Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of independent bookstores and a big fan of Patchett’s work. Though I haven’t yet read her latest novel, STATE OF WONDER, I thoroughly enjoyed both BEL CANTO and THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Patchett, a Nashville native, is opening the store because Nashville apparently is now among the growing list of cities without a bookstore.
“It’s very weird to have a book coming out without a bookstore,” Patchett [said]. “When [longtime Nashville book seller] Davis-Kidd closed, I thought, ‘I don’t want to live in a city without a bookstore.’”
This news seems like yet another turn in the continuing slide towards a literary culture where authors are responsible for almost all facets of its economic survival. The readership of small literary journals is said to be almost entirely comprised of writers hoping to be published in those journals. Over the last couple of years, a trend has emerged where, through submission fees, writers are being asked to directly bear the financial burden of keeping these journals afloat.
Meanwhile, e-book innovation has allowed some authors (including relatively new writers like Amanda Hocking) to eschew traditional publishers altogether and still reach sizeable audiences.
Now, with many traditional bookstores disappearing, I wonder if Patchett’s venture is a harbinger of things to come.
Bookstores are vital, for now, to the maintenance of a healthy literary culture. Even as we transition to an economic model where more books are being purchased online than in physical stores, the stores still act as a kind of “showroom” where potential readers can browse the latest offerings before they head online to take advantage of the steep discounts Amazon and other online retailers can offer.
[Last week, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about how, in part to combat the “Amazon showroom” mentality, some bookstores are now charging admission fees to the author readings they host.]
What makes me hesitant to endorse the Patchett model of author involvement are the financial risks. While those risks are presumably balanced by the promise of financial reward should the venture turn profitable, my guess is that few authors possess both the financial wherewithal and the business aptitude necessary to open up a book store. It’s one thing to ask that writers devote a couple of weeks to learn how to format and program their own e-books, but quite another to ask that they plunk down their life savings to support what, at best, might be called a risky business venture.
As publishing culture and industry models change, each change creates opportunities for new practices. Self-publishing is only now becoming a reputable practice. Still, if bookstores as an institution are to survive (a debatable proposition), I wonder if there might be some room to develop them as not-for-profit author co-ops.