Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Literary Food Fight!

Indie booksellers duked it out with indie publishers at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Trade Show in Denver, September 24, 2010. The panel was entitled “Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?”

Apparently not.

The panel consisted of a self published moderator, one independently published author, and three independent booksellers. If the reaction of most of the booksellers present is any indication, independent readers--those interested in books other than those selected for us by the Big Boys in New York—stand to lose out.

We who publish independent of Bertelsmann, Murdoch, and other multinational “media” giants, already know the difficulties of getting bookstores, whether indie or chain store, to handle our books. What was painfully obvious at the panel was the blatant scorn some sellers have for any and all works independently published.

James Joyce, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, and John Grisham are but a few authors who initially published their own books. Last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Paul Harding, first published Tinkers with a tiny independent press, as did New York Times best selling author (and featured guest at Mountains & Plains) Karl Marlantes. Did indie booksellers fall all over themselves when Marlantes published Matterhorn with El León Literary Arts in Berkeley? No, they probably waited until his work received an imprimatur from the Atlantic Monthly Press in New York.

Because established publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, the only way to get your work even considered for publication by them is via cronyism: to wit, whom do you know at Simon & Schuster? Many writers are turning to either self-publishing or publishing with small presses, following the example of garage bands. This is where the book biz is heading. Indie booksellers need to get on board and support new authors--quickly, before authors figure out that it’s possible now to release a book directly to Kindle, with or without the help of booksellers other than Amazon.

Those booksellers who look down on indie authors from their lofty perches cited as reasons for dismissing our books: uninteresting topics, poor writing, ugly covers, typos, grammatical errors, and lack of professionalism. To be sure some indie books may be all or part of that. So? Tell the author or the person trying to sell those books to your store in the nicest way possible that they’re not something you can sell. You don’t have to be rude or arrogant about it.

Books published by The Biggies are too often knock-offs of others’ books. They’re poorly written, the covers are ugly (especially featuring photos of headless women—what’s that all about?), and they’re rife with grammatical errors, typos, and an obvious lack of editing. The James Patterson phenomenon is particularly revolting; he doesn’t even write his New York Times best-selling books. He’s a brand, not an author.

Booksellers complained that indie authors take their valuable time. They’d have to do paperwork if they handled indie books, deal with invoices, talk to those people. An idea booksellers tossed around at the panel was that of stores charging $25 to put these (obviously inferior) books on their shelves.

What? All retailers have to do paperwork, get to know suppliers, and yes, pay bills. Charge for putting a book on their shelves? This sounds like grocery store 101 to me. Are you selling books or are you selling book products foisted on you by book manufacturers? Are you truly independents? Or are you a conduit for more of the same?

As a retailer who takes great pride in offering my customers something they won’t find elsewhere, I enjoy discovering the undiscovered. If indie booksellers want to help their customers find and enjoy books new to them, they have to dedicate some time and effort to providing books people might not find at Borders, Barnes & Noble or even on Amazon.

I stifled myself as long as I could while self-important booksnots hurled insults at the likes of me, then raised my hand to state the following.

I’ve been an avid reader since the age of three. My book habit costs me hundreds of dollars each month. I read everything from 16th century Jesuit missionary chronicles en español to the latest trashy mystery.

I have been selling books, albeit as a sideline to my regular inventory, for thirty-seven years. I like to handle books others don’t carry. I deal with small indie publishers all the time. Every day, people try to sell me things I don’t want to carry in my store, which is centered on Latin American Folk Art & Antiques. I am always polite to them, and suggest where else they might try to sell their things. Sometimes, however, people who walk in the door have fabulous things to sell.

I am also a small publisher. I created my own imprint, Papalote Press, in 2004. I knew New York wouldn’t dream of publishing my first fiction book, Clearing Customs (2005), given my anonymity/lack of cronies, and its touchy nature, a scurrilous, entertaining indictment of overreaching federal law enforcement. The book was named Book of the Year for Fiction by the OnLine Review of Books and Current Affairs. My next book, Coyota (2007), earned an IPPY. My short story collection, La Ranfla & Other New Mexico Stories (2009), has been a finalist in five contests—Eric Hoffer, ForeWord, NM Book Awards, and has so far won two: a bronze IPPY and a Southwest Book Design Award.

As a small business owner, I prefer to support independent bookstores. But I am certainly not going to support those regional stores, some of which participated in the panel, that refuse to carry my award-winning titles and have been rude to my professional representatives.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who in The World is Tortilla Marta?

It’s me—Martha Egan: gardener, bicyclist, sometime chile cook and bread baker, all time Green Bay Packer fan, storekeeper, museum volunteer, publisher, traveler, Big Sister for over thirty years, environmental nuisance, avid reader, author of two books on Latin American devotional art and three award-winning fiction titles, skier, swimmer, sworn enemy of ground squirrels, etc.

I am also Auntie Mame to a total of forty-four nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. One of them, Gabby, at age four, greeted me as “Tia Marta!”—her usual salutation. Then she thought for a minute and revised my name to “Tortilla Marta!”

I guess it fits. I’m white, I’m round, I can be a little flaky, and I have a few scorch marks on me. 

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.