Wednesday, January 26, 2011

B&N Shows our Writers' Group the Door

I received an email yesterday from an old friend. She is the Community Relations Manager of the Bethlehem, PA Barnes and Noble. I've known her for years. I used to work with her, and for nearly five years, she has been the contact person at the store for the  Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG) that meets there 2-3 times per month.

The email came as something of a surprise. She informed me that as of February 1 (the date of our next scheduled meeting) the store would no longer have its upholstered chairs, and the space formerly reserved for meetings would be taken up with more bookshelves. And, since we are a fairly large group, they would not have room for us to meet in the cafe. In other words, it's been nice, but don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. More and more of the floor space in that store has been assigned to other sales: home schooling materials, toys and games, and now a large (and usually empty) Apple-store style space dedicated solely to Nook sales. As a reader, I am glad that the store will be adding back some more space for what made Barnes and Noble great: books.

But as a writer and BWG member, it is sad for me. I started the BWG nearly five years ago at that store, at the request of the then-manager. Unlike many bookstore-instigated writers groups that dwindle after only a few weeks or months, our group thrived. Our numbers swelled to an ungainly 18 members by our first summer, but has settled down to a much more manageable 8-10 members per meeting. In 2009 we published a compilation of Christmas stories by our authors: A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. Being from Bethlehem, what could be more natural than a book of Christmas stories? We were enormously proud of it, especially after it won two awards from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards: best short fiction and best anthology.

We were pleased to hold book signings in 2009 at a wide range of book stores and libraries, but never happier than when we did two signings at our "home" Barnes and Noble. We did many more book signings this past holiday season, but our B&N would not host one in 2010. It wasn't personal. My friend assured me they were not holding any book signings between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And I hear from my friends in Sisters in Crime that they're finding the same thing to be true at their B&N stores, but not limited to the holiday season.

Although the store's only association with us has been to announce our meetings in the newspaper and put it in their newsletter, we felt a loyalty to the store--more apparently than they felt toward us. None of this was at the store's discretion, of course. Such decisions come down from above. But considering the relationship, it would have been nice to get a phone call--and maybe an expression of regret at the severing of our relationship.

That aside, I can't help but wonder at B&N's corporate decision making. I remember growing up in the Boston area hearing people speak in hushed tones about the Barnes and Noble on Washington Street as if it were for book lovers like visiting the Vatican might be for devout Roman Catholics. When I finally had a chance to visit it, I could understand their awe. Many floors filled with books--every book you could imagine--and even a few records. Yes, it was long enough ago that there were records; it was even before Starbucks, if that is imaginable.

After moving from the Boston area it was a while before I lived near another Barnes and Noble store, but eventually one came to my town. Now I live within an easy distance of three.

When I contacted another B&N to see if we could move our group meetings there, the CRM told me "we are no longer advertising or reserving space for large groups." I understand that the economy has hit all booksellers hard, and while faring best among the bricks and mortar book purveyors, B&N is also feeling the pinch. In the changing dynamic of publishing, it is trying to get ahead of the curve, or at least keep up. I'm not sure, however, that they are going in the right direction.

It seems to me that there are two reasons for book people to remain loyal to a big-box bookstore.

  1. If you want or need a particular book right away, the big box store is more likely to have it on the shelf than a smaller, independent bookstore, even if it costs a little more than Amazon, or even
  2. They have heretofore been wonderful places to stop in, browse, sit, read, meet with friends, attend a book signing, and yes, have a cup of coffee. As the character of Joe Fox said in the movie You've Got Mail about his big-box Fox Books, "I said you could sit and read for hours and no one will bother you. I said we have a hundred and fifty thousand titles. . . . I said we were a goddamn Piazza! A place in the city where people can mingle and mix and be." 
With the exponential growth of e-readers, the first of these is becoming less and less a factor. If I need a book right away, chances are I can download it on my Kindle for less bother and less money than getting into the car, driving over, and buying it at the store. 

Now it appears that B&N has lost sight of the importance of the second reason for buyer loyalty. While they might have more books on the floor, I doubt I will buy as many books at B&N as I did when my writers group brought me there 2-3 times per month. 

We all have to change with the times, and the Bethlehem Writers Group will adapt, find a new place to meet, and continue to thrive. But some of what I loved about my old B&N is gone, and I will miss it.

What do you think? Is B&N doing what it must to stay commercially viable? Or are they alienating some of their best customers?

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Books

This week I read two books.

One was published on August 15, 2010; the other came out two days later. One was recommended to me by an agent; the other interested me because of its setting and subgenre. One was published in hardcover by Harper Collins; the other is available only as an e-book from Mainly Murder Press. One has been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for it's prestigious Edgar Award for best novel. Can you guess which one?

The first, the award nominee, was Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere. The novel, set in Maryland, is about a thirty-something wife and mother who receives a message from a serial killer on death row who had abducted her when she was fifteen. Lippman weaves the backstory of her protagonist's abduction through the present-day story of how she has survived, even thrived, in the years that followed. When her abductor contacts her, she needs to decide whether to answer him, visit him, and/or help him avoid the death chamber. In the process, she puts old demons to rest and reevaluates her life.

Lippman is no stranger to awards. Her first novel, published in 1997, received a nomination for a Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America. Subsequent works have also received nominations for a wide variety of awards, many of which she has won. I have only read her most recent book, but it is artistically written and compelling. It deserves the nomination.

The second book is Live Free or Die (The Granite State Mysteries), by Jessie Crockett. It is her debut novel. Set in the small fictional town of Winslow Falls, NH, the post-mistress/volunteer-firefighter protagonist seeks to find out who has been setting fires--one of which killed one of the town's most beloved residents. The plot is complex, involving a large cast of characters, and a bit of romance for a hapless, overweight protagonist. It believably depicts the small-town New England setting, and the self-reliant individuals we would expect to find there. The story is engaging and the puzzle is satisfying. It is what one would hope for from a "cozy" mystery.

I read both books on my Kindle, but paid $9.99 for Lippman's and only $.99 for Crockett's. I enjoyed both books, but I can't tell you that I enjoyed Lippman's ten times as much as I enjoyed Crockett's. On the contrary, I found  Crockett's to be better than many traditional mysteries I have read as "physical books" from well-known publishers. But Crockett did not go with a traditional publisher, and the hard truth is that her work is unlikely to gain the notice of those giving out awards. To me, this is further evidence of how difficult it is for new writers to break into publishing.

Crockett is not alone. Many other talented writers have found agents and traditional publishers--especially the larger houses--too involved with their current stable of writers to take on newcomers. As a result, writers are increasingly going the self-publishing, print-on-demand, or e-publishing route. These likely will not make the authors rich or famous. But it will allow them to pass two tests an English professor friend once told me. The first is the hand test--can you count your readers by the fingers on one hand? The second is the blood test--are all of your readers blood relatives? If the answer to either is "yes," you are a hobbyist. If the answer to both is "no," you are a professional writer--no matter how little money you might make.

I am glad that Harper Collins is publishing Lippman in hardcover. But I am also glad that Mainly Murder Press gave Crockett a chance to share her book with many people who are not blood relatives.

How about you? Have you discovered any writers in e-book format that you're glad you found?