By Ashley Gordon
I live in Fairhope, Alabama, heart of the Deep South and stronghold of the so-called Red States. Way in October prior to the election, I posted Edward Nawotka’s article “Like Romney, Does Publishing Ignore Half of America?” on my Facebook page. His position is that, like politics, publishing ignores big swaths of the country, essentially writing off half of the potential population of readers. It generated lively discussion among my friends about both politics and publishing.
My answer to the question Edward posited was a resounding “yes.” I do believe publishing ignores half of the country. But the ignored half I’m worried about has little to do with geography, nothing to do with politics, and a lot to do with discretionary spending. It is a constituency publishers have never quite known how to embrace or encourage: the roughly 47% of the public who aren’t routine book buyers.
According to a recent Bowker survey, only about half of the U.S. population admits to buying at least one book a year. Power buyers — readers identified as buying four or more books a month — make up a little more than half of this one-half, or roughly 27%. This is the market segment on which publishers focus their sales efforts, competing amongst each other for the limited entertainment dollars of a chosen few.
My twin obsessions are politics and literacy outreach. By the election, I’d been listening for weeks to pundits and voters plead with Obama and Romney to offer up big ideas, to quit playing small ball, and I’d also been struggling with how to get more people in Alabama excited about books. So when I read Edward’s article, l wondered if the two might be connected. What if, to use a football analogy since that’s what we know best in Alabama, what if publishing “went long?”
What if we put our efforts toward increasing that roughly 53% number to 65%? Or that 27% to 40%? Not just sell more books to the known power buyers, but make new ones. In our Southern vernacular, what if we not only did our preaching to the choir, but what if we spoke directly to the congregation, and even more liberally-minded opened the doors to the literary heathens outside the church?
The fundamentals to go long are in place, at least down here.
The American South is a Literary Landscape
In the Red State South, we have the talent. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a New-York-published writer in Fairhope. Just across Mobile Bay, the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, Jesmyn Ward, teaches creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Over in Magnolia Springs they love to share with visitors that Fannie Flagg is a resident. And in a recent conversation, Rick Bragg and I discovered we’d rented the same house on Gaston Avenue, the Pink House, as it’s known around town. That’s just a few of the many writers from L.A. (lower Alabama), not to mention the rest of the region. The list of writers that hail from Southern states is long. The love of words is in our blood.
Despite outward appearances to the contrary, the Red States down south have the venues. Edward pointed out the oft overlooked, Birmingham-based chain Books-a-Million. But the South boasts some of the strongest, most influential independent bookstores in the country. That Bookstore in Blytheville, Square Books in Oxford, Montgomery’s Capitol Book, and my local, Page & Palette, have launched careers of the likes of John Grisham and Ace Atkins. They are hubs of their communities and work hard to appeal to a variety of audiences. The very day I read that article, my two boys and I walked to our indie store to meet Workman author Chris Alexander and learn Star Wars origami with lots of other kids, big and small.
In addition to bookstores, every Saturday in the spring and fall sees another book festival kick-off across the South. From the granddaddy of them all, the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, to growing upstarts like the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, and in every state in between, these events bring in thousands of people to revel in the excitement of books. In some ways they are the Red States’ annual, two-day equivalent of the highly populated literary centers of the East and West Coasts, where authors can meet hundreds of fans and sell boxes of books in a single stop. Add to this numerous outreach efforts, from creative writing programs in prisons to one of the highest concentrations of World Book Night volunteers, and a network of libraries that are vital to their underserved populations. All together these venues provide a myriad of ways that publishers can connect to the party faithful and the uncommitted reader.
What Can We Do to Engender New Readers?
But for publishers, what would “going long” look like?
Coordinate with indies more, not just the big ones, but try talking to several at once so they can combine their efforts. Send more than one author for a single event to generate bigger crowds. Schedule author visits around non-book events: An author could light the Christmas tree in the town square, throw out the first pitch of the high school baseball tournament, and serve as honorary Master of Ceremonies for the Peach Festival. Put book festivals on the permanent marketing calendar, send big-name authors annually, stay in touch with festival organizers year round to help build anticipation. Strengthen connections to outreach groups outside of the New York area. Step in after natural disasters, like Katrina, which devastated the entire Gulf Coast, and the deadly tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, leaving homes, schools, and libraries in pieces. Reach out beyond the buyers you can count on to show up for every service. Do some evangelizing in the field.
From the perspective of the Blue States, living in Alabama might look bleak. But I believe that I’m living on fertile ground. Nobody loves a good story more than a Southerner. I’d argue we have some of the best story tellers around. We have a vibrant, energetic team of people working to get those stories told. But best of all, we have an unharvested, bumper crop of listeners, folks just waiting to be turned on to the true love of books.
Working together, I think those of us who have cast our lot with the readers can convert those outside the literary church to our way of thinking. If we don’t, we run the risk of suffering the same fate as the right-leaning conservatives did last week, standing under an ever-narrowing tent, contemplating our own irrelevance.
Ashley Gordon is founder of Mockingbird Cause Publishing, board member of the Alabama Book Festival, and co-host of Reading for the Rest of Us, a grassroots book talk show produced by Troy University.