What if somebody told you that in the future not only would bookstores sell indie work, but there would be entire stores devoted only to books by indie authors? Good idea? Fantasy? Unworkable? What if I told you they are already here?
I’ve been in touch with two new stores, one online and one in the proverbial “brick and mortar”, that do just that. It might be pushing it to call these stores “harbingers”, but I don’t think it’s totally wild-eyed to take them as indicators of some sort, and possibly a major future wave in bringing indie books to the public. Much will depend on how these early pioneers work out.
Back To The Books opened this spring in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a tourist spot literally in the shadow of Pikes Peak. (A town, by the way, where I once lived and published a notorious underground newspaper.) Owner Jon Renaud came up with the idea of a bookstore selling only indie titles when the Borders failure left the area with no bookstores and his author friends had books on hand. The old model of bookstores was failing so he figured, why not try something different? He got a prime location and stocked it completely on consignment. And is doing better than would be expected, covering the rent and an employee’s salary.
The much-covered wild fires in the area hit him with a huge setback, chasing tourists off and forcing store closure during what should have been his prime season, but he continues optimistic…and committed. He’s finding that people like indie books and have zero reservations about “provenance” if they find something like enjoy. Jon also started an online outlet for Back To The Books, where authors get a much better percentage than they do off amazon.com. All in all, it’s a tiny flag for indie authors, but it’s flapping bravely, despite adversity…and growing. His signings have been very successful and one of my books sold out in two weeks. One major thing Jon has to say is what many of us suspected all along: customers don’t care who the publisher is. They browse the books and buy the ones that look good to them. Which is all that we indies ask.
If you like the idea of having your books in a store where they are appreciated, contact Jon. You might want to wait until the fires are out and business is back to as usual. If you live in the area, this one’s a no-brainer for signings.
Well, one might say, that’s just one tiny bookstore tucked away in the foothills. But there’s another “only indies” store online, (called OnlyIndie.com, as a matter of fact) and it’s being widely watched by the industry already, though it’s brand new and showing a relative handful of titles–all ebooks and, of course, by self and independently published authors. The main reason for the publicity and interest in OnlyIndie is less the content of their books than their new, innovative financial model. All their ebooks are free…to start with. They have an escalating formula that moves books up to higher prices according to their sales. If your book moves fifteen copies, it starts costing more, ratcheting up a penny per sale to a ceiling of $7.98. To keep a book from being priced up to its “level of incompetence”, prices lower if the book stops moving.
This dynamic pricing is not only unique, it answers a lot of the decisions involved in pricing indie titles because it’s automatic. At all levels of sale the royalty percentage is more than what amazon pays–and it’s non-exclusive. It’s been suggested that writers try this on the side to see how it works. One obvious application would be to use it to give away samples to reviewers: give away enough, and the price will start rising a penny at a time.
Like most radical innovations, there is no way of knowing whether this will work or not except to wait and see. Could be a master stroke, defying conventional wisdom (like Bezos starting amazon and FaceBook challenging MySpace) or it might never reach the “critical mass” that turns it into a profitable concern and boon for indie writers–and spawns imitators. We’ve all seen dozens of “my new site lets indie authors sell their book” sites that are incompetent, useless, scams, or just didn’t work out. But we’ve also seen sites succeed, and this one has some useful new thinking going for it. Even if Only Indies never hits the “critical mass” that tips them into a going concern, one thing is for sure: they’ve made a statement about indie work and the idea that it’s worth paying attention to and purchasing.
Which brings me to a point I’ve been pondering for awhile. Much of the success of such a project depends heavily on a fairly quick expansion of titles. I mentioned to Karol Gajda, co-owner of Only Indie, that their catalog at the moment tends to reinforce the stereotype of indie writing: weak titles with less-than-impressive covers. She admits that they are growing slowly, through the time-intensive method of inviting people they know or have heard of. She contrasts this to the absurdity of big publishers’ ebook pricing. “Big publishers need to take a look at what happened to the music industry. Treat people well now. Build a rabid fan base now. Instead, they’re treating readers like trash and instilling in us a sense of hatred instead of love. It might work short term, but it’s a fool’s game long term. That’s a long way of saying I think the market should decide the price of an eBook. With our store, the power is in the hands of the reader. Not me or a publisher or author. The reader. The people who technically pay the bills for publishers and authors. The way it should be.”
Once the “snowball” effect is realized, it becomes obvious that an influx of good work to a site like this would start to move it towards acceptance, and therefore more authors… and therefore more sales, and thus higher earnings. I have thought for some time, consistent with my feeling that indie writers need to gang up to get further, that if a large enough group of writers would use a “store” en masse, it could push it towards a tipping point. I’m not endorsing Only Indie as the place to start, because we really don’t know much about them yet, but they might be the best chance at creating a secondary market where indies rule.
There’s their dazzling commitment to the indie sector, of course, but also consider that they’ve come up with a truly innovative price model while the “big boys” are floundering around trying to figure out what ebooks should cost. And the idea that the cost should be decided by audience demand is very much in the indie spirit. If nothing else it could be a good place to offer books for free, perhaps to offer free books to reviewers.
Costs nothing to get involved, non-exclusive (though would be ruled out for books on Amazon Select, of course) opt out at any time… the right idea all around. A resource to consider, I’d say.
But even those who decide it’s best to keep all their eggs in the same basket can take Only Indies as a shining example: an online bookstore aiming to get big through presenting only books by indie authors.
But whatever the future of Only Indie, or Jon’s Back To The Books, they have both made a statement: that indie books are a viable concern and that there are retailers who are willing to put their money and dreams behind them.