This is my backpack. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Actually, that’s not true at all. There may be a few of these treasured promotional backpacks left in the world—perhaps stashed in the corner of an old storeroom or in the closet of a customer lucky enough to win a display raffle.
The publishing industry has all but given up on this kind of old-school bricks-and-mortar marketing. They’ve traded the artful in-store display for the flashing banners of the interweb, effectively removing some of the fun and humanity from bookselling. And in doing so, they have lost their connection to the reader.
Booksellers and publishers were once great friends, as necessary to literature as peanut butter and jelly are to elementary school lunch. Now, as an industry wakes up in the 21st century and realizes that eBooks just might be worth investigating, “most publishers see us—the independent stores—as no more than 5% of their sales and therefore not worth their advertising dollars” wrote Thom Chambliss, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, in a recent e-mail to its shrinking membership.
Where, once, two committed groups worked together to drive retail sales for mutual benefit, struggling publishers and booksellers now stand at odds in the face of a market that is changing at the speed of electronic data, changing for the first time since oral tradition gave way to Guttenberg’s printing press. For those of you with a mind for dates, that’s close to 6 centuries of format stability.
I’m a librarian now, loaning books instead of selling them, but still in the trenches of the new war of the words. Be they printed on repurposed trees or floating as 1’s and 0’s in the clouds, words are still being organized just-so by creative minds,
still positing ideas and stating fact or fiction. Tell someone you sell books or work in a library, and the first question they’ll ask will have something to do with eBooks. My answer has evolved over the years in style, though not in substance. Ebooks will continue to grow in popularity, but the printed book will never go away, will never become a curio or sideline in the world of words. Each of us will find a balance between what we will read electronically and what we will devour on page. I’d be willing to bet this balance is directly related to age and to socioeconomic status, as fluid and subject to change as the industry itself.
My A Walk in the Woods backpack is 13 years old. Older than the first ISBN ever assigned to an electronic book. Older than each of my kids, who have taken it in turn to wear to school, to camp and to soccer practice. It’s not quite as old as the wooden handled spatula that came in the Diane Mott Davidson The Grilling Season gift basket, but it’s significantly less scorched.
These days, booksellers are lucky to receive a handful of bookmarks to promote a title, much less quality display material or promotional backpacks that cleverly reflect a book thematically.
In order to stay relevant, economically healthy, and proactive rather than reactive, it’s time for booksellers and publishers to work together again to promote the book in all formats. The chains are folding, but the independents that are left have strength in them. Strength in the form of people who choose a career that will never make them wealthy. Strength in the form of retailers who consume their own product because words are a drug to them. Strength in the form of individuals who have watched publishing evolve and can apply the lessons of the past to an uncertain future.
If there is similar strength in the publishing houses, they are well advised to reach out and reconnect with the booksellers and librarians who have introduced them to readers for centuries. For books to sell, regardless of format, writers need publishers and publishers need readers. Technology is here to stay, but so is the reader, and he’s been here a fair sight longer.
Colin Rea is the Director of the Fern Ridge Library District in Veneta, Oregon. A former bookseller and PNBA Board member, he may be the only Oregonian to dislike the Grateful Dead. His favorite foods are scotch and sandwiches.