Sunday, October 24, 2010

Local Bookstores; Neglected Writers

I know that my posting and times have been erratic this week, but dang it, my real life sometimes interferes with keeping a schedule for something that is, when you come right down to it, only a hobby. From the picture at the right, you can probably guess where I spent the past week, so I hope I’m excused.

As a minor garden writer, I’ve long had a small complaint regarding local bookstores that my Seattle trip confirmed and magnified, and so I have to finally get it off my chest. When visiting two national-chain large bookstores (stores that have destroyed most of the local independent booksellers, but I’ll leave them nameless since I’m not into lawsuits), I found that they were stocked, as elsewhere, with the usual encyclopedias of plants and basic how-to gardening manuals and both had a conspicuous absence of the more conversational gardening writing that I adore. For instance, several well-known local Seattle-area writers with a number of books to their credit were absent from both the gardening and local/regional sections of the bookstores. I’m fully aware that Des Kennedy gardens and writes just a little bit north of Seattle and Ann Lovejoy is a fixture of Pacific Northwest garden circles and gardens on Bainbridge Island just across the Sound from Seattle. Of these two eminent writers, Kennedy wasn’t represented at all and I found only the Ann Lovejoy Handbook of Northwest Gardening to represent the latter. Amy Stewart, currently a very popular and prolific garden writer based in Eureka, California, had only a single book on either shelf; in both cases it was her latest text, Wicked Plants. But there were lots of unenjoyable texts on the shelves that were probably originally conceived by some editor who thought the world needed another book on the basics of how to compost or a book listing which plants were useful perennials and then said tyrannical editor created one by hiring a mercenary writer. They’re useful references, but they’re terribly uninteresting to read.

Now it’s true that bookstores are in the business of selling books and that Stewart’s recent book is currently ranked #7265 in books and #9 in gardening reference books (behind several books on growing marijuana and wine and some quasi-gardening books that are bestsellers in a wider audience than gardeners). But in truth, people only buy in local bookstores what the bookstores sell and promote (Amazon and other online stores may be an exception in that regard for book choices). And even though I’m a relatively unknown writer self-published by a vanity press, my experience is that local bookstores were astonishingly resistant to placing my book on their shelves. I sent over 100 flyers announcing the book to every Kansas and Nebraska bookstore I could find on the internet, including two chain bookstores in Manhattan. None of them, to my knowledge, ever stocked the book, nor did several local outlets that I contacted repeatedly in person. The only success I had influencing the local stocks of Garden Musings was by following up the flyer with a personal talk with the manager of a large national chain bookstore in Topeka.  On a subsequent visit, I found 4 copies of my book in that bookstore (1 hardback and 3 paperbacks). All were gone before I checked back a month later, but yet the store, over the past year, has never restocked the book. So it seems they’re even ignoring that their own sales tell them local garden authors would sell well in local markets. And in this day and age, even with thousands of titles on the shelves of large stores, I'm sure their inventory can tell them exactly how long a book stays on the shelf.

I suspect that better known authors are more successful in getting new books on local shelves, but my experience in Seattle tells me it is not that much better. BOOKSELLERS: WISE UP! If you don’t show the average gardener books written by local authors, then the average gardener doesn’t know they exist. And thus, the average gardener doesn’t get a chance to gain knowledge from experienced garden writers in their area. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, for instance, you can’t learn much about gardening by reading plant references or gardening technique books from England or the Pacific Northwest.  I assume the same would be true for be true for gardeners from New Mexico or Arizona or Michigan. 

For local gardeners wanting to read local authors, it might help slightly that if you know of a local writer, please request that your local store stock the book rather than ordering it online.  Online sales may help our Amazon ranking, but it doesn't help us reach the audience that would be the most interested in our writing.


  1. I completely agree! I think we all believe our own climate is so tricky, so PARTICULAR, that we need local coverage. Plus that sort of book is more interesting. I too love those conversational personal-essay kind of gardening books, and they're harder and harder to find. I bet we both read and reread the same ones -- Eleanor Perenyi, Allen Lacy, Hanry Mitchell, Jamaica Kincaid, etc. A post every bookseller should read!

  2. I've enjoyed reading your blog for some time now, I lived in Lenexa for a couple years which is in your general neck of the woods.

    I've always found local writers to be more easily found at used books stores. Most have a shelf of nearly new or new books of local interest (at least Half Price Books in Olathe did and my new used book store, McKays in VA does) and they stock a much more eclectic range of titles.

  3. Here, here! We have the cutest local bookstore. I visit it often though all I end up purchasing are birthday cards. I wish they'd get creative and try harder at connecting us with more obscure titles and authors.


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