Russo and Sherr on Why Indies Matter

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    On Monday, the American Booksellers Association kicked off its 10th annual Day of Education with an interview-style event featuring award-winning author Richard Russo and journalist and author Lynn Sherr. The focus of the discussion was “Why Indies Matter,” which also happens to be the name of ABA’s newly launched video campaign that captures unscripted and impromptu testimonials about independent bookstores from authors, customers, and indie supporters around the country.

    ABA President Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Illinois, welcomed booksellers to the Day of Education and emphasized that these days are a time of opportunity for booksellers, as the industry is in flux.

    “Following what was a successful holiday season for many booksellers and a very promising beginning of 2012, we have never been more sure that America’s independent bookstores continue to make essential and unique cultural and financial contributions to all of our communities,” she said.

    Lynn Sherr began her interview of Russo by sharing her own experience with independent bookstores, notably the former Leary’s Bookstore in her hometown of Philadelphia, which was her “regular hangout” as she was growing up. “I felt both safe and adventurous among the stacks and stacks of volumes,” she said. “Your stores today are a glorious transformation of that experience.”

    As an author just finishing a tour to promote her latest book, Swim (PublicAffairs), Sherr said she is grateful to bookstores across the country for hosting her and allowing her to connect with readers. As a journalist, however, she is looking at the changing industry with a more questioning eye, hoping to find ways to maintain or adapt the “wonderful world” that has been created by independent booksellers.

    Sherr then asked Russo to recall his own entrance into the world of independent bookstores, when he was on tour for his first novel, Mohawk (Vintage). His first stop was Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago, where the staff had optimistically set up five to seven chairs for the event, but those chairs were ultimately occupied by the staff themselves.

    “The employees had read the book,” said Russo. “I was stunned that they read it. And they seemed to like it. And I got my first sense of how these things work. These people that filled those five to seven chairs were going to be handselling my book, and my next book, and the next book after that.” While Russo was disappointed and nervous about not selling enough books on the tour, the booksellers felt the opposite. “They felt buoyed by the fact that they had discovered a new writer. They were looking at Mohawk and saying ‘This is a good book; we’re going to sell this. But more importantly, Richard Russo is going to go home and write another novel.’ They had more faith in that than I did,” he said.

    Though it has been years since Russo first won the hearts of independent booksellers through his bestselling novels, his ongoing support for indie stores has added another dimension to their appreciation. Russo’s support for indies was made known to a wider audience last December with the publication of a New York Times op-ed. In it, Russo stood up to Amazon for its “predatory” promotion that encouraged customers to enter bricks-and-mortar stores and scan products on their mobile devices to find them for a cheaper price online.

    Sherr asked Russo about the motivation behind his op-ed. “What really struck me more than anything else was how cruel it was,” said Russo. “They wanted to fill bricks-and-mortar bookstores with people so that if you owned the store, you would look out and see all of these people there, and get the sense that commerce was taking place. Your bookstore is full, but no one is buying anything. The cruelty of that was so shocking.”

    Russo also asked his author friends — Stephen King, Scott Turow, and Ann Patchett — to weigh in for the editorial, and all agreed that Amazon had gone too far.

    Though he noted that Amazon is quite good at allowing readers to find the works of established authors, Russo emphasized it is independent bookstores that are responsible for introducing emerging writers to the world — a vital role for the future of the industry. Russo also said that he doesn’t like to hear people talk about bookstores as if they are becoming a niche. “I don’t want bookstores to survive, I want them to thrive,” he said.

    Sherr shared an experience she had at a stop on the tour for Swim at the South Bay Rowing Club in San Francisco. There, she was joined for a swim by the two owners of Green Apple Books and other members of the community.

    “It was a group of like-minded people who wanted to talk about swimming and water,” she said. “I think what we’re both talking about is smart people, curious people, and also a connection to the community. They’re involved in a way that the community is part of the experience. They are also invested in the town they’re in, the city they’re in, the block they’re in.”

    Sherr reminded the audience of a fear that existed in the 1930s, with the advent of paperback novels. Many thought this would destroy the book business, she said, asking Russo if there is a parallel to what we’re seeing today.

    “Maybe we’re a little more scared than we need to be,” said Russo. “But there have been significant effects. We no longer have Borders, Barnes & Noble is hanging by a thread, there’s nothing like Waldenbooks anymore, and we’ve lost an enormous number of independent bookstores. I think it’s fair to say that the Amazon threat is real. Amazon now has 75 percent of the online market for both print and electronic books, and if the Justice Department wins, Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all of this, and they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy because they know they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

    On the topic of publishers, Russo said he thinks they are possibly in the worst position, and he has not understood their reaction to the changes in the industry.

    “They’re afraid of this new digital world, afraid of e-books, afraid of the fact that the online retailers have been driving down the price of everything they’re selling,” he said. “They’ve been very conciliatory. I find it absolutely astonishing that publishers acquiesced when online booksellers just kind of dictated that they would sell the electronic version of brand-new novels for $9.99, when the hardcover was $27. Why would they have agreed to do that?

    “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine,” he said, and drew applause from the audience.

    Russo noted that Macmillan fought back in January 2010, and Amazon temporarily removed the buy buttons for Macmillan titles on Amazon.

    “Like most bullies, Amazon doesn’t want to fight, it likes to intimidate,” said Russo. “What you have to do is stand up and be competent.”