On a complete whim, I picked up a copy of Dumbo Feather when I was in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. It's about the same size as Cabinet and was in the artsy section of the magazines. It's a quarterly, published in Australia and comprised primarily of interviews with five different, interesting people that no one has probably ever heard of. (Looking at their back issue list the only person I recognized was US author/artist Sabrina Ward Harrison.) In Issue #17 there is an aid worker turned film maker, artist, bookseller, midwife and cyclist/adventurer. There are also several one page pieces throughout the journal that ruminate on subjects that come up in the interviews or are excerpts of their subject's work. I found all of these interviews to be fascinating, really interesting reading and overall the whole package was very well put together and worth the price ($20 as it is an import but at 108 pages it's no slim little mag.) The one that really stuck with me though, no surprise, was Craig Walzer who along with some friends opened a bookstore in Greece.
Walzer's store was, it turns out, once named one of the best in the world. (Or so says one guy at The Guardian anyway.) Here is how Walzer's store, Atlantis Books was described in that piece:
This is a dream of a bookstore. Perched on the cliffs of this volcanic island in a postcard-worthy Greek villa, it's run by an international collective of artists, writers and activists. As well as organizing theatre and open-air cinema, they set up programs such as the 'book donkey', which brings books to the local schools.
From the Dumbo Feather article, Atlantis Books sounds alot like the famous (infamous) Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Jeanette Winterson just visited that establishment and wrote up a profile. Here's a bit of that which rang like a clarion call to me:
It will be depressing if the Mad Hatter "wisdom" of the "free" market manages to do in France what it has done in the UK - that is, close two-thirds of independent bookshops. Anyone can buy cheaply online if they wish, but consumer evidence in France is that people prefer small stores and patronise them enough to keep them open. If the market is allowed to distort this preference, no one wins but the anonymous bully-on-the-block bookstores with their bored assistants and bestsellers. Writers suffer terribly because big bookshops don't backlist any more. Browsing a writer's backlist is a thing of the past, except in independent stores committed to the idea of books, rather than just selling books.
Just the other day at Laini Taylor's blog in a post about the movie Twilight drawing new readers to the book (and thus other books), Laini mentioned rumors about how B&N is now looking (and accepting) mostly books like Twilight in their YA section. Here's a bit of Laini's post:
With the domino-like disappearance of independent bookstores, writers are increasingly dependent on chains to sell their books, and we are deeply, deeply grateful when they do. However, with one buyer for all the stores, and limited shelf space, there are books that get left out on a much larger scale than if an indie store here or there doesn't order it. There's no inherent evil at work: chains are certainly not out to stifle writers, but there's no getting around it: the death of independent book stores means: less choice for browsers.
But the reason any of this old news is relevant is that in this particular case, the rumored reason that B&N did not pick up this title was because they only want dark, edgy YA, a la Twilight. Eeeeek!
Lots of folks chime in through the comments that as sad as this is, it will change eventually as "Twilight fever" burns itself out and everyone must persevere and hold on and, well, the sun will come out tomorrow yadda yadda yadda.
I don't think so.
The big chains (there used to be two of them at least) have been doing this for a long time and it is not good. Winterson is right - you need backlists and you need diversity and you need, I don't know, to be thinking about someone other than the folks who are only interested in the latest big thing. Guess who is not part of the Twilight bandwagon? Boys! Lots and lots and lots of boys. (I know some of them are reading Twilight but don't kid yourself that they are even close to 50% of the readers.) Stephanie Meyer, God love her, has written the teen version of the Anita Blake series (sans most violence, sex and attitude of course). She has not reinvented the wheel, she's just selling it to a new audience. And this audience is largely female (both teen and older). So if you're a 16 year old guy who is not interested in a romance with a vampire named Edward what good books are you going to find front and center at your local B&N YA section? With titles you might enjoy that aren't about heavy breathing with the undead (like Destroy All Cars and Paper Towns) also sporting girl friendly covers then you might start to think that maybe nobody wants you in the YA section after all and go wandering off elsewhere trying to find something that speaks to. You might find it in the store somewhere, or you just might not. And you just might quit trying.
Why oh why do teenager boys read less than girls? It's a mystery isn't it?
Here's the truth, and it's not hard to figure out (they've been doing it at Shakespeare & Co forever). You can sell bestsellers and you can sell other books as well. Really. You don't have to just stock thousands of copies of one book and then hundreds of copycat titles alongside it in order to make a profit. (If this was true then all we would see is Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, Stephen King and The Da Vinci Code everywhere.) I worked at a successful indy bookstore, trust me, it's possible.
So what do you do about this if you want something more than what ONE PERSON AT B&N THINKS WE SHOULD ALL BE READING available? Simple. You buy from an independent bookstore. You order from them online (Hello Powells.com!) and you visit them and you buy stuff. If you want more choice then you bring your business to the folks who give you more choice. That's what they do in France and Greece and that is what we need to do here. Otherwise we will become a nation dictated to by one company's interests and one person's choices. And that, quite frankly, appalls me. Don't wait for B&N to decide to sell something else; go elsewhere and buy it.
I mean really - a single bookstore decides what books should be sold in the country? If that doesn't scare the intellectual freedom right out of you then I don't know what will.
[Irony of ironies: I bought Dumbo Feather at the B&N in the U District of Seattle. If they can carry something as out there as that, why the heck can't they line the shelves of the YA section with everything under the sun?? Go figure.]
[Also, I saw the article on Jay Asher's success in the NYT this weekend but that book did not surprise me. Anyone who remembers Lurlene McDaniels knows that a suicide book will sell well. (Although 13 Reasons Why is exceptionally well written.) Asher notwithstanding, there are still way more vamp/undead/dark romance books in the YA section then pretty much anything else.] [And finally, this book went largely viral due to a very unorthodox online campaign - something other authors need to be looking at.]