BY NICO VREELAND
Cory Doctorow has an article up at Locus Magazine, called “In Praise of the Sales Force,” about the irreplaceability of the publishing industry’s ground-pounding sales force. He makes a number of good points about the potential difficulties of democratizing publishing using the Internet, including essentially his main argument:
though it’s easy to find an outsource firm that’ll get your books from Warehouse (A) to Store (B), it’s a lot harder to find the cost-effective firm that will convince Store (B) to order the book from You (C). That’s shoe-leather business, the slow, messy human-factor business of getting to know thousands of key people around the country, people who will introduce your book to readers who haven’t heard of you and don’t know why they should be reading you (good bookselling is fractal: the sales rep knows what the clerk will like, and the clerk knows what the reader will like).
I can understand (and respect) Doctorow’s loyalty to the people who’ve worked hard for his books, but I just don’t buy this argument. These days, I purchase books in actual bookstores very rarely, and I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book because the guy at Borders recommended it.
I find wandering through bookstores (without a prewritten list) a pleasant way to waste a few hours, and a severely frustrating way to find a book that I’d actually like to read. Occasionally, I’ll look over the staff recommendations at an independent bookstore, but that’s about the only interaction I have with bookstore employees. Well, that and the occasional thirty second conversation about Thomas Bernhard at the register.
Instead of browsing shelves, I research. I hear about books from friends, I read reviews and articles, I find lists of best books, and I compare the books I hear about with my personal aesthetic and the kind of read I’m looking for at a given time. I don’t do this by chance, I do it because I’ve found aimless browsing to be largely an exercise in disappointment.
I’m not saying that my way of finding books is normal (and neither is it unique), but it’s certainly possible, and I’m not ready to concede that my way is worse than buying whatever Eric the Bantam rep talked somebody into displaying on the front table.
Ultimately, Doctorow’s argument smacks a bit of old media thinking, not only in claiming that the old ways are irreplaceable, but also in focusing on publishers selling books, and not readers finding books they enjoy. That “shoe-leather business,” after all, is about increasing visibility for authors and publishers, which in no way correlates to quality of work or, more importantly, reader satisfaction.
Part of the Internet democratizing media distribution is an increase in objectivity. Ideally, this could lead to a meritocracy. More probably, it will mean at least a fundamental restructuring of how publishers sell books to (or push books on) their customers, and it will mean the obsolescence of those ground-pounders Doctorow advocates for, or at least the way they currently work.
I agree with Doctorow that self-publishing is not suddenly made viable simply because ebooks exist. But neither am I ready to concede that the old ways of selling books are so necessary to publishing that we can’t move beyond them. When the Great eReader Adoption finally happens, a lot of things will change, including the “shoe-leather business” that Doctorow praises.