Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tourist Attraction: The Indie Bookstore

I spent almost a week vacationing in Millerton, New York.  It’s about 90 minutes from my Westchester life but it seems much further than that when you consider how life is lived there.  Things are scaled down in this town. It’s smaller, slower, less crowded, and filled with farms and trees. It’s a reprieve from the city grind that I usually appreciate and abhor simultaneously.  It also has something I cherish:  an independent bookstore.

Oblong Books & Music has educated the locals and tourists for decades. It’s a sizeable store of three levels with creaky wooden floors and musty-smelling shelves.  The books are full price and there’s no café.  But there are plenty of books.  Wall to wall, ceiling to floor, books everywhere.  It’s like being surrounded by beautiful naked women – I don’t know where to look first.

But as I admired everything about it I couldn’t help but see the store the way I saw other relics and tourist sites.  The indie bookstore is the same as the 50’s themed diner, the antique furniture store, or the quaint-looking glass store. It’s becoming a carnival act.  Yes, the indie bookstore is nothing more than a freak show. Or is it? Maybe there is hope.

The indie bookstore is fighting for its life. It has battled the corporate superstores and club stores, mail-order catalogs, and even the Internet. But e-books are something they can’t compete with, no more than the post-office can compete with e-mailed letters.  The thing is, e-books aren’t better than paper books but they are cheaper and more convenient and seen as enviro-friendly.  They are part of the whole tech revolution that also has turned people into tweeters and texts rather than phone callers.

Paper books belong with bookstores.  E-books live online, in the digital community.  It’s one or the other – you can’t really like both because by supporting one you negate the other.  And yet they must co-exist and somehow unite so that society really benefits.

But I must say I was deeply encouraged by what I experienced last week. I traveled to other small towns in the lower Hudson Valley and surprisingly found that every town, though they didn’t have much beyond the usual post office, library, fire house and diner, featured an independent bookstore.  These stores looked healthy, located in a respectable part of town and prominently showcased.  Maybe the bookstores will survive and the industry will find a way to thrive online and on land.  For the first time in years I felt a ping of optimism.

I supported Millerton’s local bookstore with several purchases.  My wife got her book club selection and I bought House of Holes, and odd book of sorts. I also bought some toys for my two children.

Maybe there is life beyond Border’s and beyond Kindles and iPads.  The indie bookstore is making a comeback!

Interview With Harper Collins Publishing Director Emily Brenner
What does a “publishing director” actually do? I supervise the editors in my group – the Early Childhood Group here at Harper.  I meet with packagers, licensors and agents to determine if we would be interested in their properties.  Other duties include planning for future lists, reviewing the competition, and keeping ahead of new technologies. 

You used to be a buyer at Barnes and Noble – is it more fun trying to sell to them now?   I’m not actually the one doing the selling at this point – we have a fantastic sales team at Harper.  My job is more to help others create the books to sell, which is actually more fun than buying.  But if it was a choice between selling and buying, I would say it is definitely more fun to buy than to sell.  And the buyers have the most knowledge of the actual marketplace and what customers want.

What do you love most about book publishing? The people!  I work with incredibly smart people who are all very interested in books, so it’s really the perfect environment.

Where do you see the industry heading? The world is changing, and I think the publishing industry is changing at a rapid pace.  We’re heading to a place where books will be sold in many different ways – fewer bricks and mortar stores and many more digital ones. We will also be able to find authors and illustrators in non-traditional ways, which is really exciting to me! 

How can publishers work more closely in support of their authors? I think the best thing we can do right now is to help our authors navigate all the changes in the marketplace.  Harper has a great support structure in place for authors, and we’re adding to that structure every day.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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