Well, looks like it’s time for a new case in the Authors Acting in Bad Form file.
This case starts innocently enough, with Sherman Alexie making the suggestion that authors become indie booksellers for a day this year on Saturday, November 30th, also known as Small Business Saturday. Here’s his plea, in typical it-is-practically-impossible-to-hate-me Alexie form:
Hello, hello, you gorgeous book nerds,
Now is the time to be a superhero for independent bookstores. I want all of us (you and you and especially you) to spend an amazing day hand-selling books at your local independent bookstore on Small Business Saturday (that’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 30 this year, so you know it’s a huge weekend for everyone who, you know, wants to make a living).
Here’s the plan: We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends’ books. Maybe you’ll sign and sell books of your own in the process. I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing).
I was a bookseller-for-a-day at Seattle’s Queen Anne Book Company when it reopened this past April. Janis Segress, one of the new co-owners, came up with this brilliant idea. What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own? Why not give it a try? Let’s call it Indies First.
Grassroots is my favorite kind of movement, and anyway there’s not a lot of work involved in this one. Just pick a bookstore, talk to the owner (or answer the phone when they call you) and reach an agreement about how to spend your time that day. You’d also need to agree to place that store’s buy button in a prominent place on your website, above the Amazon button if you have one. After all, this is Indies First, not Indies Only, and it’s designed to include Indies in our world but not to exclude anyone else.
This is a great way to fight for independents—one that will actually help them. It’ll help you as well; the Indies I’ve talked to have told me that last year Small Business Saturday was one of their biggest days of the year, in some cases the biggest after the Saturday before Christmas—and that means your books will get a huge boost, wherever you choose to be.
The most important thing is that we’ll all be helping Independent bookstores, and God knows they’ve helped us over the years. So join the Indie First Movement and help your favorite independent bookstore. Help all indie bookstores. Reach out to them and join the movement. Indies First!
Yours in Independence,
Sherman Alexie, An Absolutely True Part-Time Indie
There are so many things about this that I like. I can’t really find one bad thing about it. But someone did! Here was author Brendan Halpin’s response, published on his website and Goodreads:
Dear Sherman Alexie:
I saw your call for authors to spend November 30 handselling books at our local independent bookstores.
I checked the date and was surprised it was September first and not April first because are you f*cking kidding me?
News flash: Most of us actually can’t support ourselves writing full time. I, for example, teach all week and then try, between taking kids to soccer and grocery shopping and trying to keep the house from falling down, to write on the weekends.
So you’re asking me to give up the only time I get to write in order to work in a bookstore. Well, I guess I’ll consider it. How much does this gig pay?
Because I don’t work for free. Writers shouldn’t work for free and neither should anybody else. It’s disrespectful of your time and expertise to even be asked to work for free. I mean, sure, you can volunteer for a worthy cause, and such organizations are registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Or if you want to do something bookish, go volunteer at your local library, which is actually a public institution operated for the benefit of the community. A local bookstore, on the other hand, is a for-profit enterprise, and unless they are paying me, they’re not getting any of my labor.
Otherwise, I’m spending my day working to make money for someone else. And that makes me a chump.
So, no, I’m not skipping a writing day in order to donate my labor to a local business. And neither should anybody else. What a weird, out of touch, implicitly classist, and insulting thing to ask.
Wowzers. Okay. At first I just thought this guy was a jerk, but the more I think about it, maybe he’s simply a bad businessman.
What I like about Alexie’s proposal is how much of a win-win for everyone it is. It’s a win for indie bookstores, obviously, and it’s an enormous win for readers. But it’s also a win for authors. Yes, the bookstore isn’t paying you to be there, but by your being there, people will most likely buy more of your books. It’s publicity. And since Thanksgiving weekend can literally make or break a small business, this Indies First day may literally make it possible for whatever indie bookstore it is to survive for another year, during which they will probably sell more of your books. Yeah, bookstores are for-profit institutions: they make money by selling your books.
And sure, this would probably draw in bigger audiences for bigger authors, and hence might not be as cost-efficient for smaller authors. But there’s also something to be said, as part of your publicity scheme, to just seem like a good person who cares about community, readers, and booksellers. Even for just one day out of the entire year. Say I didn’t know who Alexie was, and I walked into a bookstore, and saw that there was an author just walking around, conversing with readers, giving recommendations, seeming generally invested in both his customers and his community as a whole. I would think, hey, that’s pretty cool. That bloke seems like a pretty decent fella. I should probably check out what he’s written.
I understand that authors are asked to do things for free all the time, which is both annoying and offensive, and they shouldn’t be. I understand that it probably seems particularly annoying when a successful author is the very one who suggests it. But he’s not necessarily just asking for your charity, he’s suggesting a good business idea. No one is asking you to WRITE something for free, or to give a reading or a talk for free, or other things that are part of your craft and should always, always be compensated. This is part of the other symbiotic process of being an author–taking some time to support the hands that help feed you. Maybe there are intricacies of being an author that I don’t understand, but putting such a huge line between libraries and booksellers, basically equating spending some extra time at an indie bookseller to, like, spending a day working for free for Bank of America, or something, it just makes you look pretty jerky. And like someone whose books I don’t necessarily want to read.
But I know life is busy. That maybe you wouldn’t be able to participate in this Indies First campaign. So why not just say, “Yeah, that sounds swell, Alexie, but I won’t be able to swing it,” and move on? I mean, it probably took you some time to write that really angry letter. And I bet you no one paid you to write it. Sounds like a pretty bad gig.
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