My magazine article about bookstores

The November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine has published an article of mine, called “Consider the Elephant: Nine Ways to Feel a Bookstore”:

When you don’t know any better, there’s nothing to stop you. This is why, last fall, two friends and I decided to start a publishing company. Now, with twenty-five thousand copies of our first book in print, a five-figure unpaid invoice from the late Borders, Inc., and an incessant, restless anxiety — all things I didn’t have twelve months ago — I have tried to wrap my mind around that elephant in the room for anyone who thinks they can put out a book: the bookstore.

Everybody has an opinion on this topic. Financial analysts and book-industry insiders wring their hands as e-books threaten to outpace physical volumes in readers’ hearts and shopping carts, authors increasingly wonder what those stores are doing for them that they can’t do for themselves with a website, and the people who work every day between towering stacks of Penguin Classics and get-rich-quick hardcovers wonder if they’ll have jobs by this time next year. The bookstore is one of those elephants that the blind men take turns feeling in the old parable…

The book I’m referring to, of course, is Machine of Death, and in the article, I explain not only what we did to make MOD successful (a tale you know well), but what happened afterward, the strange lessons we have learned in the past year about the bookstore industry, and why there are no easy answers to the question of “what is the best way to sell a book these days?”

I’m pleased that a publishing-industry magazine chose to publish what is really a bit of an iconoclastic view, although it ends up rather optimistic, I think. The editor who worked with me on this story also told me that this is the longest article that P&W has ever published, which I will take as an insane compliment. “We got to make room for this thing, it’s gold!”

The article is not online, so may I suggest you check out the paper magazine in a…bookstore? (It’s really quite a good magazine, if you’re interested in writing.)

8 thoughts on “My magazine article about bookstores”

  1. I’d love to purchase the magazine to read your article were it available anywhere near where I live (Brazil), but alas it isn’t, and international freight is very, very expensive. In fact, this is the main reason I use a Kindle: nothing against printed books, no — it’s just a way to avoid paying gigantic shipping costs.

    So, please consider adding this article to your website in a few months, when the magazine isn’t on the shelves anymore. Or even, if you’re so inclined, making it available as a paid download, perhaps a Kindle single and/or at O’Reilly (they have quite a few on publishing, e-publishing, and publishing vs. e-publishing, so it’d fit nicely) and other ebook stores.


    DM: I’d love to make it available online, except that the magazine has the exclusive online rights (which they are choosing not to exercise at this time). If/when this changes or expires, I’ll jump on the opportunity.

  2. Aye, the money is why I won’t be getting this magazine and also the reason I’m looking to get a Kindle. Not only are the books cheaper on an eReader (classics which I read a lot of especially so) but they don’t require me to buy a new bookcase (current one stuffed to the gills) that wouldn’t fit in my tiny flat in any case.

    There is certainly a warm place in my heart for the old bookstore, they were one of my favourite places as a child but I can’t feel bad about making choices that are appropriate for my economic and living conditions.

  3. as an aspiring writer and possible self-publisher, i’d be very interested in reading this article. alas, i too am living overseas (china) and won’t be able to purchase it. any resources you recommend (or advice you’d like to offer) about going the independent publishing route?

  4. For those interested in reading it ‘online’, Poets and Writers Magazine has a Kindle edition, which looks to cost only $1.25/month, but unfortunately is only available in the US.

    It doesn’t look like the latest issue is listed yet, though.

  5. I can’t help but be struck by the irony of how many people (myself included) cannot read your article on the future of publishing because its publisher is stuck in the past. This notion of artificially restricting supply by geographic region, especially on electronic copies, is going to be looked back on with utter bemusement in a few decades time (hopefully not even that long). “You…deliberately *didn’t* make it available outside the US?” will be asked in the same tone as “You…tried to cure it with *leeches*?”.

    Of course, I’m not blaming you for this, Malki! – you have to make money somehow and selling the rights to articles is a perfectly reasonable way to do that. It’s just a shame that the side-effect is that many of us miss out on being able to enjoy your work.

    DM: Yeah, I agree with you!

  6. let me the next person to say: I would love to read your article, but because I live in China, I won’t be able to. I will look forward to reading it when/if it becomes available online! Keep up the hard work!

  7. I’d be rather sad, not to mention quite inconvenienced if the bookstore goes the way of the dodo. Being able to physically check inside is a lot easier and more reliable than on amazon, as is discovering something you may otherwise never have seen. Plus it is definitely a go-to place for last minute, easily wrapped (and easily posted!) gifts.

    Borders, I only ever went into the once or twice, as there was only one outlet in my city and it wasn’t convenient for me to reach (despite being in our largest shopping mall). A couple of smaller, more local rivals seem to be hanging on, just about. Their national, better established main competitor seems to be thriving in comparison, but largely because books have only ever been one part of their business plan, and they remain flexible. Cards, wrapping paper, art supplies, school materials, dvds, magazines, confectionary all surround and back up the heaving shelves that consume half the store space.

    I got my grandparents’ and my father’s christmas presents in there, plus some cards and wrap. By the time I had any inkling of that the former may have wanted, it was too late to have something ordered from an online supplier and then re-sent, and I can’t exactly slip in a card with some photos and other little trinkets into a packet gift-wrapped by amazon and sent to them direct.

    Yes I know supermarkets also do books, and a touch cheaper most often. They rarely carry anything I’m interested in, though…

  8. David,

    I’m definitely going to go to a real bookstore to get a copy of this magazine and read your (long) article. I recently went back to my home town of Greenville MS to visit the oldest independently owned bookstore in Mississippi before it closed its doors on Nov. 30th. I had much to do in shaping my current profession as a writer. Not sure that eBooks would have done the same (though I have a Kindle myself).

    I’m fascinated to discover what you found about working with bookstores in this modern economy. Thanks for writing the article!

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