A BILL OF RIGHTS FOR BOOKSELLERS
March 1, 2011 § 5 Comments
“He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus…”
For many years I have been railing against newspapers for publishing gratis online, while charging print subscribers a pretty penny. As a newspaper subscriber, I wondered why the pain wasn’t spread more evenly. Something there is that doesn’t love pay walls, but if newspapers are to survive, they have no choice but to install them.
We all read stuff for free on the web. I can’t criticize anyone for taking what’s offered, or for buying books at a discount online. But I can condemn people who try to have it both ways, using the bookstore as a showroom, or giving lip service to the value of independent bookstores, and then buying from Amazon.
What sort of person visits a bookstore for the purpose of scanning with a digital device to find the cheapest price? I recently heard about a woman who carried her kindle into a bookstore for a book club meeting. What could she have been thinking? Did she want to show off her new toy? Does she think that bookstores are non-profit institutions, funded by others, that exist only for her entertainment?
Bookstores, like newspapers, have choices to make. Because I have been traveling the bookstore circuit as a publishers’ rep in the Midwest for thirty years, I think everyone in my territory knows whose side I’m on. It is no fault of brick-and-mortar stores that a certain entrepreneur decided to use books as a gateway to the creation of a new kind of on-line warehouse that sells almost everything. The scheme required him to give deeper discounts on greater numbers of new books than anyone had ever seen. Amazon’s “loss leader” has led to the loss and diminishment of bookstores. And this applies to chain and independent stores alike. Yes, there are forces at work beyond the actions of one company, but the bottom line is clear. We know why stores are struggling, and not bookstores alone.
But the time has come for bookstores to give as good as they get. Since some people are shockingly insensitive, we need, at the very least, to teach them etiquette. An Italian etiquette book written in 1558 called Il Galateo, advised readers that, after sneezing or blowing their noses, they should not “glare upon thy snot as if it were so many pearls and rubies fallen from thy brains.” No, you don’t use an actual, physical bookstore as an Amazon showroom. No, you don’t bring a kindle to a book club sponsored by a bookstore.
We need a Booksellers’ Bill of Rights to post and distribute in every store. This handbill might explain what a bookstore is, and the many benefits it offers to the community in which it is located, authors, and publishers. It would also explain the precarious economy of the bookselling enterprise. It should declare that anyone scanning books, making lists, or otherwise using the store as a showroom would be asked to leave: “No one will be allowed to attend an author event, a book club, or any other store event involving a book, unless that book, in printed or digital format, was purchased from this store.”
The Bill of Rights must include a notice to publishers asking that they make public their discount schedules. If preferential discounts are being given to online retailers, this practice should be halted immediately. Also, publishers must actively support the passage of e-fairness legislation in every state. The recent switch by large publishers to agency pricing of e-books shows that the Big Boys will respond to pressure. But for pressure to work it has to be applied, making use of the legal system if necessary.
Stuart Brent, the legendary Chicago bookseller who died last June, came to mind as I was thinking about writing this. Stuart was known for grabbing customers and putting books into their hands. He also said exactly what he thought (I remember when he referred to the Kroch’s and Brentano’s chain store nearby as “the sh** bin”). Brent’s store closed in 1994, shortly before Amazon started up. But I always imagine the scene if Brent were in business today and caught someone in his Michigan Avenue store comparing prices on a cell phone. Such a person would think twice before doing it again.
The actions I suggest will not bring customers back to the bookstores, but I believe booksellers must stand up for their rights. The chain store model of the-customer-is-always-right, comfy chairs, and willy-nilly return privileges has failed. It may be that membership fees and book club subscriptions become a more important part of Indie operating procedure. But, in any case, booksellers must assert themselves, making it clear that to be a part of the family, all members must show respect for the house it lives in.