The Search for Scalzi

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

No, not John Scalzi himself. He’s…he’s over there in Ohio somewhere. I mean his books.

I didn’t want to buy Old Man’s War right off Amazon–I generally prefer to buy from independent bookstores when I can, and failing that, it’s an excuse to go into a physical bookstore and browse. Unfortunately, I live in a smallish town where the next closest bookstore is a Borders; the next independent bookstore is about a 45-minute drive in either direction.

One of the features of my job is that I am frequently sent out to tiny, remote towns. My firm represents people harmed by asbestos, and it’s not unusual for a client who is ill or dying to have retired to a small town because it’s affordable or near family, and when they aren’t physically able to come to the Bay Area for a deposition, we go to them.

These two things came together when John posted that the second run of OMW was on its way. I should really pick this up at an independent bookstore, I thought, and then, Why not a bookstore at one of those little towns?

Thus began my quest: The Search for Scalzi.

The first thing I discovered is that many small towns simply don’t have a bookstore. People get their books at Wal*Mart, or I suppose Amazon, or the grocery store on racks. For anything like a real bookstore, you go over to the big city. In some of the towns I’ve sayed in, “the next big city” is an hour or more away and is still too small to have a bookstore. When they do have a bookstore, it tends to be very tiny, heavy on local-interest books and paperbacks.

I thought I had a pretty good chance on my last trip, since I stayed in California and was in a small farming town. The “next big city” bookstore owner explained that she doesn’t carry hardbacks often, and doesn’t order SF hardbacks, because people generally don’t buy anything but paperbacks. “Except when a new Robert Jordan book comes out, you know, those sell.”

This isn’t a commentary about OMW being obscure or hard to find. It’s not as though I’m clawing my way through stacks of pristine copies of Hokkaido Popsicle or the latest Laurell K. Hamilton and just not finding any Scalzi. I seriously underestimated how few and how rare brick-and-mortar bookstores are outside the big city, and how independent booksellers, struggling to keep their doors open, have to make very narrow choices about what they can put on their shelves.

I really feel bad about not having bought the damn book yet, so I’m probably going to stop at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books next time I’m down at the courthouse. But I can always use a second copy, eh?

The quest goes on.

17 Comments on “The Search for Scalzi”

  1. Not the same as a brick and mortar, but you could use http://www.abe.com to buy from an independent book store. I use it all the time for reading copies (and nicer collectible copies as well — I got my first OMW from Amazon, noticed it was 3rd printing and bought a first printing from ABE.)

  2. Call me the antithesis of the small-town guy, but is it really true that rural people buy books at Wal-Mart? Or at least, only at Wal-Mart? I’m guessing that any bibliophiles without access to a good bookstore are quite happily served by Amazon et al.

  3. I didn’t say they bought books only at Wal*Mart. But if you get your shirts and groceries there, why not? The book aisle is right there. And not all small towns are a) wired for affordable, high-speed Internet and b) as apt to turn to the Internet for shopping as we are.

  4. It’s not just small-town America – I live in the Chicago suburbs and every time I venture into Borders or B&N I look for OMW. Not because I need a copy – got mine off eBay, but because I’m curious to see if they would ever stock it.

    Borders finally had one lone copy on the shelf a few weeks ago, and by the time I went back the following week it was gone.

  5. “Call me the antithesis of the small-town guy, but is it really true that rural people buy books at Wal-Mart? Or at least, only at Wal-Mart?”

    Well, maybe you can also go and get a book at Kroger’s, the local supermarket. But yeah: In towns where Wal-Mart is the major retailer, most of the books sold in that town get sold at Wal-Mart. And the Wal-Mart selection is not skewed toward diversity (nor is the Kroger’s). You can get Harry Potter and Robert Jordan, but good luck finding mid-list or new authors in any genre.

    Re: Finding OMW in bookstores — at this point, I expect it’s not likely that Tor will be making much of a push to get the hardcover into stores, if only because they’re gearing up to promote the trade paperback release in December and the Ghost Brigades release in March, and that’s where their focus will be (and of course, I’m fine with that).

    But yes, the observation that rural bibliophiles are now largely served by Amazon is probably correct. I am fortunate that even though I live in a rural area there is still a very nice bookstore about ten miles away, and I regularly visit it (I was just in there, today, in fact) and buy from it. But even that well-stocked bookstore has never carried Old Man’s War (although it has my other books in stock), and I don’t expect to see it there until December at the earliest.

  6. It sounds like what everyone’s saying is the WalMarts/Krogers of the world don’t carry a book like OMW, since the book section is a small part of what they do and they only carry the book-equiavlent of “Top 40,” and the local bookstore doesn’t carry it, because it’s not going to sell as well as “Top 40” stuff and they just don’t have the shelf space.

    So that leaves the Barnes & Nobles of the world, and the internet.

    Isn’t it amazing, then, how many people around here make a big deal about waiting to buy the book, in support of the local bookstore “little guy?” I’d think that in a community of (primarily) authors, you’d all be rooting for the large, chain bookstores to overtake the little guy, since that’s the only way your book is going to get in front of a wide audience…

  7. I don’t think most of the people who read the site are authors, actually.

    Additionally I suspect that most folks here like the idea of giving their money to a local business owner whenever rather than to a large national company. I like that my local bookstore is owned by people who live in town, and grumbling aside I don’t hold the unavailability of OMW there against them, because I know some of the behind the scenes distribution issues that others don’t (and also, they do take special orders, after all), and otherwise they have a perfectly reasonable selection, akin to your average B&N or Borders.

    If you don’t find the book at your local bookstore, but you still want to do business with them — special order the book. They’ll be happy to do it (because they know it means a sale), and who knows? It may inspire them to pre-order the next book because they know they’ve got at least one customer for that author.

  8. i fought the good fight against the evil big bookstores in the town where my parents live (a midwestern county seat with a population of around 77k). when barnes and noble moved in, they set up shop one strip mall down from the big, serious indy. five years long my family would shop at the indy first and foremost, but as the years went by, more and more we’d have to go to the b & n right afterward. you see, the indy wasn’t ordering from small presses or small press distributors, and they were, increasingly, not carrying the titles we wanted in the store, so we’d have to order and wait.

    this wasn’t because their quality of service was deteriorating (at first) but because our expectations were raised as a result of the increased availability of more obscure titles through amazon and through the truly revolutionary level of service being offered by the big new borders-style bookstores. i finally gave in, and gave up on the indy, when i went into b & n one pre-christmas day to browse, and found an asian american studies section (in a midwestern county seat bookstore!) that was better than that of the independent bookstore i worked at in san francisco. needless to say, all the titles stocked there were from small and university presses.

    i now shop the big bookstores for the same reason that i patronize clothing stores that use sweatshop labor: i’m tall, and the expensive little boutiques simply don’t have the economic wherewithal to carry my size. the increasingly expensive indy bookstores simply don’t have the economic wherewithal to carry my increasingly specialized taste in books.

    it’s sad in its way, but i think readers and writers win, while the only losers are independent bookstore owners. plus, i think there’s still room for indy bookstores in this picture. ironically, i think the positions of the indies and the mall bookstore chains will reverse: now the big chains like borders and b & n will serve the cultural elites, and the small indies will serve the lowest common denominator by stocking the biggest sellers. plus, there’s still a place for specialty bookstores.

  9. I think Wal-Mart’s book sales are mostly genre romances, plus whatever the current Hot Book is (1776, Bill Clinton’s autobiography, Harry Potter, etc.).

    I myself got OMW off Amazon. I only saw it in a bookstore once, in May at a Barnes and Noble in suburban Milwaukee. Alas, I have not seen it since.

    And speaking of OMW, I prattle on (at length) about what I thought of it here:

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/jonathanmoeller/39356.html

  10. If you don’t find the book at your local bookstore, but you still want to do business with them — special order the book.

    Which the small-town bookstores offered to do for me–but if I’m only in the small town for three days, that doesn’t help me much.

    I’m not saying large bookstores, or large chains, are evil. Just that the Borders is not going to go out of business if I pick up OMW elsewhere, whereas a small, independent bookseller needs that money pretty bad.

    The thing that really struck me as odd, and perhaps I didn’t convey it well, was not chain vs. independent, it was dedicated bookstore vs. small book section in a supermarket. I didn’t get the sense that Rifle, Colorado had a flourishing cadre of booksellers before Amazon came in and ate their lunch.

  11. When I win the lottery and am wealthy beyond my wildest dreams (note to self: buy lottery ticket), I’m moving to a small town in the middle of the Texas Hill Country and opening a bookstore. Don’t care if it doesn’t make money. It will, of course, have a big, sleepy cat in the window.

    There are a few independent bookstores here in Houston, but I haven’t been in any of them yet. I miss A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books and the used bookstore in Palo Alto that I used to roam through while waiting for my train.

  12. I’m not saying large bookstores, or large chains, are evil.

    I wouldn’t characterize them as evil either, but perhaps impersonal. I really don’t mind the big bookstore chains any more than I mind the big grocery chains.

    But then I’m not really that sentimental…

  13. it’s sad in its way, but i think readers and writers win, while the only losers are independent bookstore owners. plus, i think there’s still room for indy bookstores in this picture. ironically, i think the positions of the indies and the mall bookstore chains will reverse: now the big chains like borders and b & n will serve the cultural elites, and the small indies will serve the lowest common denominator by stocking the biggest sellers.

    Fair enough, except the chains carry the big sellers as well. I don’t expect that they’d stop (they’re still big money makers for them, after all) and would you really want to go to two differnet bookstores for the Asian American Studies book & Harry Potter?

    I suspect that most folks here like the idea of giving their money to a local business owner whenever rather than to a large national company.

    This branches off into a very different topic, but if, as Claire says, readers and writers win with the chain stores, then shouldn’t the local business owner lose out? Isn’t he/she in a dying market? Wouldn’t he/she be better off taking a job with the chain store, given his/her excellent qualifications & experience?

    After all, if the percentage of people on this site who favored the local bookstore for purely sentimental reasons came anywhere near to mirroring the national average, then the local bookstores wouldn’t be so little, would they…

  14. I largely agree with Brian here, so naturally I didn’t post until he said something I can argue with.

    Wouldn’t he/she be better off taking a job with the chain store, given his/her excellent qualifications & experience?

    The chains I’m familiar with pay those people on the order of seven bucks an hour. So your indie owner would have to be seriously hurting before such a move is a financial step up.

    Otherwise, yeah, I’ve never quite understood the sacred cow status of the small bookshop. The competition between them and, say, a WaldenBooks is obvious. But the superstores are another matter. I never once found my book on the shelves of a small shop, but I was always shelved at Borders and B&N. Tack on the ambiance of a coffee shop where I can set all day with a stack of books, and I’m very happy to see the rise of the superstores.

    My family’s candy business competes against well-known local and national brands by befriending the clientele, and by stocking more diabetic chocolates than anyone else in a hundred-mile radius. The former helps, but it’s the latter that provides the real competitive edge.

  15. Otherwise, yeah, I’ve never quite understood the sacred cow status of the small bookshop.

    A lot of us are used to small bookshops that cater to particular niches–say, feminist/women’s bookstores–and did back when the chains were Waldenbooks and you couldn’t find anything ‘indie’ outside of a small bookstore. This is less true now that Amazon rules the universe.

  16. i know this thread is dead but i’ll just put the bullet in its head:

    Fair enough, except the chains carry the big sellers as well. I don’t expect that they’d stop (they’re still big money makers for them, after all) and would you really want to go to two differnet bookstores for the Asian American Studies book & Harry Potter?

    yes, but the small indy might be in my neighborhood, whereas i might have to drive down to strip mall mile to get to a borders. i’ll make the drive to get my ethnic studies on, but take a nice afternoon walk to the indy for a gab and a harry potter.

    My family’s candy business competes against well-known local and national brands by befriending the clientele, and by stocking more diabetic chocolates than anyone else in a hundred-mile radius. The former helps, but it’s the latter that provides the real competitive edge.

    it’ true that you have to have two things going for you. Those two things don’t have to include the right products to make a store fly, though. if your indy is 1) in the right neighborhood and 2) offering people a pleasant place to hang out and connect with people, on the order of a barbershop, then as long as you’re stocking the usual suspects, you’ll be in business.

    i’ve worked at two indies: the dying one i described above in County Seat, Midwest, and the oft-mentioned A Clean Well Lighted Place in san francisco. dying indy had 1) a great location, 2) staff that everyone knew by name who were specialists in their sections and knew all of the current releases by heart (i had to take a test along with my application), 3) comfy seats and free coffee. they moved to a strip mall to accommodate a larger selection and reduced their shelf-to-comfy-seat ratio radically. when b & n moved in and sucked away their staff, dying indy had nothing left.

    ACWLP has 1) readings, every night, 2) two book groups, 3) a central location, 4) knowledgeable, friendly staff who stay on for years. their selection isn’t as good as the b & n in the midwestern town. nowhere near. but i’ll still go to ACWLP first, before i’ll hit the borders here.

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