What Do Authors Owe to Indie Booksellers?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Sherman Alexie is encouraging authors to handsell their own books.

Sherman Alexie is encouraging authors to handsell their own books.

Small Business Saturday is an American shopping holiday held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving during one of the busiest shopping periods of the year to encourage holiday shoppers to patronize local brick-and-mortar businesses. And with all the attention being paid to the struggles of independent bookstores, it’s not surprising that award-winning novelist Sherman Alexie has asked, in a letter to his fellow authors, that they join him in handselling their books at their local indie bookstore on this year’s Small Business Saturday, November 30th, in a program he calls “Indies First.”

His letter, which has been reprinted on the ABA’s website (which has happily embraced the idea) says:

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

It sounds like a great idea. But there is another side of the coin. Author Brendan Halpin has responded to Alexie’s request, in a letter posted both on his own website and at 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.
–Brendan Halpin

Whose side are you on?

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.