Could indie authors be good for indie bookshops?

For anyone interested in books and reading there will be countless fond memories of lazy afternoons or stolen lunch-hours spent in well run independent bookshops often tucked away in the quieter back streets of  the villages, towns and cities that we live, work or visit.

For me this unfortunately dwindling number of shops are treasures that I will often go out of my way to visit, where I know I’ll find countless titles which I’m unlikely to have stumbled across before, both new, used and antiquarian that have been selected and curated in part by the bookshop owners own tastes, combined with a knowledge of what their regular customers prefer, and what will sell well in general.

Invariably the best of these shops will be staffed by an owner who is often immersed deep in their own reading while sat behind the counter, but who is none the less always happy to help with the queries or quests presented by the customers visiting their shop.

However, hand in hand with the simple pleasure of visiting these shops is the reality that in the age of the eBook and the heavily discounted supermarket bulk selling strategies, many of these small shops are struggling.

But is there perhaps another model that might suit these shops better?
This is an honest question, and one which I’m obviously coming at from the perspective of being an indie publisher.

Here’s my thinking.
Small publishers and small book sellers have something in common. Namely that it’s very difficult for us to compete with the well-established big players in the space on their terms.

A small bookseller can’t hope to beat the supermarkets or other major retailers on price, on footfall, order size, shop frontage or any of the other things that the big publishers will want to see in order to give their products the best start in life.

Equally, small publishers and indie authors can’t compete with the big publishing houses when it comes to marketing spend, author profile or the economies of scale in printing and distributing physical books.

Both small booksellers and indie publishers can and do compete on their own terms.

Small booksellers can compete very effectively when it comes to product selection and their knowledge of books and authors, particularly if you start to talk about books and authors that don’t sit squarely in the mainstream. This is after all why I and many other readers often choose to frequent small bookshops – because the stock is different. They aren’t just selling books that are designed to appeal to the widest possible target audience, they’re selling the quirkier and more interesting items that might only appeal to a smaller niche audience.

Small publishers and indie authors are in a correspondingly similar position. Many are indie in the first place because they’re writing and publishing books too quirky or unique to appeal to the mass mainstream audience. They’re writing the kind of stories they want to read, and if the eBook market is any kind of indication, they’re writing books that quite a few other folks want to read as well.

So . . .
Could this be a logical pairing for two currently very disparate parts of the industry?

Many of the mechanisms already exist to make it work. The print on demand service providers like Lightening Source / Ingram Spark already have the distribution and shop fronts set up for smaller booksellers to use, and the multiple on-line retailers provide a huge amount of free market information about which titles are selling strongly. Information which any small bookseller could easily mine for information before ordering stock.

But there are issues . . .
Firstly, if an indie author is selling well on-line, odds are they’ve already got a print version of their title(s) available for sellers like Amazon to sell alongside the eBook. But while selling a physical book on Amazon is easy. Getting that same physical book onto the shelves in Waterstones, the local supermarket, or Barnes & Noble is considerably more difficult.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, most small publishers and indie authors simply aren’t big enough to sell stock on a sale-or-return basis. They could maybe offer to accept 20% of orders to returned on this basis, but with the profit margins for print on demand books being much narrower than they are for major print runs, a single return could completely wipe out the profit from three or four sales for the publisher. Now for used stock bought at auction the inability to return if if it doesn’t sell is a well established fact, but that stock will by its very nature be much cheaper out of the gate.

Are the barriers too significant for small booksellers and indie publishers to overcome?
At this point it’s impossible to say, but one thing is for certain. If indie booksellers and indie publishers could establish a relationship then it can only result in a richer and more varied book market for readers.