The Secret to Saving Indie Bookstores? Indie Presses!

by Josh Schlossberg

Independent bookstores—used ones, in particular—are among my favorite human-made spaces. I love strolling between the shelves, inhaling that old book smell, discovering new stories I can let into my head. This is exactly how I’ve found quite a few authors I’d never heard of before, some of whom became my new favorites.  

Unfortunately, most indie bookstores have long since bit the dust, with the last of them barely hanging on for dear life. But what if there was a way to save them?

As an author published by several independent small presses and publisher of three anthologies through Denver Horror Collective, I know a little bit about getting books into stores. While I’m very grateful to every bookstore that stocks my work, what I’ve learned is that 99% of the books on shelves come from only four publishing houses (aka “the Big Four”).

To be clear, I love many of those books, and of course bookstores should stock them to keep your average reader happy and generate sales. Now, if bookstores were making good money focusing almost entirely on the Big Four, a lot more of them would still be open. But despite giving those titles the run of the place, even the last of the brick-and-mortars are dropping like flies.  

What if—just what if—that’s WHY bookstores are failing? Think about it: Stores are asking readers to get in their cars, navigate crosstown traffic, find parking, and dodge COVID only to pay higher prices for the exact same mainstream titles that Amazon and Kindle are already shoving down their throats from the comfort of their homes.

But what if bookstores offered something Amazon could not? Like curated sections at the front of the store featuring independent small presses and local authors, chock full of quality titles unavailable in most (any?) other bookstores across the country? In other words, what if your every visit to a local bookstore was a unique experience that introduced you to a hand-picked collection of incredible authors you’d probably not find otherwise?

I believe this could be a major untapped income source for bookstores since the vast majority of small presses sell entirely online, largely due to the difficulty of getting their books in stores (not to mention a way to save countless struggling small presses, which is where nearly every author gets their start).

What kind of difficulties getting books into stores, you ask? Allow me to share some real-life examples with some local bookstores I actually took the time to develop relationships with…

Denver Horror Collective’s award-winning 2019 anthology, TERROR AT 5280’, features 22 Colorado horror authors—including Stephen Graham Jones and Carter Wilson—telling dark tales taking place within the Centennial State.

In the months after the book came out in late 2019, we held two events at a couple of local bookstores, both of which attracted standing room only crowds (one staff member said it was the most people she’d ever seen there), and our sales from one of those nights alone got us on the Denver Post bestseller list.

Yet despite these phenomenal sales, after the event both of these stores hid the book away into obscurity somewhere in back, and I’m not even sure if we’ve sold any in either store since. What’s more, neither of them chose to carry our second anthology, CONSUMED: TALES INSPIRED BY THE WENDIGO–featuring Wrath James White, Owl Goingback, and Steve Rasnic Tem–and one of them still won’t return our occasional polite emails and phone calls.

Also in 2019, a third used bookstore agreed to stock several copies of TERROR AT 5280’ on consignment. Almost immediately, they sold all but one of the books, yet when I followed up a few weeks later to collect the money, they told me they still had one copy left—because they had moved it to another spot. Almost three years later, they STILL haven’t sold that last copy, and therefore haven’t paid us a penny.

More recently, after contacting a fourth bookstore, they told me they were happy to feature my novella, MALINAE, near the front of the store…for a fee.

Well, Josh, maybe people don’t want to buy your books because they suck?! Ever think of that?!

Rude. But I have thought of that. And if it’s true, then how come a fifth bookstore stocking TERROR AT 5280’ (paying us up front, no less) kept selling out faster than we could bring them in? And this store is now carrying many copies of all our anthologies (including orders for the forthcoming THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR)? Out of charity? No, because the damn things sell…when people can actually find them.

So, yes, I believe independent presses might be the best chance independent bookstores have to stay afloat.

But you know who can guarantee success for both indie presses and bookstores? Independent readers like yourself, who seek out the books and authors you want to read, not just the ones the Big Four tell you to.

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