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I Want Etsy for Books
Just with, you know, words inside.
Right now the book is backordered almost everywhere due to a very broken book distribution system that disadvantages small presses. I’ve been handselling copies like crazy over on Instagram (in fact, I too am out of stock! but will have more soon), and you can also buy it directly from Metonymy Press. I’ve also been told that if you order it on Bookshop this increases “demand” and inspires Ingram to order more.
Which seems . . . backwards to me? I don’t want to tell you to click that mysterious backorder button! I have this weird notion that readers should have a general idea what they’re buying and when it will get there, and so instead I want to think about how book distribution could change.
Many publishers, big and small, have increased the number of direct sales they’re making during the pandemic. In bookspeak, a “direct sale” is a book the publisher sells directly from their own website, as opposed to in a bookstore, or larger online retailers like Amazon and Bookshop. The margins work out slightly better for most publishers on direct sales, because no one takes a cut in the middle. Still, direct sales lag far behind other kinds of sales, and I wonder if some kind of aggregated online marketplace linking to and advertising small press books could help close this gap slightly. A sort of Etsy for books. That’s why Etsy was started, after all; it’s hard to remember now that it, too, has become a behemoth in the online marketplace since its IPO in 2015, but originally it was created as a response to Amazon, a place where artists and artisans could sell the work they made by hand online, and a place where people could go to buy more unique, one of a kind items.
I’m surprised such an online space doesn’t exist for books yet. A place where each publisher has a simple listing that links out to their independent website or store, where they sell their small batch titles, zines, and lovingly hand-sewn chapbooks. Individual readers and bookstores could both locate and order books there, and of course, if a store wanted a better guarantee on returns, they could still order through a distributor after learning about the book. (That’s the downside of direct sales, at least for bookstores: books are often nonreturnable.)
Half the battle for a small press author or publisher is getting enough eyes on your catalogue for people to even know you’re out there. I think something like this would help, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a small press renaissance happening right now, both online and not, and many brilliant, creative, and caring people I know are involved in it one way or another; I have great confidence that they’ll find many ways in the coming years to continually punch above their weight as far as readers are concerned.
And although I’ve worked as a bookseller, book publicist, copyeditor, writer etc., I am by no means an expert. These thoughts are simply drawing on my experiences and thinking about what might work better. If I’ve learned anything in the last ~10 years, it’s that it’s most likely foolish to expect problems created by capitalism and the internet to be solved by those same forces.
There are so many people whose brains I want to pick on how they think the process of making books and putting them in the hands of readers could work better. People who do amazing work in subpar conditions, for bosses and managers who don’t value their expertise or pay them a fair wage. If this is you, whether you work in distribution, sales, marketing, production, design, or somewhere else, I’d love to hear from you!
What I’m Reading
Neotenica by Joon Oluchi Lee (Nightboat Books). Set in the Bay Area, it follows Young Ae’s husband, a character who slips between categories of gender and sex and desire. And then, periodically, it abandons Young Ae’s husband and follows another character all together, who may intersect only briefly with the ostensible main character. I don’t always know what’s going on, but if the language is interesting, bizarre, and surprising (which it definitely is), then that can be a good thing. Books like this are a relief from plot, and it’s been a delight to lose myself in.
(Just one this week, and weirdly, also from Nightboat! Love to see small presses with open manuscript calls.)
Nightboat Books is open to submissions of full length prose manuscripts until June 30.
My book A Natural History of Transition, is available now through Metonymy Press.
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