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In Praise of Independent Booksellers

09/02/2007

Dateline — Kansas City, August 30

After Wednesday night’s event at Harrah’s, Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books in Kansas City and her partner Roger Doeren take me out to dinner to celebrate. Rainy Day Books has become the destination bookstore for author signings here — they do a great job, and the store has a devoted following. Plus, Vivien and Roger are smart entrepreneurs, so we end up talking a lot about the book business (naturally) and what independent booksellers need to do in order to survive.

The number of indie booksellers — those not part of a chain like Borders and Barnes & Noble — has been dwindling, down from over 4,000 ten years ago to around 1,600. In a world in which chain bookstores are almost as plentiful as Starbucks, the indies are vastly outnumbered, their existence threatened.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful to Barnes & Noble and Borders for finally giving a book of mine major display space at the front of store. The B&N stepladder and the Borders Major New table and rolling display cart do sell a hell of a lot of books.

But what happens to those writers who haven’t published three hardcover NYT bestsellers in a row, or who are coming out with their first novel? Trying to land front-of-store space at the chains is difficult, even when the publisher is willing to pay for it. The bookselling business is really about word-of-mouth, but that doesn’t do much good if a book’s in the witness protection program.

This is one of the reasons I’m such a booster of independent booksellers. It’s not just that I love indie stores and the book-lovers who own them (why else would you go into such a low-margin, time-consuming business if you weren’t passionate about books?). The fact is, most books succeed because someone tells someone else to read it. That has to begin with a bookseller, and it’s almost always the independent bookseller who’s willing to pick up a novel that isn’t accompanied by a major marketing campaign and read it and tell their customers to read it too.

The list of novels that have become huge commercial successes because of indie booksellers is long (The Kite Runner is just one recent example). My own book PARANOIA would not have been a NYT bestseller if it weren’t for enthusiasm on the part of indie booksellers, I know that.

I could go on, but I’d better not.

After dinner, we run into a guy in the bar named Dennis Fritz, who’s the author of the book Journey Toward Justice — and is the subject of John Grisham’s book The Innocent Man. Dennis, who’s a lovely, gentle guy, was a high school science teacher and football coach who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

I’ve been complaining to my editor about the lack of Internet access on this tour — which is why so many of these travel blog entries have been so delayed. But Dennis Fritz’s life puts things into perspective. I doubt he was able to log on to the Internet while serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison.