Is there a happy ending to the story for the Book House and other indie book stores?

book house exterior

If Borders can't make it, can the indies?

When is the last time you bought a book at a bookstore?

Not a virtual bookstore -- an actual, brick and mortar, physical space where you browse and read and walk around and maybe even talk with clerks or other readers bookstore? A place like Market Block, or The Book House --- or heck, even Barnes & Noble.

With Borders shutting down, the ubiquity of Amazon and the rise of the e-reader, we've been curious about -- OK, baffled by-- how independent bookstores manage to keep going.

Susan Novotny, owner of The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza and Market Block Books in Troy gets asked about this all the time.

And some of her answers kind of surprised us.

Susan NovotnySo how do you keep going when the book business has changed so much?

Well, we don't make any money and we work very hard.

People always want to know how we're doing it -- just hard work and a dedicated staff who hasn't gotten a raise in three years and a community that supports a locally-owned independent business.

My worry is that with Borders having gone down, a lot of the people who patronized them over the last 20 years will migrate to Amazon or Barns & Noble because they've trained themselves over the last 20 years to never, ever buy a book at face value -- only to buy it if it's deeply discounted or nearly free.

Yes, but with the economy being what it is, how do you tell people who want to read a book not to look for the best value or the deepest discount?

I don't.


I can not fault people for buying books where they perceive they're getting a better value, and it's not in my constitution to guilt people because they're buying from Amazon and not me. But I think it's a perceived value. We give back to this community in ways that Amazon doesn't and if we were to leave because we can't pay bills or rent not only do we lose, but the community loses. They lose the taxes we pay as a business, they lose 22 jobs and they lose what we donate to the community. We've given millions of dollars back to this community in the past 21 years in the form of charitable contributions and support services, and that's something that will never see from Amazon.

And I mean there's a ripple effect from Amazon taking over not only the book business, but just about any other business. There's a dress shop that has started charging for trying on a dress because some people are taking a picture of the dress and going online to buy it from Bluefly or whoever.

When you have that erosion of any brick and mortar store, you're talking about a ghost town. I'd imagine there are a lot of developers out there who are very concerned about the erosion of brick and mortar stores. If people feel like they are saving money in this economic climate, I can't tell them not to, but these are the things we should be thinking about.

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How are you doing?

We're hanging on by our fingernails. I project a year into the future to see how the public will respond to events. This holiday season Amazon is going to make a big push, reducing Kindle prices -- if not giving them away. I'm anticipating this holiday season will be tough on us. Hopefully it will be the last season it happens.

Do you see a time when the independent bookstore -- or any brick and mortar bookstore -- might not exist anymore?

Well, there were about 5,000 members of the FABA a few years ago and now we're down to about 1,400 members, so yes.

So far between Market block and Book House there's a very dedicated group of people who are continuing to support us. And I just hope with the strip mining of our culture that people don't continue to say that ebooks are the future of reading because we are still 100 percent committed to the real book and the magic of the real book.

But aren't you reading the same story from your iPad that you're reading from a book? What do you mean by the magic of the real book?

Have you ever read an ebook? Some people adapt to it, but it's a frigid, monotonous experience. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who are downloading ebooks and not finishing them. You lose the tactile experience, the smell, the crack of it -- and all this sensory experience.

But I'm sure there will be people who will read this and say that if they have to hear one more person say, "I love the feel of the cover and crack of the spine I'm going to throw up." I actually had someone say that to me because they love their Kindle so much.

A bookseller that I know is an amateur magician. He used to do tricks for his kids and it always ended with them saying, "Dad show us how you did it!" And he'd say, "I can't show you because then it wont be magic anymore." It's sort of how I feel about bookstores and real books. That the magic is still here. If you want to learn how the trick is done, God bless you -- go download it on your Kindle.

What do we lose if we lose the book store?

Well, we can't carry every book in stock, but we do take a curatorial interest. Most of the books we sell are vetted by our staff, so when a customer comes in here they can be sure they are going to find a good book to read. Hand-selling is a hallmark of most indie booksellers. We read a lot, so when a customer comes in we can basically diagnose them and say, "What kind of book do you want to walk out of here with?" And then we leave our cards next to the books we like, so people can say, "I love Julia's selections -- she likes this book, so I'm going to try it."

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It's also a place where people come to talk about books. Excited customers come to the back room and corner us and talk with us and deconstruct the latest book they've read.

When people walk in here they feel like they're part of the community and hopefully they're coming back because they're having a pleasant interaction with my very well-read staff -- but also with the general ambiance and warmth of the store. It's one of those third places where people can feel comfortable and like they're part of the community at large.

Workshops and support groups and reading groups and poetry groups and others meet here. But we can't survive as just a third space, either -- people have got to walk in the door and actually buy a book.

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What kinds of changes have you had to make? What are you doing to stay afloat?

Booksellers have banded together through the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and we now sell ebooks on our websites and they're priced exactly the same as they are on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. So you can download a book from at midnight or whenever you want and it's the same price as Amazon. The only warning I would give is that if you have a Kindle you can't do that because your tied into a proprietary arrangement with Amazon.

We've also started a small publishing company -- Staff Picks Press -- as an entrepreneurial effort. I'm looking for ways to diversify, to bring in another income stream to buck up the erosion. We published Come Back Love and peddled it to New York publishers and it went to auction and sold to Simon and Shuster. It will be released in March. We're working on quite a few others, I have several boxes full of those. We could have more success, or it could be a bust and I could lose my shirt.

Do you feel sometimes like tilting at windmills?

No, because when I wake up in the morning I still love selling books for a living. It's as much of a vocation as it is an avocation. And I'm blessed with a staff that has the same philosophy. We're not tilting at windmills, we're just dealing with a public that has chosen to abandon the book -- that's completely distracted by their gadgets, music, DVDs and games.

That's a cultural windmill I guess, but we're all up against that.

This interview was edited.

Find It

The Book House
Stuyvesant Plaza
Albany, NY 12203


I have never thought of the Book House as a third place; it could be, but not yet.

Thanks for the info about the Book House selling ebooks. I too like to have the physical book, if only to have on my shelves or to be able to give away when I'm done so it can benefit someone else. But sometimes, usually when traveling, I keep a book or two on the iPad to read. Far better to read from the ereader than to vegetate my brain with video games or movies.

I've loved the book house for a long time now. I still find it the best place to find interesting things like topographic maps or just to browse for what I don't know what I'm looking for yet. Or to attend a reading of To Kill a Mockingbird. :)

I just wanted to comment and commend Susan for this positive attitude that I find absent from so many other interviews with indie booksellers. I find the hostility I see so often reading Publisher's Weekly or articles online that just lambast consumers for purchasing from retailers like Amazon so off-putting that I can't even imagine wanting to shop in bookshops that seem to hate so many potential customers from the get-go. This article makes me want to stop in the Book House, makes me want to buy something, and I'll definitely be checking out their e-books. Thank you for the great post.

"Some people adapt to it, but it's a frigid, monotonous experience... You lose the tactile experience, the smell, the crack of it -- and all this sensory experience."

I wonder if people said the same thing when writing material evolved from rolls of papyrus to the hand-bound parchment book?

I love the Book House. I left the Albany area about a decade ago. For my Father's birthday, I tried to find a way on their website to buy a gift card and could not.

If they do not offer that service, they should, and put it right upfront on the homepage. I bet a lot of former Albany residents would want to purchase gift cards to the book house for their friends and family still in the area!

Despite the fact that I think a lot of people will take a doom and gloom look at the industry through Susan's comments, I found them refreshing. She's a local business owner who is honest and forthright, but without pointing fingers or making excuses. And - this is the important part - she's both realistic and proactive about the changes in her industry.

I'm glad she shared what she did about Amazon giving away Kindles, because that is absolutely the way they're going and what I've been telling people for the last six months. Not only are prices coming down on them, but it's in the best interest of places like Amazon to do so because they'll see almost an immediate return in e-book sales. You'll likely see newspapers doing the same thing a few years down the road. In the case of the latter I honestly think it'll save that industry.

Independent booksellers, obviously, will be hurt more than helped by it. But I'm an optimist. I think like Susan says the more people that are exposed to e-books the more will come back to books. Preference for the aesthetic advantages of hard copies of literature and for local businesses that give back to its community will get people coming back. And I think nostalgia will bring more in once ereaders become the norm.

I don't view ereaders as the harbinger of doom, but rather a storm that needs to be weathered. Not every bookstore and newspaper is going to survive it, and things will undoubtedly be different after. But if people like Susan can keep their houses intact - and I think that they can with the right balance of initiative and maintenance of high standards (something that bookseller Susan has done and most newspapers including the Times Union sadly have not) - I honestly believe that there will still be a place for them.

"Have you ever read a book off of a printing press? Some people adapt to it, but it's a frigid, monotonous experience. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who are buying these books and not finishing them. You lose the individual nature of a hand-copied manuscript. The sense that this is something unique, something made for me by the labor of someone's hands."

- the proprietor of Ye Olde Booke Shoppe, 1460

Dr. G & Bob - Snidely suggesting a 21st Century shift in an industry comparable to a pre-Industrial advance proves a point. But not the one you think, which is that people who think like Susan are fighting the inevitable, but that you don't have the ability to view complex problems and situations in a viable way but rather can only compare and contrast with other points in history that are obscured by over-simplification and a desire to take out frustrations with supervisors and co-workers on an independent bookseller who, unlike yourselves, is actually taking an active role in trying to shape and improve the community.

In other words: don't be dumb. You don't wear it well.

I cannot see myself ever becoming an e-reader because I like holding books too much (not to mention I have a hard enough time remembering to charge my ipod that I cannot be expected to remember to charge my e-reader device which would lead to me reading less and that would be sad).

I am guilty of being a Border's rewards plus member because I spend about $30-50 a month on books (with the discount). I don't use Amazon even though they have a lot of the books I'm looking for because I had my credit card info stolen on there a few years ago and they treated me like the criminal.

I would shop at Market Block (which is walking distance from my home) but the hours dont' work for me. Closing at 6pm during the week, 5pm on Saturday, and being closed on Sunday just doesn't work for me (I'm an evening book shopping kinda gal)

Great interview AOA! I love the Book House!!

@Kevin M.: Maybe I'm just being dumb and snide. Or, maybe the point is the text is more important than the medium.

It sucks, but just as the digital camera effectively killed the neighborhood camera store, the eBook is killing the local bookstore. At the end of the day it comes down to price.

Yes, Bob and Dr. G, it's exactly the same thing. A change in medieval printing techniques and the complete cultural and societal shift from physical books, music, movies, etc. to digital. Oh, I get it; we book (as in the actual, tangible book) lovers are old-fashioned and behind the times. Clever.
Why do we all have to jump on every technological advance and abandon the old ones? "Man, I remember when they gathered up all the horses and shot them when the car was invented, or how they blew up all the trains when planes came along. What's that, they all still exist and co-exist?"

I love the book house, and book stores in general. I may frequent Amazon as well, but there is no substitute for going to the store and browsing.

And I agree 100% on the curatorial aspect. It's hard for me to buy a book when I don't know what I want from Amazon. Nothing beats having to buy a book because you accidentally got involved in it at a book store. Not to mention the instant gratification. Even with Amazon Prime, the best I can do is 1-2 days.

I disagree on the Kindle though. That is almost (almost mind you) like reading a real book. I think there is space for both in our lives, unlike CDs and MP3s.

I think ebooks and print books can co-exist. One way I think the brick and mortars will stay alive is through kids books. Taking the kids to the bookstore is an experience and a treat. There are other books(cookbooks, art books) that don't work in an e format. I hope the Book House makes it and I do go spend too much on a book or gift once in a while to help support. I would like to add, as an aside, that no one has gotten a raise in the last three years, even the rest of the world who doesn't pleasantly while away their hours surrounded by soft living and bon mots.

C.J. wrote: "Why do we all have to jump on every technological advance and abandon the old ones?"

Who's saying we'll abandon physical books? We'll have machine-made paper books for a long time to come.

But, more important, we'll develop ways of integrating the digital medium into our lives that will serve our artistic, intellectual and social needs, just as we have done for paper books through local bookstores. Some of these may be in a "virtual" world, but rest assured that some will remain face-to-face. Why? Because we're thinking, feeling, human beings who respond to the content of the manuscript over the package it happens to be in. We know enough not to judge a book by its cover.

I love the Book House and whenever I need to purchase a book as a gift for someone else, I go there. No question!

However, if I need to get one for myself, it comes from Amazon and goes on my Kindle.

The amount of time it took for me to adjust to the eBook format was about 4 seconds. I just don't understand the frame of mind that dismisses it because of the lack of "tactile experience". I read to learn or be entertained and not to feel paper or smell mustiness. The message of the book is the same but with more convenience.

"even the rest of the world who doesn't pleasantly while away their hours surrounded by soft living and bon mots."

Ahaha, I'm sorry, is that really what you think bookselling is like?

I'll have to come back and finish my comment later, I'm laughing too hard right now to type.

I'm a big fan of The Book House -- but when I know exactly what I want, it's just easier to order it online and have it at my house in a few days. On top of that, I will often buy the book used for just a couple of dollars.

If you're looking for something specific, it can be frustrating to find that it's not in stock -- something that's common at even the big bookstores.

Yes, I'd rather go to a book store and spend time browsing through the racks, but time has become a luxurious commodity.

I'm all for independent businesses but I still believe in the library. I don't like the e-books but why buy a book I will read once and will sit on the shelf for eternity? By supporting the libraries you get the feel of the real book and make it possible for those who can't afford today's book prices, or Kindles for that matter, to read the same great books you enjoyed. I think it's still the best reading experience. :-)

Not enough gets said about the curatorial work that independent bookstores do, and the Book House does beautifully. When I take the time to browse there, I always find something that didn't quite make it onto my radar in other ways. If my thin wallet tempts me to buy somewhere else, I remind myself that I'm paying for smart choices by enthusiastic and thoughtful readers.

I hope no one misses the irony that commenters who are extolling the virtues of reading paper books are doing so by staring at electronic display screens and exchanging digital 1's and 0's.

The staff at the Bookhouse, particularly the Little Bookhouse, are what make it so great. Rachel (LBH) is so knowledgeable and friendly, whether you are buying the newest Newbery winner or a Dora the Explorer book. Long live the Bookhouse!

Good interview. A lot of comments about buying here but what about selling? I was looking for a way to distribute a self-published book of mine last year and thought an independent, local bookstore would be "the right thing to do". The Book House told me they would keep 40% of the revenues. That seemed like a lot. I wasn't trying to make any money out of it but this meant I now had to bump the price that much more to just sell it at cost. I don't think anybody would have bought it at that price. I want to support the community but at the end of the day if people can't afford the product, there is a problem...

Book House is great for their clearance section. However, oftentimes the full-retail books are far too expensive for my limited budget. In addition to this issue, the cashiers there have been rude to me on more than one occasion and the last time I was in there the woman behind the counter was loudly making fun of people from Vermont. Eek!

I've given the Book House many tries, but after my last experience, it's hard to justify making a trip there.

Chris T, that's my thoughts exactly on the Kindle. I remember when I opened it up and saw the plastic covering the "start" screen, I thought the plastic had text on it. My husband, too, was stunned by the e-Ink.

Had I known, at the time, that indie shops were going to partner with Google Books to have e-books available for purchase, I would not have gotten a Kindle. But, that's what I have now, and I can only hope that there will be a firmware update at some point.

C - Libraries are wonderful, however they do nothing - NOTHING - to support new and emerging writers. If you're going to read the latest James Patterson book, get caught up on Sookie Stackhouse, or read The Count of Monte Cristo (for example), by all means, the library is a great resource. But for that 1st time writer who has just published his/her first book? BUY IT. New. Preferably in an independent shop if you don't have an e-reader. Because publishers don't care how many people are reading the book. They care how many copies are sold.

colleen - My biggest complaint with indie shops is the hours. I lived in Troy for 2 years and I think I went to Market Block Books once for exactly the reasons you listed. I understand indie shops are staffed differently and they want to spend time with their families, etc., and not overwork their employees (and I respect that), but better, I think, to be open, say, later in the morning/afternoon and then stay open later during the week.

"The Book House told me they would keep 40% of the revenues. That seemed like a lot."

That's the standard - you would have gotten the same deal at the big box stores too. It's one of the reasons that no one ever makes a living from self-publishing. To keep any less would be to sell short their own costs, and to bookstores these days every penny counts. Frankly, most of the time taking work from self-published local authors is community service in its own right.

@s: a discussion to be taken offline most likely but I'd be curious to know what goes in these 40%. Anyway, if it's "the same deal at the big box stores", then what's the added value, why go to an indy store? If I make a decent photobook about local "landmarks", it makes reasonable sense I'd try to put it in a local store first. That didn't happen. No big deal, that was no Ansel Adams, but a bit disappointing.

I think its unfair that Amazon gets around sales tax. Taxing amazon would level the playing field.

I know the staff at the Book House, and I have to assume if anyone was making fun of people from Vermont, it was probably in good fun although perhaps not in good taste. Also, as to rudeness from the staff, I have witnessed much more rude behavior from customers towards staff in many stores than the reverse. The "customer is always right" mentality has reached an extreme. I am not excusing any rudeness or perceived rudeness on the part of anyone. We all learn to be more civil to one another.

S, if your book is too expensive with 40% added on, it may be too expensive to begin with, but I'm afraid you are taking the rejection of your book too personally. A local, indy bookstore is to be preferred for all the reasons Susan Novotny stated in the interview and not because every individual who walks in there gets treated like a prince although there may be room there for the Book House to improve. In the end, it is a business which has to make money to pay the bills, pay the employees and hopefully the proprietor, otherwise it will not be there anymore. It's up to the Capital District community to decide if we want to pay for this. Glens Falls has decided it does not, and Red Fox Books will be closing in a few weeks. Glens Falls has decided that a bookstore is of no value to them and prefers to get its books from the UPS truck full of Amazon packages. It makes walking around downtown that much more dreary and pointless, but so be it; the people have voted with their dollars. We get the society and the culture that we are willing to pay for, and more and more, what we are willing to pay for can be downloaded or delivered to the comfort and isolation of our homes at rock-bottom prices. Hooray and God bless America!

My biggest problem with indie bookstores is their hours -- that's why I'll miss Borders so much. For instance, I keep wanting to check out East Line Books, but I never have, 'cause they're pretty much only open when most of us are at work. If indie bookstores were all open on Sundays and until at least 9 on weeknights, I bet they'd do a bit better.

"a discussion to be taken offline most likely but I'd be curious to know what goes in these 40%. Anyway, if it's "the same deal at the big box stores", then what's the added value, why go to an indy store? If I make a decent photobook about local "landmarks", it makes reasonable sense I'd try to put it in a local store first. That didn't happen. No big deal, that was no Ansel Adams, but a bit disappointing."

What goes into the 40%? Exactly what you would imagine: rent on the store, utilities to keep the lights turned on and computers up, wages and benefits for staff who will recommend your book to their customers... it all adds up. 40% is actually a rather slim margin for bookstores; it's less of a discount than stores get from the major book distribution warehouses, and much less than they get when buying in quantity from major publishers. I would be surprised if in the end there is much if any money made off local titles.

Which is not to say that they're not valuable to a store - they can be major customer draws, or at least the few titles every year that become more widely known can be. Unfortunately for every one of those, you've got 9 that will sit on your shelves for years as immovable inventory.

As for why go to an indy, well, the post itself seemed to answer that pretty well. I agree, it definitely makes sense to put local books in a local store (though even the big box stores are staffed by people who live, work and love the Capital District - but I digress.) It sounds to me, though, like you made the decision not to do that. Shouldn't blame the Book House for the choice you made.

@M - East Line Books just extended their hours: "Starting the week after Labor Day, we will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday."

Hopefully that gives you a chance to check them out - well worth it!

@Bob - You couldn't have the dialogue w're now having without exchanging 1's and 0's. And the point is not that technology is bad, only that this particular technology isn't necessarily that great. All I have to say is in 50 years, all my books will work as well as they did the day I got them. Something tells me your Kindle will not.

irisira, aren't library systems huge purchasers of books? I don't know exactly how they choose what to stock, but wouldn't making some requests also support those emerging writers?

-S, I don't think the store's commission is the deciding economic factor in your equation, but rather the initial cost of your self-publishing. You just don't have the economy of scale to drop your own costs low enough, don't blame the retailer.

And what's the real expectation? If you're selling books at a pretty good clip, why do you need the retailer anyway; in this case, they don't necessarily have a larger audience than you do (in your words it's "a decent photobook about local 'landmarks'"). Essentially you're expecting their retail space, built customer base, and marketing efforts will sell your book where you can't, which is definitely worth a significant commission.

s, re "Unfortunately for every one of those, you've got 9 that will sit on your shelves for years as immovable inventory.": why don't the retailer and author work out consignment deals?

Kim hit on the most interesting bit from the interview for me. I appreciate local businesses when they clearly understand the business they're in and have the knowledge to make we walk out satisfied. That the staff are readers and can intelligently guide customers is huge, and something Amazon can't do even with ranking and reviews. No different than the music snob working in the record store who can tell you why you want the import album instead of the domestic version, or the snob at the wine shop who points you in the right direction when you're ready to spend $75 on a special bottle. Hey, I like my snobs sometimes!

Look, you may be able to get a book cheaper on Amazon, but if you get the wrong book you've still wasted your money.

@Jay: I'm encouraged that you can say not all technology is bad. By some of the descriptions of digital books here (for example, "frigid, monotonous" in the interview), I was starting to wonder what folks were thinking. And you're right that my physical books will be here and in working order in fifty years (providing I successfully avoid fires or floods). While I'm an advocate for the digital medium, I understand that both paper and eBooks have their advantages and disadvantages. But I also do not believe, as one of our "local treasures" phrased it in a comment above, that eBooks are "a storm that needs to be weathered." In the end, I'm more concerned about the content than the package.

@Donald: "if your book is too expensive with 40% added on, it may be too expensive to begin with"; oh absolutely but it's not like I'm dipping it in gold, there was no markup here, that's what most POD photobooks cost if they have 110+ photos. "I'm afraid you are taking the rejection of your book too personally"; yes, I considered jumping off a bridge, slowing down my fall with my own book, then I remembered I was not 16. Come on now, everybody can make a book nowadays, I'm not passing on the Tables of the Law, I know it's just a book. It wasn't rejected, they would have carried it, this would have been the same cost for me and still zero profit on my side (as expected) but a very remote chance people would get it, as opposed to buying it online where it is now. My goal was to put it in people's hands and not lose too much money doing so. The bigger picture is this: all my photos are under a Creative Common License for example. You like one? You can print it and put it on your wall for free, that's pretty easy, I'll even help you out. I would definitely put the PDF book online (if I had one) but who can print a book? So suddenly the eBook alternative doesn't look so bad.

@s: yes, I "imagined" that but I was looking for hard numbers :) It's 40% of *one* book, there are thousands of books in a store that contribute to rent, utilities, wages, etc. Yes, it all adds up, but books also all add up. I'm not looking for any conspiracy here, I know it's pretty tough for them, I'm looking for facts to see where we, as a community, can help. I guess only the Book House could answer this one. One of the main question in this thread though was, what is the "added value" of a physical book? It's not quite the same as a photograph for example: you can look at a picture on your monitor, hold a photo in your hand, look at larger print on a wall, all different "added values". At this point, many people can print a photo, not that many can print/mat/frame themselves, but it's still all doable. Not so much with a book, so there *is* a need for a third-party, how can we make that happen?

My "offer" was that I had a physical book, it's a nice "object", it's *local*, I don't want to make any profit out of it, just share it. You (the Book House) like books, you like sharing/selling books, what can we do to help each other out and be part of this big picture? Is it too idealistic? Remember how music artists were screwed by layers of record companies? There is a legitimate reason to cut the middle man and reduce that gap between art and people interested in it. Yes, you are right, I made that decision not to pursue, because I thought the final price would be a tad "WTF?". I wasn't ready to cut that last middle man, the local distributor, but I had to. I'm sure if they could do less than 40% they would, there is no denying their love for books of course. Ultimately, it's 2011, people can make books, some people want to share and not necessarily for money, I'm presenting you a scenario here where brick & mortar isn't the solution anymore, just like it is the only affordable solution for some local music artists to sell online as opposed to a record store.

@Dr.G-super clever

@ Bob- i totally agree

"S, I don't think the store's commission is the deciding economic factor in your equation, but rather the initial cost of your self-publishing.". So the alternative is?

"And what's the real expectation? If you're selling books at a pretty good clip, why do you need the retailer anyway" What does that mean? If you sell books already then you don't need a physical distributor? "Chicken & Egg" + "Death to book stores" double whammy? I see a local bookstore as the last solution (if not refuge) to put a local product in the hands of the last few people who like physical books or don't shop online. If distributing art is conditional to volume then you gave up already. I guess that's the bottom line in this thread. It's a book store, how can they not have a larger audience than me in terms of books?

I got an email not so long ago asking me if I had photos of a specific place in the Capital District, for a gift. I can see that very person going to a local book store asking for the same and that's exactly where she would expect the "added value": somebody who would connect the dots and say: "oh yes, I remember that book of local photos". So as far as being the right place to put a local book and therefore why there is a need for a retailer or not, that's pretty clear to me, *ideally*. Is the expertise I just mentioned above worth 40%? Very possible. It's not one or the other. I wanted Internet users to be able to find the book details online because hey, Google works, but since they are most likely local, I wanted to be able to say: "You know what would be great? Get it from the Book House!".

Maybe if the printing and distribution was under the same brick and mortar roof. I usually print local (say McGreevy). I want to distribute local. Both stores have costs. This is an unfortunate chain where by trying to do everything local, you end up with something nobody can afford? I can accept that because there are more pressing things to spend money on but still, when the obvious thing to do can't be done, it's always a bit frustrating.

Market Block Books is open until 9:00 PM on Troy Night Out, the last Friday of every month. That Friday night is always quite busy because foot traffic in Troy is wonderful that night.

However, if the store were open every Friday night until 9, TNO would be less special and sales would be diluted enough so that it wouldn't be worth staying open late. When the store was open on Sundays for 4-5 hours, it almost always did less than $100 in business. That isn't enough to pay an employee and keep the lights on.

I don't know what the answer is. I love books and being a bookseller, but no store can stay open late (open early/have Sunday hours/your choice here) unless there are customers who are spending enough money in those times to make it worthwhile.

Great interview! I am enjoying all the comments, too.

As a resident of downtown Troy, I hate that particular vicious cycle. Nothing downtown stays open past 6 because nobody stays in the city in the evenings; but nobody stays in the city in the evenings because nothing's open past six.

Is there any way to fix this? I understand that businesses have to make the best economic decisions, but there has to be an element of "if you build it/stay open, they will come" at work too. Troy Night Out is a great start but one night a month isn't cutting it quite yet.

So the alternative is?

It's pretty simple; your cost + 40% is not a retail price the market will bear, and you only have control over one half of the equation on the left side, so you need to reduce your cost. The other option is to increase what the market will bear, I think you know what would do that too.

What does that mean?

I was wondering why you wanted to sell through a retailer anyway. You're saying you just want to get your book into more hands, well then okay. I think it's not much a stretch to assume that you want to go through a retailer because you, using your own marketing efforts, are not selling the number of books you would like. This means that you see some value in the retailer's service; they assess that value to be 40% of the sale, what's the problem?

It's a book store, how can they not have a larger audience than me in terms of books?

Ah, so you're changing your tune a bit, you are trying to expand the market for what is essentially a photo portfolio into the larger market of books proper, very clever. So that adds even more value to their service.

If distributing art is conditional to volume then you gave up already.

No idea where you're going with this. You're abritrarily connecting two things (distribution volume & art); Thomas Kinkade and Gregory Crewdson both "distribute" their art very successfully. Also your hair is a bird.

This is an unfortunate chain where by trying to do everything local, you end up with something nobody can afford?

Well, yes, this shouldn't be a surprise. You're on the wrong end of the economy of scale equation. And you knew this when you chose your publication method, or you should have. And of course you're not doing everything local, that's a Blurb book, and we do have a local vanity press. Do we have a local enterprise that can hit the price point you need? I don't know, that would be something good to look into before you print a book, if you want to sell it in local retail bookstores.

Aside from the local issue, again you can't change the 40% commission, so you need to drop your costs. This is doable, other people are independently doing it for photobooks, here's just one example I'm aware of. You can't just claim the system is unfair to you.

Maybe Ms. Novotny would have some suggestions of a better production method for you that would help get your work onto her shelves, or at least point you in the right direction.

"I think it's not much a stretch to assume that you want to go through a retailer because you are not selling the number of books you would like.". Yes, it was much of a stretch. I do not care about selling for my profit, I care about availability of a local product (be it mine or anybody else), in a local market, for a reasonable price. Definitely the kind of discussion you'll find on AOA with respect to local food produces for example. Do you have a similar answer to local farmers? "Oh, guys, it's simple, just lower your costs, psshhh, pointing your customer to the organic aisle at Price Chopper for 40%+ markup is a small price to pay". Banging head on desk. You are trying to crunch a piece of the puzzle into shape, where the whole puzzle needs some work. People here commented why they would buy digital as opposed to hard-copy at the Book House. Even on the other end, as a local "producer", distributing a book online is what made sense. So here you have two local actors that can't quite be reconciled by local vendors. I say: that's a bummer. God forbid if I actually had wanted to make a profit out of that.

"they assess that value to be 40% of the sale, what's the problem?". The problem is: "40%, O RLY?", to put it shortly. No art gallery in Albany that I've had work in asked for more than 25%, for an example that isn't that far. Frames take way more space.

"No idea where you're going with this. You're abritrarily connecting two things (distribution volume & art)", no, you did, remember: "you're selling books at a pretty good clip, why do you need the retailer anyway". If Thomas Kinkade doesn't care about helping sustain his local community, his loss. You hair still a bird.

"You're on the wrong end of the economy of scale equation" and you are not helping the issue one bit with this. This "wrong end" needs to be challenged because creating is getting easier than ever, be it music, photo, book, etc. So there is a need to address that low volume market somehow since not everybody instantly produces (and will ever) at a clip that allows that economy of scale you are swearing by.

"we do have a local vanity press" you did bring something to that discussion after all, thanks for the link B :) You didn't mention that when we discussed more than a year ago, I'll give them a shot.

"you need to drop your costs. This is doable, other people are independently doing it for photobooks, here's just one example." And at what social cost? Printing in Italy like Kramer did isn't really being part of the "local" equation we are talking about here. I could print in China I'm sure but why shaft one actor (the printer) in favor of the other (the retailer)?

Hey s, pick up your teeth and stop assuming that I DIDN'T spend several years working in an indie. My actual point was that in a lousy economy it's a lot easier justify forgoing a raise when your job is rewarding. It was in my case, but you may have had a different experience working for one of those stereotypical tyrannical small bookstore owners?

Printing with blurb (where they farm it out to a number of printers around the country/world) supports the "local" economy? How many books in stores are actually printed in the town where the store is located? Here's a wild guess: 0%. I don't understand your argument.

@K: "I don't understand your argument.". The argument is just that: can it be done? Can a local book be printed and represented locally or do you always have to sacrifice one actor (print overseas for cheap, thus lowering my cost) to be able to afford the other (distribute at reasonable prices). If both options are available in your town, which one will you choose not to make business with? Both? Blurb prints in the US for books shipped in the US by the way (in the Netherlands for Europe). I picked Blurb because I had no clue about any "good" (i.e. not CVS) local print shop for photobooks back then but my intention was to try to have a few physical copies locally. B mentioned one, The Troy Bookmakers, and they just answered my email (more on that later maybe, though I can feel the Hammer of Greg).

B, libraries are large purchasers of books. However (and I WISH I could find the comment thread in the blog that I read this in, it put it so succinctly!), that doesn't change the fact that if 100 people borrow it from the library instead of buying the book, that's 99 copies of the book that aren't sold. Again, if it's a well-known author it's no big thing ... but a new writer? First book deal? The publisher wants sales numbers. Libraries are better than, say, buying a used book or using paperback swap (there is a higher markup for libraries to purchase books than for consumers), but it's still not ideal for a writer with his first deal.

(My husband is currently agent-shopping, so I am all-to-aware of what he will need for the book to be successful enough so he can get a deal for a second one. Kindle downloads will do it. Libraries probably won't.)

S, I think your argument is flawed at its root. "Overseas printing"? Many printers in Italy (and Spain and other countries) are journeymen with literally centuries of experience. I find the idea of lowest-bidder printing "somewhere in the US!" a rather laughable "pro-labor" argument. Think a little bigger. The world is globalized, like it or not, and so are the skilled laborers. Do you consider the massive extra charges that Blurb adds for their POD a source of martyrdom? The Italian printer I used made better prints than Blurb at a lower price, but I'm supposed to shun them (despite their decades of experience) because Blurb guys speak English? How provincial can you be?

On a side note, I never would have made that book were it not for the bookstores of Paris, the first people who ever showed interest in selling my work. In France, independent stores are protected from multinational competitors – it's illegal to sell a new release for below the manufacturer's suggested price, for example, which ensures that giant stores (or Amazon) wont sell, say, a new Harry Potter book for 1 euro as a "loss leader" that allows them to drive indie stores out of business. As a result, the city is full of wonderful small bookstores. I'm fully in favor of this law, although I know it's an impossibility in a corporatocracy like the US.

Thank you B for pointing out the Troy Book Makers. I profiled them here a couple of years ago, and they're great!

S– I should maybe back up here and just clarify: if you're trying to sell books, Blurb (or any POD company) is outrageously expensive. You simply must print in bulk. You have to make hundreds or thousands of copies if you want to break even. That means a big outlay of money up front, and a lot of risk (much like opening a bookstore is risky). 40% commission is quite standard and reasonable, considering the cost of maintaining a store. If you're printing "on demand," you're throwing money away.

@K: did you just call a French socialist guy "pro-US-labor"? :) That would be the first time I hear that one :) I lived in Paris BTW. If that Italian print-maker works for you, that's great, and I'd would like to contact them. I wouldn't push that "globalization of the skilled workers" too far though. You can admit an iPhone/iPad looks skillfully designed but it was still made in China for cheap and low wages. If globalization conveniently stops in Europe for you, that's cute, but allow me to stop it at a different frontier. Check the original post, this started as an hyper-local concern, i.e. what's going to happen to a local bookstore of ours, why do people still go there, what is the added-value as a buyer, and as a local "producer"? (can't call myself "author").

I can't print in bulk, it's a niche book. POD is convenient, I'm not throwing my money away here, people buy it directly from them. I can certainly see somebody wondering: "hey, why am I buying this from Italy, that's a bit fishy". Blurb is apparently still not cheap enough to pass a book on to a local store, where a local book could belong, right? So how do you lower the cost? Find cheaper outside the US? That's short sighted in my opinion *with respect* to this "local community debate", a topic often discussed on AOA: what is distant from *you*, is local to somebody *else*. You can't fake concern about what is going to happen to a local store if you are willing to cut the business of another local vendor somewhere else in the US and impact their community, just to have it done overseas. Why should printing get the wrong end of the stick?

I asked the Troy Book Makers and they were very honest, they probably won't be competitive either on that very specific segment, full-color photo books. That problem has likely no solution: Albany isn't big, my photo-book is a niche. I can't have it both printed and represented locally in a book store for a reasonable price, unfortunately something has to give and a blind eye turned. Globalization indeed.

And at what social cost? Printing in Italy like Kramer did isn't really being part of the "local" equation we are talking about here. I could print in China I'm sure but why shaft one actor (the printer) in favor of the other (the retailer)?

Now you're just cherry-picking sentences to reply to, without the context of the rest of the comment. Like where I already said "Do we have a local enterprise that can hit the price point you need? I don't know, that would be something good to look into before you print a book, if you want to sell it in local retail bookstores." Troy Book makers are great people with great service but it's still fundamentally the same business model as Blurb.

But I think the lesson here is learned, and it's one you can take with you, time to stick a fork in that horse. I'm glad Kramer followed the referral and chimed in, good to hear from someone with that experience.

B, libraries are large purchasers of books. However (and I WISH I could find the comment thread in the blog that I read this in, it put it so succinctly!), that doesn't change the fact that if 100 people borrow it from the library instead of buying the book, that's 99 copies of the book that aren't sold.

I understand that argument, but I don't buy it completely. I actually find it similar to the anti-piracy argument, and while I don't think the pro-piracy counters -- that people wouldn't have bought the media anyway and the extra distribution in the end helps the artist -- are 100% accurate, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Libraries are large aggregate buyers of books and can have an effect on the market on behalf of a group of consumers that those consumers alone can't (or maybe won't). Librarians are the same concientious curators that the bookshop employees are. I'm not saying libraries are a silver bullet solution but I don't think it's fair to say they do absolutely nothing for emerging writers. And I wish your husband the best of luck.

@B, @irisa: on the topic of library, I'll just share my "experience". I considered leaving a few copies there but changed my mind after looking for a similar book that David Brickman had written years and years ago. I went once, twice, asked around, and after a while it seemed (to the library) that both his copies had disappeared (stolen maybe). I didn't make a formal "would you be interested in this book?" request because, naively, it didn't occurred to me they would actually *buy* the book (even at cost).

S: My point about globailzation was actually a paraphrase of (as I recall) a point Slavoj Zizek has made. It's a complicated issue, but he was basically arguing in favor of thinking in terms of the real world. Corporations are global, but unions, stuck in a 20th century paradigm, generally are not. Which is ridiculous: guess who always wins? I have no problem putting money into a society where all workers get socialized medicine, free education, and public transportation. That's a line I think makes sense to draw in the 21st century. Your China argument is a straw man.

Your original post bemoaned the 40% markup, but my point (of which I'm absolutely convinced) is that you're confusing your business models. POD exists for baby albums, wedding books, and gallery catalogs. For that, they're great. You want to use POD to make a bookstore-sold book. It's not made for that, period. If you want to make something very locally, why not make prints yourself, glue them to pages, and bind it in an affordable, creative way? I have a friend who makes comic books that way and has been very successful. In contrast, the book you're talking about sounds very conventional. That type of printing/binding is an invention of the publishing industry, which is, by definition, not local. Figure out which game you want to play, and do something interesting within those confines. You can't play both simultaneously.

And here's another view on publishing photo books, from a timely article in The New York Observer:

"What’s more limited? A beautiful glossy photo book that sits in Barnes & Noble, or something that’s free and on a device that lots of people have?"

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