I need to begin this post with a confession.
I initially sat down to write this piece with a largely uninformed perspective. I had planned to write a long diatribe outlining the shortcomings in the operation of Barnes and Noble (the bookseller) when contrasted against the groundbreaking agreement between the publisher Simon and Schuster and the New York Times Bestseller John Locke. However, before I had progressed through a few hundred words I found myself reassessing what I thought I knew.
I saw Barnes and Noble as a stodgy, old school corporation, lacking in new ideas. I saw the things that I disagreed with in their business practices and decided I had a large enough sample to form a well informed opinion.
I was wrong, and I am man enough to admit it.
While there are still things I wished they did better (or differently), I had something brought to my attention that I was ignorant of at the time.
I was prepared to hold my nook e-reader (produced and facilitated by Barnes and Noble) in one hand and use the other to carve their obituary into the wall. I was soon given a crucial piece of evidence that forced me to put the carving knife down.
I like to think that I am a fairly pragmatic person. Like perhaps many of you, I collect all of the information I can, then form what I like to believe is a well thought out opinion. There are always additional facts to be gathered, but I like to believe that I have located the high points. Once I make a decision, I like to feel that I came by it rightly, and defend it jealously.
The problem arises when I fail to gather all of the pertinent facts, and start to deal with a deck that is short a few important cards. It happens. I am human. I do, however, try to own up to my mistakes when they happen.
So it was tonight as I put hands to keyboard to write this entry. What follows is a much more educated version than I started out with, and if I am being honest, a much improved one.
Who do I have to thank for my sudden insight?
None other than the aforementioned New York Times bestseller John Locke.
A few days ago I had seen his name pop up on Facebook, and decided to send him a request. I have followed his work for some time, as likely have many aspiring authors. Once I realized that writing was not just a flash in the pan for me, but rather something that I planned to do for the rest of my life regardless of success, I sought to learn from those doing it right to learn what I could.
I soon stumbled across John Locke. He was already well on his way to one million books sold, but what struck me was how he treated his fans. Where authors tend to take a step back from their readership rather than engage them directly, John regularly interacted with them. My experience had been with Stephen King (even were I not a fan of his writing, growing up in Central Maine and playing High School basketball against his son ensured that I knew everything there was to know about him), JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and other writers that are so well insulated from their fans that you learn more about them in magazines and the Forewords of their novels than you do directly.
To see John personally answering individual forum posts on his Amazon author page showed me that there is more than one way to go about things.
Up until that time, my main goal had been to share my stories with as many people as possible.
I shortly added another-To attempt to treat whatever meager fanbase my talent would afford me with at least half as much humility and grace as John does.
I really can't express how much of an inspiration John has been to my writing. He and Amanda Hocking have shown a legion of would-be authors that the pillars of publishing are evolving, and if you have the talent and drive to put in the time and effort to produce truly memorable work, that self-publishing can be a viable option to reach your goals.
And that brings me to the first of my two topics for today-The distribution deal that John recently put into motion with Simon and Schuster.
Traditional publishing has received a bad rap lately, some of it deserved, some of it thrust upon them by frustrated authors that see their eroding clout in the business as a just comeuppance for years of king-making condescension. If these self-published authors are truly honest however, while they enjoy the freedom and autonomy that self-publishing affords them most would enjoy working with a traditional publisher. A book deal still carries with it a sense of pride, a validation that must be painstakingly cultivated in the self-publishing world.
It seems, for all of the vitriol directed at traditional publishers, the unspoken hope was that at some point the traditional publishers and self-publishing community would somehow find a common ground. Speaking with my new found friends in the writing community, the two were considered to mix as well as oil and water. The general opinion on traditional publishers was that they are at risk of being left behind by rapidly improving self-publishing options. They have been accused of being slow to react to the evolving marketplace of ebooks and set in their ways when it comes to new ideas of how best to make best use of these new storytelling tools.
When John's deal was announced, many defenders of self-publishing took it as a slap in the face. They accused him of selling out, of abandoning the self-publishing movement just as it had started to get a foothold in the marketplace. This is when John's commitment to his fans allowed him to set the record straight in record time. He explained that the deal was in fact a new kind of arrangement, and then more I read about it the more I like it.
Under the terms of the agreement, John retains the rights to his stories, and Simon and Schuster are given exclusive distribution rights for the print editions. The electronic editions are still to be sold in the same manner as always through self-publishing channels. Like many great ideas come before it, it is so startling in it's simplicity that it's amazing no one has done it before.
The lack of precedent is a big part of why it was misunderstood by so many in the writing community at first. Generally, when someone begins working with a large publisher, their self-published work ends and they become just another traditionally published author, losing much of the creative control they enjoyed before they made it to the “big time”.
John's deal is more like an independently shot film being picked up by a studio during the film festival circuit for distribution in theatres, such as Paranormal Activity, and I think it's brilliant. It effectively, to borrow John's own words, “bridges the gap” between the two sides.
When I read about this, it was shortly after I had read a piece outlining Barnes and Nobles decision to not carry print books published under Amazon's Encore press. Amazon has created it's own publishing house to explore another distribution option for upcoming and established authors.
I remember thinking at the time that, while perhaps understandable, their decision to block these books from sale in their stores sounded a little petulant. I had this image in my head of a child taking their ball and running home after they were picked last. At the time, nothing I had read gave me reason to think otherwise, but I should have known better.
As I am in a confessional mood as I write this, I must also confide that I allowed my frustration boil over. Being a big Barnes and Noble fan, I felt like grabbing my monitor and shaking it to plead “Get in the game! Amazon is eating your lunch, and if you want to compete you need to start coming up with some new ideas!”
I immediately started thinking about how I would run the company, assuming that even I could do a better job. I did not see innovation, I did not see where they were trying to make any new inroads in the marketplace. All I heard was the typical doom and gloom of store closures and eroding marketshare.
After I had sufficiently worked myself up into a lather, I set about voicing my concerns. I collected my ideas and posted my intention to call out Barnes and Noble, and to use John Locke's new distribution deal as ammunition with which to do it.
If you know now what I didn't know then, you are already basking in the sweet glow of irony. Go ahead, have a hearty laugh at my expense, I've earned it by letting my youthful exuberance and passion for the subject cloud my judgment.
If you don't know why many of those now reading this are enjoying free amusement at my expense, let me bring you up to speed.
John Locke's new distribution deal that I've been getting so excited about? Barnes and Noble has embraced it, with open arms. It has given John's books Wish List it's full attention, providing preferred end-cap space to display it prominently. In a way, posting my intention to criticize Barnes and Noble worked in my favor. Sure, I was embarrassed semi-publicly (hey, I do have 561 Facebook friends, lol), but that's not something I don't do to myself on a regular basis. I don't take myself too seriously, but if you follow this blog at all you already know that.
How it worked in my favor was this-as I was writing, the Facebook notification chime alerted me to activity on my account. I picked up my cell phone, and didn't expect to see what I found there. It was a notification that John Locke had commented on my status.
Again, if you follow my ramblings at all you already know that I consider the term “geek” to be a badge of honor. Needless to say I was “geeking” out over the thought that John had personally responded to my post regarding the upcoming blog entry. I at once thought it would have something to do with his distribution deal, but it was actually about that AND in defense of Barnes and Noble. That's right, John Locke himself took the time to make sure I had my facts straight, and I am incredibly glad he did. John, if you happen across this humble apology, I owe you one. I would have felt like an even bigger ass than I already do if I would have posted the malformed opinion that I had started with. In my little corner of the internet, probably the best I can do is tell everyone what many of them probably already know, that you are a great writer and if they get the chance they definitely should check out your writing.
To make it a little easier for them, I've taken the liberty of including a link to purchase your latest book “Wish List” (from Barnes and Noble, of course ;-) HERE.
Having said all that, I did come up with some potentially useful ideas that I feel compelled to pass on to Barnes and Noble in the hope that they reach their ears via the magic of the internet. While these ideas always came from the heart, I feel much more at ease now knowing that they are already exploring new ideas and partnerships.
Dear Barnes and Noble, (bear with me, I envisioned this as an open letter. Let me roll with it)
To begin, I would encourage you to utilize their brick and mortar stores even further. Again, the general consensus is that you are allowing them to wither on the vine, and while I know that isn't necessarily true, I did come up with a couple of ideas that you could consider implementing.
Through your pubit.com self-publishing portal, seek out the top echelon of self-published authors in your stable. Much has been made of KDP Select, and while you could stop at simply copying Amazons business model of expanding the free lending program with a subscription based model and free promotional days, I think you are uniquely positioned to offer more.
Leverage your physical retail presence and coordinate weekly “Pubit Author Book Signing Days”, or something with a much catchier title. How would you accomplish this, in an age of near-ubiquitous nook ownership? Commission a software update that adds in the functionality for the author to digitally “sign” their ebook directly on the nook color/tablet's screen with a capacitive stylus. Not only is this much more personal than a Kindlegram, it also encourages those without a nook color or tablet to upgrade and draws people into your retail stores for the events.
It could even be done with traditionally published authors as well, and those customers that have yet to upgrade could opt to either purchase printed editions of the book to sign or purchase book plates bearing the book cover (printed on site for the event) for a nominal fee to cover the printing expense. The enthusiasm of the self-published author will be the best free advertising that you could ever imagine, and will show up in every picture of them with one of their favorite authors posted to their wall (GPS-tagging will show where ti was taken, too).
The idea is to encourage the sense of community that seems to be fading with each fresh wave of store closings. A bookstore isn't a Walmart, it's a place to go where you know you are going to be surrounded by people who share your interest in reading. In an age of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, that is something to be cherished. It's something that Amazon and Walmart can't offer, but you can.
I also believe that you will eventually be pushed to expand their Pubit line to include print offerings ala Createspace. It's a natural progression of the distribution channel, and it's omission will only become more obvious with each passing day. Perhaps there are already plans in motion to bring this about, if so I congratulate you.
You are perhaps the last place where this sense of community lives on in a large enough dose to matter. Small bookstores are closing, Borders has folded, and Books a Million has as much in common with Best Buy as it does with you.
Do not try to merely copy every move Amazon makes. They are too good at what they do, and as much as I love you guys, you will eventually lose. You need to concentrate on what you can offer that they cannot, and make sure that the services that parallel their offerings are of equal quality.
It will take time, but I know you can slowly chip away at their current dominance.
Aspiring author and optimistic B&N fan.