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How Bookstore Chains Keep Small Presses Small

Major bookstores ought to be a good thing (except for mom-and-pop booksellers), right? They’re huge, it’s well-lit, the books are on sale every once in a while, and there’s usually a coffee shop involved. In short, they’re comfortable enough, the prices aren’t too expensive, and most of them don’t seem to mind people reading without buying too much.

The problem is the way they display books. A friend of mine worked at one for quite some time, and she said, “You know, if you can’t get [bookstore name redacted] to buy your book in bulk and display it in the front, you might as well forget about making big sales. If they only buy a few copies, they get stored with only the spine facing out, which means people have to already know to look for the book, and that’s pretty much the kiss of death.”

No wonder it’s hard for small presses to get a hit. Though most major book sellers boast an incredible selection, I’d be willing to guess that most people don’t necessarily have time to browse extensively, especially if they’re buying a book for someone else (for a birthday, for Christmas, for whatever). They stop by the best-seller table, pick up something that looks good, and wander out–perpetuating the book’s best-selling run at the expense of something equally good buried in the back because the chain chose not to buy it in bulk. The last time I was looking for Arendt, I found her–but only barely. The philosophy section was buried in the back. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Arendt is more intersting and worthwhile than Marley and Me, but she’s damned near impossible to find–unlike Marley and Me, featured prominently near the entrance of the store. As much as I dislike this, I understand it; Arendt appeals to a niche market and hasn’t written anything new in a while, since she’s rather dead.

What does upset me is that new books from small presses–or bigger presses without a huge marketing push–are consigned to the same purgatory without getting a chance to be seen. I’ve found books published by Graywolf Press in chain bookstores before, but I had to seriously hunt them down. The millions of people who have never heard of Graywolf or their authors will likely never see them. And that’s a damn shame.

It would be interesting to see someone like Barnes and Noble step up to the plate and feature a “New From the Small Presses” table prominently, at least to even things out a little bit. Who knows? Maybe that alone could create a surprise hit, or propel an interesting new voice to the top. And what marketing exec wouldn’t want to take credit for launching the great new American voice?