Interview with Rebel Bookseller Andy Laties!

    Greetings everyone! I am about to leave for Chicago and Michigan for more Memory Palace events—all at indie bookstores and colleges. And since indie bookstores are on my mind these days, as is bookselling in general, I invited my old friend Andy Laties to visit us today and give his take on the chaotic and ever-changing world of publishing and bookselling. First, a little about Andy and his latest book, Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight For, From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communites:

    Andy Laties co-founded Children's Bookstore, Children’s Bookfair Company, Children’s Museum Store, and, and created the film Art of Selling Children’s Books. He shared the 1987 Lucile Micheels Pannell Award for bringing children and books together. He co-founded and still manages the museum shop at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which Parents Choice called “the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world.”

    Andy Latie
    s' Rebel Bookseller champions the importance of the role that independent bookstores play in our society. Andy has opened four bookstores over the past couple decades and his enthusiasm for the future of indie bookstores has not been dampened by the changing economic landscape, the death of Borders, or the rise of e-books. He argues passionately that indie bookstores will always hold an important place in local communities, offering diverse and personal selections and playing a part in encouraging community involvement.

    Andy, you are a bookseller, writer, activist, musician, and performance artist and although I could pick any one of those things to talk about with you, today we are going to focus on the hats you wear as bookseller and author. You have a great new book out—actually, a revised and updated version of book that first came out in 2005 called Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight For—From Free Speech to Buying Local To Building Communities. In a nutshell, can you tell our readers what is at the heart of this book and why it is such an important story to tell right now, given the state of the publishing world?

    Did you know that founder Jeff Bezos revealed several years ago that 75% of books he sells represent only 1% of all the titles listed on his website? That is, he sells lots of copies of the top 100,000 titles in his (currently) 10 million-title database—but the vast majority of titles listed on Amazon barely sell at all.
    The growth in readers’ use of Amazon to select books to read results in most readers choosing the same books to read as other readers. Eclecticism in reading is tamped down by Amazon’s book-recommendation systems.
    At the heart of Rebel Bookseller is a ferocious opposition to this kind of monopolistic constriction of book distribution.
    We who read and write today are all actors in a dramatic battle between the forces of free speech and the power of censorship. Both sides have powerful trends in their favor. It may seem paradoxical—since Amazon is an internet-based company—but our free-speech side has the internet on our side. The internet is the world’s first fully functioning anarchy; it’s a uniquely decentralized self-developing system that has transformed the opportunity of individuals to control their lives. The opposing side in the big battle—Amazon’s side--has globalization of capital, which favors concentration of power in the hands of a few.
    Capital is struggling mightily to harness our internet, but the internet, by its nature, daily slips the bonds that capital attempts to throw on it.
    This battle plays out in the Middle Eastern revolution, in the Murdoch newspaper cellphone hacking scandal, in the constant introduction of corporate-controlled e-readers and tablets, and—happily, from the standpoint of those of us in favor of freedom of speech—in the ongoing collapse of chain bookstores and in the accelerating rate of launch of community financed independent bookstores.
    It is this latter aspect of the tale that I explore in Rebel Bookseller. We readers and writers and librarians and booksellers and publishing people are at the grassroots. We have a role to play in the great events of our time. I take as my personal task, ending the concentration of reading that Jeff Bezos and his power-mad peers have helped bring about. I want to encourage a wider variety of readers to encounter a wider variety of writers.

    I like what you say above, about how we readers, writers, etc. are at the grassroots and have a role to play in all of these events. I totally agree. And in reading your book, I felt very empowered about that role and doing more to encourage people to support their community businesses. And aside from the political stance of your book, I also loved your writing—how you interwove an engaging, funny and honest personal narrative about coming of age as an artist and bookseller with impassioned advice about publishing, bookselling, community organizing and small business entrepeneurship. It's sort of a memoir slash how-to book slash manifesto. I couldn't put it down. From a writer's point of view, what made you decide to tell your own personal story, rather than just write a straight forward book about bookselling?

    Its true that I am an author—after all, I did write a book—but I do not consider myself a real writer. This is because I have a very healthy regard for real writers, having presented hundreds of writers in my bookstores at readings, panel discussions, festivals and story-hours (you meet lots of them in my book). So, when I realized that I had no option in my life but to write a book—because events had brought me to a crisis—I decided I needed a good model to rely on. I chose Saul Alinsky’s Reveille For Radicals. That book had shown me that the principles of activism are easiest to grasp if they are illustrated with personal anecdotes.
    Gandhi developed the idea of living life as a series of “experiments with truth”—I think that if one has tried to live in this way, one can report out on one’s life, using a narrative formula, and this process will provide readers with a useful opportunity to draw their own conclusions.

    Well Andy, I hope you feel compelled to write another book in the future because I certainly enjoyed reading this one! As you know, I have been on book tour for my own book, The Memory Palace, since it came out in January. One of the things I've been doing is trying to encourage people to buy the book from their local indie bookseller rather than purchase it on Amazon or big chain stores. Although you touched on this a little in my first question, can you please explain a bit more in depth for my readers why buying most of their books from Amazon ultimately hurts authors, not to mention the ripple effect it has on their local communities? We'll get into chain stores in a minute; for now, let's talk about Amazon.

    As I mentioned above, does not exist in order to assist readers or writers find one another; rather Amazon wants to sell more of its bestsellers. So, writers need more indie bookstores to exist, to promote and display the full variety of books written. Unfortunately Amazon’s success at capturing readers’ attention equals obstruction to success for indie bookstores. So, writers are hurt by Amazon’s success at capturing market share from indie bookstores.
    It is important to remember that does not really exist. No corporation does. Corporations are not people, and they are not things. Corporations are a cover story to obscure and facilitate the self-interested, temporary concentration and flow of capital. The mission of a corporation is, technically speaking, to amass as much capital for its founders and shareholders as possible: to “maximize shareholder value”.
    When you click the “buy” button on an Amazon webpage, on your computer screen, you set in motion a slew of interlocking systems. I would argue that it is your moral responsibility as a person alive in this moment and this era to take note of, and accept responsibility for, the impact of such daily decisions. So, what have you done? Who will act, and what will happen, when you click the Amazon “buy” button? You have chosen to deploy a system of externalizing costs. You are shifting costs from yourself onto someone else.
    Just as you may ignore your neighbor’s child’s asthma, which may be ultimately related to the smoke coming from your aging car’s tailpipe, or you may ignore the sealife-killing algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, which may be fostered by the phosphorus in your laundry detergent, or you may ignore the misery of the child laborers harvesting cacao beans in the Ivory Coast when you buy a Hershey’s chocolate bar, so you may be ignoring the externalizing mechanisms whereby “saves you money”.
    How do you hurt people, including yourself, by taking the bait and clicking the Amazon “buy” button? If this were a classroom, I could elicit from this readership thirty answers, maybe more. But, here’s a helpful link to provide some of the specific answers. This passage is from their website:
    Why shop Indie?
    When you shop at an independently owned business, your entire community benefits:
    The Economy
    Spend $100 at a local and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43.
    Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
    More of your taxes are reinvested in your community--where they belong.
    The Environment
    Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
    Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.
    The Community
    Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
    Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
    More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.

    All great points---and from a totally selfish author point of view (!), we authors get more royalties when readers buy our books from indie bookstores. That said, consumers get big discounts on Amazon, etc. So what do you say to those people who are hard up for cash and would rather buy their books at Walmart or Amazon than an independent bookstore?

    Hard up for cash? As I said above, it’s the same as buying organic veggies or fair trade coffee, or staying away from McDonalds because of the salt in the burgers and the destruction of rainforests by beef cattle. Yes, it costs you more in the short run, but the long run benefits of avoiding the lie of “low, low prices” from Walmart and Amazon far outweigh the short-run “savings”.
    I think that if you already buy organic food with intentionality, then you can understand why Amazon is as much of a problem to society as conventional agriculture is, and you should be capable of convincing yourself to spend a little more to buy books through indie, small-business channels (and we indie stores sell online too!)

    Well, I also encourage people who cannot afford to buy a book at an indie bookstore to please support their local libraries. So on to the elephant in the room—Barnes & Noble. We know that Borders fell and many great people lost their jobs. I'm going to be the devil's advocate for a second: before and after my book came out, I have gotten such amazing support from B & N, not to mention very moving fan letters from people who work there. These are real people with real jobs. You are very critical of B & N and other chain stores in Rebel Bookseller. Can you talk a little bit about your take on them right now, for those who haven't read your book? And if you could tell the powers-that-be at B & N how to be more indie-friendly and author friendly, what would you say? Can Barnes & Noble coexist peacefully with the little shop around the corner in these bizarre and very hard times?

    I’m not surprised that you, an excellent writer, are encountering workers at B&N who are supportive of your book. However in my opinion those workers should be working at indie bookstores.
    Barnes & Noble destroyed the book industry’s growth and expansion in the 1990s and into the 2000s. In fact, B&N is the company that has closed more bookstores than any company in history! In the 70s, B&N bought the Marlboro bookstore chain and closed it down. B&N bought the two-dozen bookstore Doubleday chain in the 90s, and closed it down. B&N bought the 775 B. Dalton bookstores in the 80s and by the 2000s had closed every B. Dalton store down. B&N bought Bookstop’s dozen stores in the 90s and closed them all down. B&N did this in order to control the entire book industry, constricting channels of book distribution so as to force specific titles and specific categories onto readers, and to raise their own corporate profitability by controlling publishers access to the market. It’s classic robber-baron monopoly behavior.

    Sure Barnes & Noble has great employees…because there is nowhere else to get a job as a bookseller. But those workers would be able to more fully exercise their skills in a decentralized bookselling environment. So, they will benefit from the coming destruction of Barnes & Noble, just as thousands of recently laid-off Borders employees will be working in the indie bookstores of the future and doing a much more full-scale, engaged kind of bookselling then.
    Right now, booksellers with chain bookstore experience should get together with community activists and real estate developers and open new indie bookstores. It can be done. If they can’t do it right now, they should plan to do it in the future. Those workers know very well that big corporations are not committed to them. B&N is a publicly held, for-profit operation, and its fiduciary responsibility is to maximize shareholder value, NOT to ensure that its workers are treated well or that its customers have access to the widest variety of the very best books.
    As to whether the management people at B&N can be instructed in how to be more indie- or author-friendly, the answer is no, B&N will never “co-exist” with much-smaller bookstores. They exist to serve their owners, not authors, readers or other bookstore operators.
    My task, as I’ve said before, is to help destroy B&N. This will create a world in which thousands more indie bookstores can emerge to serve writers and readers in the way they deserve to be served.

    Wow, strong words Andy. I completely understand your feelings about all this since I am a pretty anti-corporate gal. But I also have gotten, as I said, such support from B & N and I have to acknowledge that (or my editors would kill me!). That said, I have refused to read at any chain stores—I am only reading at indies. I would love to hear back in my comment section from any B & N booksellers/workers/managers (or other employees/managers, etc at other chain stores) willing to respond to what you say above.

    So onward and upward—what advice do you have for authors who would like to support their local bookstores (and other indie bookstores across the country) and how can they cultivate relationships with these places?

    Authors should create online presences that document their own activities in indie bookstores. That is: authors should lend their brand value to help grow their readers’ appreciation of the specific indie bookstores valued by each author.

    Great advice....I am trying to do that myself. And Andy, if you were to look into a crystal ball, how do you see the future of the book business in the next 10 to 20 years? For example, where do you think e-books are heading? Will there be more brick and mortar stores or will they no longer exist?

    Ten years from now there will be many more indie bookstores, perhaps three times the current number. E-books will represent more than half of what will be a much larger total book market. Remember, book sales were suppressed for fifteen years by the big chainstores’ impact on book prices. Chainstore growth forced book prices up. E-books are permitting a rebound: reading is on a huge upswing because book prices are being forced down.
    Amazon’s semi-monopoly on e-books will be broken. Readers will access e-books in many different ways, from many different sources.
    E-books and print-on-demand books will be reciprocal sides of the same marketplace, and the POD side will permit brick-and-mortar storefronts to remain central to many readers’ book-selection processes. Authors will promote their self-published e-books in new indie bookstores, and customers will purchase e-books and print-on-demand books through channels controlled locally by the specific indie bookstores providing those author promotion opportunities.

    Very interesting...I like your optimism about the future in this time of economic despair! So what's up for you next? Are you working on any new book or are you mostly selling them, along with all the other ten thousand creative things you do?

    The indie bookstore movement is part of a larger attempt by many activists to end concentration of media in the hands of a small number of huge corporations. Our side stands for freedom of speech. My efforts will continue to be focused on achieving our objective of decentralizing the media.
    Professionally, I will continue to pursue whatever bookselling projects excite me. For instance currently I’m helping launch a one month bookstore and art exhibit called, severally, Bookworks, BOOK=OBJECT, and 451F, in Holyoke, Massachusetts. We’re soliciting original art, and books for sale on consignment.
    Also, I’m working with my partner Rebecca Migdal on an incendiary and (we hope) hilarious book trailer to promote Rebel Bookseller. This film is called Amazilla vs. Barnes Kong, and should be finished by November. Watch for it on Youtube!

    Thanks so much for your time and your inspiring words about the future of the book. I wish you the very best on the remainder of your book tour for Rebel Bookseller.

    You can find Andy Laties' book Rebel Bookseller wherever books are sold but hey, why not go to an indie bookstore and order it there before you compulsively search for it on Amazon! Great idea, right? Go to Indie Bound to find an independent bookstore near you!: Mirabee

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