The papers and the web have been full of news about Barnes & Noble—they’re cutting back on the number of their bookstores—with analyses on why that has happened and what this means for the future. I went by B&N today and was told our local, intown B&N is one of the biggest and most profitable bookstores in that whole chain. The employee told me that the Boston B&N, along with one or two others, are sure to survive if the company survives.
I was at B&N to talk to an employee about the Nook, B&N’s reader, and about putting my books on the Nook. I was aware that what I was talking about was one of the cultural shifts that was driving these big bookstores out of business. They were being polite to me and helpful, but the fact remains that I am writing books and selling them directly to the public, and there are no New York publishers or booksellers involved. I suspect there is not room in the playing field for B&N and for me too. And the straits that B&N and other booksellers find themselves in today is a result of the many book buyers who have been dissatisfied with the job that book sellers have been doing these many years. The corporate structure of many of these big booksellers has prevented them from responding to the market so as to continually offer interesting and important literary works. Money talks, and the booksellers have needed to sell books that are big sellers.
The ecology of publishing—finders, agents, publishers, booksellers and the industry built around the fact that books, once printed, need to be stored and shipped and distributed—is big money, so publishing finds it more profitable to publish one book selling one million copies than to publish one hundred books selling 10,000 copies each. The effect of this kind of fiscal structure is that minorities—people like us, gay people—are placed at particular risk. We don’t produce many books that sell enough copies to make it profitable enough for big publishers to publish a wide range of books for us. And so, after decades, smaller minorities stop going to the big publishers when they want certain kinds of books. It is like the markets for certain kinds of popular music and for independent movies. Some moviegoers haven’t been to a big-budget movie in decades.
The publishers and the booksellers have turned away from us and left us to our own devices. As it happens, our device of choice is the reader, the iPad, the Nook, the Kindle and the others. Now, what’s left is for us to loosen the grip the readers have on the publisher’s bookstores. It is possible to find books for readers that don’t come from publisher’s bookstores. The manufacturers of our readers—Apple, Amazon, and B&N—don’t make this easy, but we can learn how to find these books, and we can learn how to put them on our readers. By doing so, we can gain control of our reading again. And this will happen: if we use our freedom to find the books being written for us, then writers, knowing we are out there, will write their books for us and for our readers, and those books will be interesting and important, because that’s what we demand.