The Kindle Hasn’t Erased All Hope for Books

There's proof that authors will still do anything to see their words in print

Since I’ve been a bibliophile since childhood, my nirvana is this scene: my own town of Collingswood, 200 book stalls, tents set up for readings and signings, music, food vendors, one tent dedicated to poetry, a whole area, Loompaland, for children.

This was the Ninth Annual Collingswood Book Festival last weekend and about the sixth time I‘ve participated, selling Painted Bride Quarterly (PBQ) and representing the other work I do for the Drexel Publishing Group. I do more book fairs that are attached to conferences than street book fairs like this one. At street book fairs, there are plenty of educated people who still don’t know what a literary magazine like PBQ is; educating them is fun. At academic book fairs, everyone knows what they are; in fact, they’re selling their own, so to misappropriate a phrase, selling books there is like selling bicycles to fish.

Our first few times at the annual Collingswood book fair we sold tons of books, doing better at that one-day street fair than at Associated Writing Program’s targeted audience for three days. But I’ve noticed a change and this year was the most obvious of all. I only sold six books between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and I think I know why: Everyone there was trying to sell his or her own.

About 80 percent of the vendors were selling their own self-published book. I was next to a man who called out, barker style, every few minutes, “Come on in, ladies and gentleman, meet the author,” as he sat a few feet inside a tent, a table of his own work spread out in front of him. Not many people stopped, but I have to say, those that did got engaged in long and absorbing conversations, frequently purchasing his books before they left.

In the self-published world, at least at this festival, there were fairies and werewolves and demons and trolls (oh my). A woman near me placed a pair of colorful horns on the heads of those who purchased from her. Fantasy numbers quadrupled those in the other big self-published category, the “I survived” story, life after death, life after illness, etc. I also saw a lot of niche how-to texts—“How to Raise an Athlete,” “So, You Want to Be a Doctor,” lots and lots on developing your spiritual self. Oh, and how could I forget, many on “How to Publish and Promote Your Book.”

One could survey this scene and shout, “Long live the book!” Or maybe, a little less dramatically, “Take that, Kindle.” When Print On Demand (P.O.D.) was young and Xlibris was the new thing, the debate was whether it was fair for P.O.D. publishers to skim the cream off the top—see what books sell and then put money behind them. We judged the split between author and publisher, and questioned the value of the promotion that was given.

Now, we’ve already grown used to authors doing most of the work due to the limited marketing budgets at even the largest publishing houses. Authors are instructed to self-promote, self-brand, blog, tweet, and set up their own book tours in cities where they can couch-surf. For fear of my own professional reputation, I quite literally cannot regale you with anecdotes about the authors and presses I’ve dealt with and the constraints put on authors in regards to readings and appearances.

Has this ownership of marketing one’s own book helped the taint of self-publication fade? Are authors who are self-publishing, whether it be P.O.D. or e-publishing, circumventing the industry, taking back the reins, or are they still losers? Were the folks at the Collingswood book fair, literally standing behind the hard copy of their work, true renegades or throwbacks for fetishizing the book? The music industry has long accepted indie recording and self-promotion. Has the publishing industry finally come around? Were the attendees at the festival there for the kettle corn?

E-publishing has moved from publishing houses to retailers; Amazon is at the head of the pack with Amazon Encore. Barnes & Noble and Apple are right behind. It comes as no surprise that the retailers are smart enough to make money twice: offering public relations service and cover art choices, all, of course, at a price.

Maybe the only authors who will have success at this are those who don’t “need” a different format to sell or maintain readership: Both Stephen King and Stephen Covey have signed e-publishing deals with Amazon.

A hierarchy of publishers, authors and publishing formats exists. The day after the fair, the New York Times ran an article about the new publishing arm at Perseus, which illustrates the velvet ropes that are still at the gate: The new unit, called Argo Navis Author Services, will be available only to authors who are represented by an agency that has signed an agreement with Perseus.

Pessimists might cry out that we are witnessing the death of the book—or make accusations that everyone is writing/speaking and no one is reading/listening. Optimists might look at Collingswood Book Festival’s 200 exhibitors, 15 featured authors, more than 40 other presenters, and the 10,000 people in attendance, and see a celebration of literacy, free speech and the power of the word.

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly and an associate teaching professor at Drexel University. Don’t follow her on Twitter @kvm1303 because she hardly ever tweets. She hopes to have her own website one day, and also, no war.