Thursday, September 22, 2011

Supporting Small Presses: How to Do It, Why We Do It

The other day the American Bookseller's Association's Karen Schechner contacted the store to do an interview with us about our small press promotions. As many of you know, for the past six months we have been bringing in small presses en masse here at the store and trying to turn people on to the breadth of great literature found on them. We have no plans to stop this program whatsoever. At a time when too many people talk about e-books, we thought we'd go the other route: standing by the presses we love, putting books into people's hands. Karen's write up can be found here:

Below is the unexpurgated interview. Any bookseller should feel free to contact us with questions about the program. We hope that other bookshops follow this model and find great indie presses to support. Contact your other favorite bookstore or your favorite small press, show them the interview and help to get a movement started. It's time we created a new model of bookselling together.

Farley's Bookshop c/o William Hastings

Interview with the ABA's Karen Schechner about small press displays


1: How did Farley’s get into selling indie press titles?

Our interest in indie presses began by reading their books. It has long been known that the best literature in the country is often found on the indie presses. Because indie presses do not pay taxes on unsold stock, since many of them are non-profits, we found that some of our favorite writers were being kept in print because of this. Then, as the world economy tanked in 2008, we noticed that the major publishing houses were forced to cut great, but smaller selling writers from their lists. Those writers ended up in the indie presses and have stayed there. It's not that we had a problem with the major publishing houses' title selection, it's just that the more we looked the more we liked the cutting-edge, eclectic, profound, beautiful, well-constructed literature that kept surprising us in the indie presses. We started hand selling a lot of it because our customers kept asking for recommendations and many of us were reading indie press titles alongside other work. Around this time we became the official bookseller for NoirCon, a multi-day noir/crime fiction convention here in Philadelphia. In order to stock a great selection of books for the event we did some deep research into the noir/crime fiction community and found an incredible selection of indie presses there. Once we were at NoirCon writers and fans told us about even more. We also began subscribing to The American Book Review and The Bloomsbury Review, in our opinion the two finest reviewing papers in the country. While they review books from the major publishing houses, they devote much space to the indies, something we noticed the metropolitan newspaper review sections were not doing. This turned us on to some great books. Some of our employees also subscribe to hosts of the literary quarterlies, which are other great avenues to discover indie press books. All of this got us thinking that we should be me forthright in highlighting these presses in the store. But, as with anything, money is an issue. How to stock these presses in depth without sacrificing stocking the other presses that we love? We had heard about some publishers offering better purchasing/returns terms in exchange for special displays. This lead us to create our idea: a consignment-style set-up in exchange for face out displays and prominent in-store location. We wrote a proposal and reached out to presses we loved that weren't using major distributors that we had reps for. After all, we didn't want to hurt our relationships there either. And we are more than open to having bookstores contact us for help in getting this started, or if they have any questions about what we've done.

2: How are they displayed? In a separate section?

Each press has its own section of the front of the store. Above each section we have a sign naming the press. Each book is face-out, with a shelf talker written by a staff member. When you walk into the store the firs thing you see are hundreds of book covers looking right at you. The project has expanded so much that we've had to place some of the presses in our main display area in the center of the store because we have run out of room up front. Soon we will be removing a compact disc display section, moving it to another part of the store, and using that space to display literary quarterlies or another press that will be coming in soon.

3: How are sales?

Sales are excellent. Every single press has told us that we have sold more titles of theirs than any other bookstore they work with. We're hesitant to give out exact dollar amounts, but we can safely say that in six months we moved close to three hundred indie press titles.

4: You sell them on consignment?

The set-up works like this: in exchange for net-90 terms and the standard 40% discount we offer the presses their own section of the store, face-out displays with shelf talkers for each book and extensive advertising. The presses cover shipping to us, if we return books to the presses we cover shipping back. It is a fairly straight forward consignment set-up. If the books don't sell, they don't sell at no risk to us and little risk to the publisher. So far no publisher has wanted a return from us, they've just asked that we keep the titles and then shipped new/different ones to us. We're more than happy to do that. Given enough time, they'll sell. And they have.

5: How do you market them?

We market them in a variety of ways. First, we have a small press book club that meets once a month. Unlike our other book club, the small press book club does not limit itself to fiction. This allows us to rotate through the publishers, since many of them are poetry houses, and to guarantee sales of at a minimum ten copies for that month of a single title. Often in the month that we are reading a book we'll sell more because our customers ask what's being read even though they can't make the book club. Beyond that we highlight the books constantly on our Twitter and Facebook pages. We stay in close contact with the publishers and they get word out regularly about our store and its offerings. We do write-ups in our newsletter of the titles, or sometimes, an entire press' offerings. But like any good independent bookstore, hand-selling them is our bread and butter. Lastly, we have spent much time and effort educating our customers that book buying can be like record buying in many ways. You can still find great music just because you trust whatever certain labels are putting out. Likewise books. By showing our customers that each press is very different and has different outlooks, specialties, goals, we have shown our customers they can find a press that matches their style and tastes. We've shown them that while they may not have heard the author's name before, they can trust the quality of the book just because of the press it's on.

6: Do you have any events involving indie press titles?

We have done quite a few events with the indie presses. Most importantly, some of the writers whose books we have contacted us very early in the experiment to thank us and to offer themselves in some form or another to the store. What we ended up creating with them was a series of ongoing free creative writing workshops. Writers come to the store (we've had them come from as far away as Mississippi) and at the beginning of their workshop they read from their book. That gives the class a common denominator for discussion as well as spotlights the writer's book. We offer classes in all genres. The writers then stay for signing afterword. Beyond the workshops we have offered poetry readings, sidewalk signings, in-store signings, events at local bars. There's always something going on here at the store and much of it has grown out of our work with the indie presses.

7: Is this something you’d recommend to other booksellers?

We cannot recommend this more highly to other bookstores. Regardless of what the news media tells us about bookselling in this country, independent bookstores are the front lines of keeping literature alive in this country. The collapse of Borders has proven that brick and mortar bookstores offer something unique and important to this literary world. The more independent bookstores diversify their stock, the larger a patchwork quilt of literature is built into the fabric of our communities across this country. Reach out to local and regional presses so your store can stock books only found where you live and can help to keep alive great, though overlooked, writing. Reach out to every indie press you can think of. You'll be able to greatly increase stock and offer wonderful books your customers may not have heard of. Stay in close contact with the presses and build tight relationships with them: it helps them and it helps you. Subscribe to the literary quarterlies and The American Book Review and The Bloomsbury Review (which has a special program that allows you to give away free copies of The Bloomsbury Review to your customers) to help you learn about all the great literature that is happening in this country. Many of these indie presses do not put their titles into e-book formats because they are incredibly conscientious of their graphic design and the special magic of holding a book in your hands. Supporting these presses distributes both knowledge and power across a larger base, instead of consolidating it in the hands of the few.

8: Anything else you’d like to add?

We have not sold a single e-book at our store. In fact, we haven't had a single customer ask us about it. Instead, what we have seen is an increasing amount of people coming into the store looking for books they can't find anywhere else and asking for recommendations from the staff. In some cases, we have had to re-stock our small presses three times over because we can't keep the books on the shelves. We have had customers drive upwards of three hours to get to our store just because they heard we now stock a deep selection of their favorite press. What has happened in the past few months, since we started this project, is we've realized just how important a bookstore can be to a community. Bookstores can help out restaurants and bars by hosting readings in them or by having the restaurant set up tables in the cookbook section and give away free food to customers. Offer free writing workshops and help out local writers. A bookstore has the ability to link into the schools and help educators offer books to their students that may help to turn students onto reading and a love of literature. Unlike the rewards programs established by some educator book distributors for teachers, bookstores are not recommending books to schools or students because they will receive a financial reward from the distributor. Yes, we make money off of book sales, but we make money off of helping our community to build lifelong readers. In doing so we can support the artists that we love, the presses that remind us of the possibilities of literature and the local bars, museums, theaters, restaurants and galleries that provide spaces for public celebration of literature in all its forms. At a time when a horrible economy threatens so much, brick and mortar stores have the ability to revitalize the economy. After all, over half of the workforce in this country is employed by family run businesses. And, as a study in Michigan showed, if a half-million people switched ten percent of their spending to buying locally, over one hundred and thirty million dollars of new job revenue would be created. Saving our communities and our country begins at the local level. It begins by buying locally and supporting local stores. It begins with bookstores extending themselves outward into the community to help educate and inform people about literature and its joys, to connect with other local businesses to offer things to people they hadn't realized they wanted. It begins with bookstores all across this country offering a diverse and regionally unique selection of books to their customers to create a vats array of places where readers and travelers can find incredible work. We're called brick and mortar for a reason we feel too many have forgotten: we're the foundation of it all. What will stand after the trends die out.

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