In this day and age of readily available ebooks and online shopping, there has been a lot written about the demise of “bricks and mortar” stores, both large chains and independents. Sure there are economic factors at play in both retail and in publishing industries driving this decline, but the deeper issue for me is that its becoming more and more challenging for readers and authors to find each other.
Ever since dime store paperbacks were introduced to the North American public in 1939, part of the key to their success was their distribution. Instead of relying solely on book stores, the publishers of Pocket Books teamed with magazine distributors and got their product into places where the average public were more likely to encounter and buy them – drugstores, train stations, and newsstands. There’s a really great article at Mental Floss – How Paperbacks Transformed the Way America Reads – by Andrew Shaffer. Many people took chances on new authors and titles simply because it was affordable and available.
Paperbacks and ebooks have largely remained “affordable”, but its become increasing difficult to encounter these books in the flesh. Growing up a lot of authors I discovered was by taking a chance on a questionable looking SF title on the wire rack at the convenience store simply because it was in front of me. Those markets are fast dwindling and discovering authors has largely gone electronic via social media and websites like Goodreads. I follow a lot of up-and-coming authors and their publishers on Twitter, but the problem is laying my hands on their books aren’t as easy. Sure I could order them online and have them shipped or in many cases instantly download the ebook version, but a lot of the time I just want to hold the physical manifestation of the authors hard work in my hands and admire its beautiful cover and I want to do it NOW.
It’s then that I realize how small the selection has become at the local bricks and mortar stores. My town of 150,000 has just two book stores both run by the same chain, one is small store in a shopping centre while the other is a “box” store type outlet. The SF&F section at the larger store is perhaps two twelve foot long books shelves that run about chest height. While it might sound like a lot of shelf space its surprisingly not the variety and the depth of titles is limited. The store might carry ONE copy of a book by a specific author. The problem is the average person that didn’t grow up in a world with more selection and opportunity to discover new authors isn’t going to realize how narrow the choices have become.
Even I had forgotten how small my world had shrunk until I revisited one of my favourite Toronto book stores last month – The World’s Biggest Bookstore. Housed in a former bowling alley in downtown Toronto near the Eaton Centre it’s SF&F section is about five 20 foot long double sided shelves of SF&F books with a wide array of authors and sub-genres. I even saw a large display of a new and upcoming author by the name of Wesley Chu (http://www.chuforthought.com) that I had not heard of before and his first novel “The Lives of Tao“. The novel is about a entity – Tao, from another planet that has survived hundreds of years on earth by occupying other people’s bodies and turning them into skilled assassins and hunters in order to fight an ongoing battle with another faction of his race bent on destroying earth. Tao is forced to occupy the body of an out-of-shape computer nerd – Roen Tan. Now I could have snagged one of the twenty or so copies at the store and went merrily on my way, leaving the other 19 copies for others to discover Wesley and his book, but I hesitated. You see I had three titles in my hand already and I thought to myself, I am going to a speciality store later today that sells ONLY SF&F titles called Bakka-Phoenix Books I’ll buy a copy there and support my “local” independent book store.
The cruel irony was Bakka-Phoenix did not have any copies of “The Lives of Tao” in stock. I asked and the clerk to check and he said that they did not order any copies, but could order one in for me. Being from out of town, I declined but thanked him for his effort and bought another book by another author that they did carry.
Back home in my town of 150,000 I was preparing to order Wesley’s book online when I ventured into the big box store and what should I find – ONE bright and shiny copy of “The Lives of Tao” starring out at me from the book shelf. Of course I bought it, but in doing so I realized I was potentially depriving others from discovering while browsing the aisle.
I’m thankful for The World’s Biggest Bookstore for turning me onto him but I have to wonder in this shrinking world of retail book stores and opportunities for new discoveries where will people go to find new authors?
I tweeted about my dilemma about not being able to pick up a copy of Wesley’s book at Bakka-Phoenix and Wesley immediately contacted the bookstore via twitter. Whatever he said he persuaded them to start carrying the book. In a round about way I may have inadvertently helped other Bakka-Phoenix patrons discover Wesley’s writing.