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March 16, 2010, 10 a.m.

The Boulder way: A bookstore’s experiment with microdistribution

The “Recommended” section at the Boulder Book Store, an independent bookseller in Colorado, features a mix of titles and genres. And also: a mix of distribution models. Among the traditionally published works on display stand a smattering of print-on-demand titles — many of them being sold on consignment by authors from the Boulder area.

They’ve paid for the privilege. The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s email newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

And for $255 — essentially, the platinum package — the store will throw in an in-store reading and book-signing event.

“Most people will come in at one of the higher fee amounts,” Arsen Kashkashian, the store’s head buyer and the architect of the program, told me. “That surprised us.” In fact, when the store first began charging its consignment authors back in 2007 (the fee-structure idea emerged when the store’s employees found themselves “inundated with self-published books, and there was a lot of work involved and not much reward”), its staff “thought people would grumble and complain” about the charges. But authors, Kashkashian says, have been generally grateful for the opportunity to sell and promote work that might otherwise be seen and appreciated only by their friends/spouses/moms: “‘I want the marketing, I want the exposure. I worked so hard on this project, and you guys are the only ones who could help me with it.'”

And the books are selling. Not flying off the shelves…but sauntering off, steadily. In the first week in March, Kashkashian told me, the store sold 75 consignment books — which, given the store’s 40-percent cut of those sales, and the authors’ fees, accounted for 3 percent of the store’s total revenues for the week. Part of that number, Kashkashian believes, is attributable to the authors’ efforts at self-promotion, which amplify the store’s own marketing strategy. “Some are blogging, some are on Twitter, some just trying to get out there by word of mouth,” he notes. “They’re working their networks, whether it’s online or offline. They’re kind of learning how to do it.”

The networking takes place offline, as well. The readings and signings are proving particularly popular, says Liesl Freudenstein, a buyer at the store and its consignment coordinator — not only among authors, but among Boulder’s residents more generally. “It’s great community involvement,” she notes. “These are mostly local people, people within 50 or 100 miles, and they bring their family and friends.”

It’s that kind of outside-the-box-store thinking — building and fostering engagement around unique content — that independent booksellers “need to do right now to survive,” Kashkashian says. They need, above all, to find ways “to tie themselves into the community.” Sound familiar?

Indeed, bookstores are like news outlets in more ways than the simple fact of their existential endangerment. The world of book publishing is experiencing a restructuring that is similar — and in some ways parallel — to the power shifts taking place in the world of journalism. Bookstores themselves don’t just facilitate access to information; they also provide an editorial filter for that information. Just as The New York Times is a curator of content as much as it’s a creator of it — assigning significance to news stories via (web)page placement, story length, headline size, etc. — bookstores curate their own content via in-store placement, “Staff Picks” sections, and all the rest.

If you’re an author whose book has been placed on a bottom shelf in the back corner of a store — that sad little no-man’s-land beyond Self Help, right next to the bathrooms, where the lighting is bleak and the odor bleaker — your book, however brilliant it may be, probably won’t be selling too well. You might be better off bypassing the middleman, the bookstore itself, altogether: using print-on-demand and then self-marketing, publishing direct-to-Amazon, embarking on a DIY book tour, etc. In short, taking advantage of the kind of hybrid marketing the Boulder consignment model represents — for bookselling and beyond.

That model hints at something authors often don’t have much of: recourse. Another route to attention/money/impact — an apparatus that bypasses entirely the publishing house’s traditional infrastructure. It suggests, in its way, editorial and distributional independence for book authors — the kind enjoyed by, for example, bloggers. Transform the distribution model, and everything else transforms along with it. In the past, to be a successful author, you generally had to be a published author, with everything that title suggested: an author whose book was determined to be worthy of publication costs (printing, distribution, marketing, etc.) by editors who knew enough about market appetites to make the determination. In publishing’s increasingly DIY world, though, the Boulder model — one that charges authors for, essentially, microdistribution of their books — makes increasing sense. “In the last few years, a professional-looking project has become much more attainable for people,” Kashkashian notes. “And once authors have a professional-looking book to sell, the selling itself becomes more feasible.”

Even published authors, Freudenstein says, are availing themselves of the store’s consignment service. She points to a Boulder-area author who’s signed to a local imprint…and yet, in the DIY style, also sells her books on consignment at the store. “She’s out there hustling,” Freudenstein says, “trying to make it happen — rather than relying on the publisher to make it happen.”

Photo of Boulder Book Store by Jesse Varner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 16, 2010, 10 a.m.
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