Number Steaksauce and other random collections of words

Hello ink splAt-ers,

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. After spending all day on the computer I’ve found that I don’t feel like going near one when I get home. “Suck it up. You’re supposed to keep us updated,” I can hear you say, and of course you’re right (though sort of rude). So I shall now update you on the wild and wonderful world of publishing, and my soon-to-be-completed internship.

First of all, I friggin’ love this job. Design, promotions, proofing, news releases, and web pages have filled my days and in addition to providing me with a stack of things to put in my portfolio, which is always a plus, it’s exactly what I hoped I would get to do.

The highlight of my second week was on Thursday, when I got to have lunch and drinks with three women from the industry, as well as my boss. Conversation ranged from copyright issues to “couples’ hotels” to the tragic closing of my store to themes for kids’ birthdays to e-books and what felt like 1001 other topics both expected and bizarre. They were enormously generous in sharing their opinions and advice for getting work in the publishing and arts community and by the end I was properly awed by them.

You know what else is nice? I get to talk about books All. The. Time.

But just like journalism, I feel as if I’m coming to publishing a couple of decades too late. If we’re talking about going paperless, there’s more hope for the continued survival of the book publishing industry than for print media, of course. Even though copyrights, royalties, and distribution of electronic format books are still issues that are being worked through the fact is that even the shaky model in place for e-books involves people actually paying for them. The same can’t be said for online news. Plus, though e-books are becoming more and more popular, they still account for only a miniscule portion of published books.

So maybe, if I started a career in book publishing, I could get used to the idea that some people prefer reading on a Kindle, as long as it allowed me to continue to make available books for sale. But over the last two weeks the real issue plaguing small publishers has become obvious. Independent bookstores are dying.

I can see you rolling your eyes. “Yes, Sarah. We know independent bookstores are dying,” you say. “Your store closed a few weeks ago and you made us read a series of extremely depressing ‘I’m out of a job and I’ve lost a reason to go on’ posts. We’re super familiar with the idea that independent bookstores going out of business = bad.”

But wait, dear ink splAters! I didn’t have the whole story. You see, McNally was (and still is I believe) Canada’s largest independent bookstore, and up until a few weeks ago, a fairy-tale success story that bibliophilic Winnipeggers were happy to brag about. Certainly I knew this, but honestly, I had never really thought about what it meant until I began this internship.

What it means is that my store was rare and different. Let’s break this down.

All bookstores are not created equal. Independents offer something that corporations can’t. I’m not saying this to be biased toward corporations. It makes complete sense that a larger a company gets, the more important it is to create specific, established business practices to have a certain level of continuity and service across each individual store, so customers are able to get a consistent, quality experience. What that means for the big-box book retailers in Canada is stock choices based on the interests of the greatest group of people, so ordering can be done all together across the company, instead of at individual stores, and that stock will be similar at each location. All of this seems reasonable to me. These store are profit-making businesses, as all good businesses are, and to operate with maximum efficiency this is how they are designed to run.

What that means for independent stores, which don’t have to operate under the “order stock that will please the greatest number of people across the country” stricture, is that they can specialize. Independents can cater to all the special-interest groups, put fringe publications on the shelves, order in dozens of copies of their favorite accidentally-stumbled-across novel by a complete unknown, have extensive Local Writers and Regional Interest sections, and have book launches and signings for new and little-known authors.

Small publishers, who tend to publish relative unknowns and be very specialized in the books they put out, rely on Independents to carry their books where larger corporations would not be able to, as it’s not as financially viable. McNally was fantastic, then. The best of both words to a small publisher: huge, nationwide(ish), and willing to carry and launch regional and specialized books.

It was kind of a revelation to me on my first day, when my boss and I were talking about Independents and she began to list all of the stores across Canada that had closed in the last five years. It gave me perspective. Suddenly, we weren’t the sign that the industry is in trouble, just the latest casualty in a slow slaughter.

“Yep,” my boss sighed. “It’s getting impossible to have a launch in a bookstore anymore.”

How’s that for depressing, eh?

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