map publisher and part of my job was to contact Indies about putting the maps (a well established series of map books) into their stores. These were what we considered an automatic buy for most stores. Especially, if their patrons had an interest in the outdoors. I would call and they would say yes or no, depending on the amount of books that they had left on the shelf. Trying to get books into chain stores was another matter. Most often, I would contact the head office, who would forward me to a buyer, who would say I'll get back to you. Sometimes this required multiple phone calls. Sometimes, they would tell me they couldn't be brought in unless we went through a distributor. (I hear a collective groan from a lot of writers out there on this one).

Stocking your book:
This is a hard one to compare. I would have to call it an even draw on this. It depends on the amount of floor space and the ability to get interest in the books. I was selling over sized books that either took up shelf space or required a rack or dump (those lovely cardboard displays that aggravate everyone as they try to maneuver around them in stores.) If it was a shelf sell then it was usually 6 books. If it was a rack it was full product, including more than the map books and meant that they had a vested interest in the product. Pretty much same with dumps, but limited to a few... maybe only one book. We did a lot of these when we had a new state map come out. For an author, shelf space is a priority. Authors have to worry about cost, placement (next to Nora or Clancy?) and availability. Again, this is a draw. Indies work on sometimes non-existent budgets and need to be convinced to bring in your books. Chains sometimes require a pint of blood and your first born child to get it approved and on the shelf. Either way, your promotion, good reviews and backing from the publisher go a long way in helping to get it on the shelf. So, it's a draw for me as to whether your books will get better shelf space and placement in an Indie vs a Chain.

Promotion: Also, Good Customer Service...
Now, my local Indie was very good to the group as a whole. We were not only strong buyers, but they had a first crack at knowing what was coming out But they also were very overworked and unable do the kind of hand sell that authors want. I'm sure it's not this way with all, but this was my experience. Shortly before Obsidian came out I went on a mini road trip around Maine and New Hampshire, making the loop from the coast of Maine up and around Lake Winnepesaukee, NH and up through the mountains and back to Maine. I think I hit something like thirty bookstores in one day. Some were okay. Most couldn't care less if I walked through the door. I was extremely polite (a hot button, ask my kids) and I just introduced myself and offered information and bookmarks. I would say that the overall results were dismal. Sometimes, they were downright rude. But I pushed on. I have found that I actually had better results when I did just a postcard mailing when Obsidian was re released as a large print. The cost of the stamps was less then the gas and aggravation of being rejected so much. Of course, the chains have a system for authors down pat. When I introduced myself to the local Borders I was congratulated on the sale, given paperwork to fill out and asked to contact them when the time got closer. They set up a signing for me on St. Patrick's Day and when that was snowed out and the store had to close they offered to reschedule me on what they called an Educator's Night. They give discounts to educators and offer them goodies and incentives. They called me to offer me this. I was extremely grateful. Even now, when I go in the store they recognize me and ask if I have anything coming out soon. I work retail, so I'm always impressed by good customer service. I'll keep going back just because of this.

Now, there are those who would be upset about the Indie vs Chain debate. I personally feel that there is a place for both within the community. Each have strengths and weaknesses, but there isn't a business out there that doesn't have the same. Me? I'm going to go where they have my books, the books I want, and friendly and helpful service.

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