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Monday, August 25, 2008

Shopping Independent - An Open Question

A little while ago a friend sent me a link to IndieBound, an organization that unites and supports independent booksellers in the U.S. One of the site's features is that they offer bloggers the option of becoming an affiliate, which means that when I discuss a book, I could link to the book through the IndieBound site to help readers purchase it from bookstores in their neighborhood. This is similar to the partner program that Powell's Books offers that I've seen on other friends' sites. In this way, I would be helping to encourage people to buy their books local, instead of linking to Amazon's page or any other multinational bookselling chain.

The question that keeps coming to mind is why? Why is buying from independent bookstores better than buying from multinational chains?

This is one of those values that a lot of people take for granted as obvious. Of course it's better to buy from small shops instead of big companies! Corporations are evil! Aren't they?


On the homepage of the IndieBound website they list three main reasons for supporting independent booksellers: The Economy, The Environment, and The Community. And they cite a couple of statistics and make a couple of claims, none of which I would consider to be particularly strong arguments.

For example, according to the site, "Spend $100 at a local and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43." But does it naturally follow that this is better for the economy? If instead you were to support a publicly traded company, doesn't that help the overall national economy, creating more jobs nationally and improving the economy for everyone? With an almost pure arts background, I don't have the answer to that question, I'm simply skeptical enough to ask it.

So here are a few questions for you to chew on:

1. Do you think it's important to buy your books from independent booksellers rather than multinational chains? Why or why not?

2. How do you think shopping independent supports the local economy? The national economy?

3. How does shopping independent support the publishing industry? The same or different?

4. How does shopping independent support writers? The same or different?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic - any of the questions or none - I'm trying to learn from our collective wisdom.


Sven said...

1.No, because I'm not buying the reasons they listed:

Higher paying jobs? What about medical, dental, 401k? It's easier for large corporations to support those than an indie store, which does not have to offered them at all if they're small enough.

Smaller carbon footprint? Depends on where you start measuring, what type of business it is, which carrier they use, where do you live in relation, etc... This is such a hard number to pin down that you can not give a blanket statement that "this" is better than "that". Why aren't we all just looking into buying a Kindle then?

More choice? Than Amazon? That's not what I've found from my experience.

As for the other questions I'm just not knowledgeable enough in economics/publishing to give a good

Anonymous said...

I think the reasons listed are a little flimsy. Here are the specific reasons why I buy independent if possible:

1) When I want something obscure they have no problems looking for it/ordering it.

2) They're supportive of local community writers. You're more likely to see a reading by your own small town's writer at your local Indy bookstore than you ever are at a B&N. Why? It costs far too much $ to book a B&N reading.

3) More interesting/out of print books. I'm a sucker for old stock and rarities. B&N has zilch in that arena.

4) Where available... better coffee. Yes, that's a loser reason, but the fact that some large bookstore chains have partnered with other large coffee chains leasts to the proliferation of terrible, over roasted, scalded milk lattes. An atrocity.

Just some thoughts.

Joe said...

"More choice? Than Amazon? That's not what I've found from my experience."

How does Amazon have more choice? Do you really think that just because a particular book isn't on a local bookstore's shelf that they couldn't get it? Amazon gets their books from the same distributors as indie stores. When you order from Amazon, you KNOW you're gonna have to wait, but somehow that's ok. If you have to wait 2 days for a book you ordered from a store with an actual physical presence, somehow that's unnacceptable?

Money going to your local economy pays for your roads, schools, fire department, etc. Money getting shipped out of your community, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, goes... somewhere else.

The carbon footprint for shipping individual books in individual containers to individual people is pretty huge.

As for choice, real choice, I urge you to consider the dangers of having only one place that disseminates information. If you only buy online, pretty soon you will have no other choice. Buying from the box stores hurts your community and the local availability of books, since the boxies have a very limited number of publishers that they deal with on account of the economies of numbers; smaller publishers are under-represented and the self-published author may as well just sell books out of the trunk of their car.

If you want the list of available books to look about as exciting as the NYT Bestseller's list, then by all means farm your money to Amazon/B&N/Borders. If you think Nora Roberts is all you need for 'literature' or that David McCullough is all you need for history, then ensure the failure of lesser known authors by making it financially unfeasible to publish them.

read this to educate yourself on the economies of buying locally:

Some things to think about:
Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure,
less maintenance, and more money available to beautify our community. Also, spending locally instead of online ensures that sales taxes are reinvested where they belong—in your community.

Creativity and entrepreneurship are what the American
economy is founded upon. Nurturing local business
ensures a strong community. Do we really want every town and every city to look exactly the same?

Besides the obvious personal impact of knowing (and loving) your local retailers, studies have shown that local businesses donate to community causes at more than twice the rate of chains.

It goes beyond books, too. Chain restaurants suck. Chain clothing stores ensure that everyone dresses the same. Chain coffee shops are boring, etc.

drea said...

The most important reason, in my mind, to shop local independents is that you're promoting diversity with your purchase. Imagine a world where there was only Amazon. No local stores, no independence. If they didn't have to compete, they could cut out all the slow-selling books, smaller publishers and authors, and just offer the biggest sellers. It’s no different from the independent film industry. If the giant, multi-national corporate studios were in charge of everything, all we would be able to see in the theatres would be Star Wars, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean… Just the movies that can predictably gross the highest possible sales. The safe bets that appeal to the greatest range of consumers. It’s the small independent filmmakers that make amazing movies like Once or Juno, Imagine how much poorer the art of moviemaking would be if we didn’t have access to that kind of diversity. Same thing with books. Independents promote diversity. It’s one of their most vital roles. More important than selling books or making money. They value their service to diversity and the uniqueness of their communities in ways that Barnes and Noble will never care about.

Sven said...

by "That's not what I've found from my experience" I mean to say that in my experience; I've always been able to find what I've been looking for on Amazon, as opposed to walking into a book store where I haven't on occasion.

And the difference between waiting 2 days for Amazon to ship it and for my local bookstore to order it is that I would have to drive to the bookstore to order it, drive back home and then drive back once more to pick it up then return home to begin enjoying it. That's a lot of driving.

"As for choice, real choice, I urge you to consider the dangers of having only one place that disseminates information." The Internet is not one source. Neither is Amazon for that matter, many sellers sell through them. And it’s just as easy to go someplace else if Amazon gets to big. There are even online book retailers that won’t print a book until you buy it, which saves a lot of resources.

Jessica said...

The only point I can really speak to is the difference in how independents and chains treat authors. If an indie supports an author, they'll go the extra mile to set up an event. B&N has 1 national events coordinator--all info has to be disseminated through that person in order to make events happen at the individual stores. Not every indie based event will be a hit, but the store will usually put a lot more time and effort into trying to make it a successful one. On the other hand, it's usually a game of chance with a chain, unless the author has a personal connection to that store, or family and friends in the community. Indies are small and often family-run businesses, so they really want events to be a success--they need them to be so. And they still carry lots of weight in the publishing industry--many have high reputations. A chain doesn't have a lot to lose from setting up an event: they might put in no effort, sell only 1 or 2 books, and they're not going to fall into financial ruin. This however, angers many of the authors who do events with the chains and then wonder why, because it seemed like noone cared about them coming in the first place.

Besides, the same thing rolls out in all the chains--and that generic-ness is just depressing. Don't you like going to an independent to see the staff's handpicked selections?

I say, you have to support them all to a certain extent, indies and chains alike. We need competition. Like someone else here already wrote, you will lose diversity of books once there's a monopoly on the bookselling market. And I do think that would affect what books publishers will choose to publish.

I'm done with my ramblings.

Stephanie said...

Some very impassioned voices so far!

Sven, I understand your argument that corporations are in better positions to offer their employees health care and profit sharing, but on the flip side corporations are also in a better position to get out of those obligations (like WalMart, etc.) by keeping to part time employees etc. Though that's not true of Starbucks. Not to mention, I have always been under the impression that corporations manage to get out of paying taxes due to various write-offs, breaks and initiatives programs, unlike small businesses which can't take advantage of those. Again, that's just an impression I have and I could be wrong.

Randika, I think your reason #2 is the one that makes the most sense to me. Not to mention, I think there is something to be said for helping to promote writing within one's own region to develop a community spirit and voice, a voice that is lost when all that's coming through town is authors on national book tours.

Joe, welcome to the site and thank you for your passionate comments! I read the Chicago Sun Times article that you linked, but it didn't really expand on that initial statistic that IndieBound provided, and that I quoted in my post. Your point about what local money pays for is well taken - but it still leaves my compare and contrast question unanswered - is it possible that the "somewhere else" we're sending money when we buy from the corporate sellers supports the economy in a different, yet equally important way. The stock market is down, the dollar is weak. Is it possible that supporting publicly traded companies helps the national economy in a significant way that affects all of us even in our local communities?

In general, I think you make some excellent arguments that IndieBound is trying to make.

In particular, the argument about diversity I think Drea makes really well. Welcome to the site Drea, and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think you make a strong argument for supporting diversity in the book marketplace there.

Jessica, I like the balance you're interested in striking, but more importantly, I like how you picked up on what Randika was saying in her #2 and expanded on it. I already thought that was a good point, and now even more so.

I also wanted to comment in general about the idea of the carbon footprint. None of us are scientists (I think), so when we make a claim that something has a smaller carbon footprint than something else, all we're basing that on is our common sense which means that we all have an equal chance at being right or wrong. What we seem to have discovered over the last year is that there are a lot of factors involved in determining a product or a method's "carbon footprint." So unless you can provide a scientific study that one method is more efficient than another, I think I consider the claim "lower carbon footprint" as useful as any other marketing claim.

I'm thrilled to see some lively discussion here! I think there are some fantastic arguments, and I'm learning a lot, which was the whole point of my post. So thank you all for participating in the discussion!

stu said...

Well, when dealing with multinational booksellers there are the standard concerns about multinationals (homogenisation of high streets, handing significant power to largely unaccountable organisations, the danger of establishing control of the market before increasing price, reducing service and cutting staff) but for books a couple of other issues arise.

Firstly, a point that applies in the UK, which is that most of the larger book chains are not based there. Not only is money I give to Amazon not helping the local enconomy, it isn't helping my national economy to any great extent.

However, I'm not sure that big chains are always less personal. I know the staff at my university's branch of Waterstones better than I know those at my local independent. People in company logoed t-shirts are still people. The owners of some independent bookshops, on the other hand, may well be aliens.

Anonymous said...

I don't always go to indies, I do mainly support the big evil conglomerates. I'm actually a hypocrite, kind of, I guess because I'd like not to support large corporate chains, but I don't seem to be able to do it. My only reason, maybe isn't that substantive, but I just don't like the whole Walmartization of America phenomena. I think there should be alternatives to big box retailers. The idea of small town America, it seems to me, will be gone for good if they aren't quaint mom and pop bookstores still around to support and enjoy.

Nev said...

The fact is, I like savings. I save more using Amazon or going to Borders. A lot of the indie stores can't compete with that, and there's a part of me that feels for them. But in the end, I have to watch my bottom line too.