Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Posts tagged “bookstores

Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost

Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.

So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.

I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.

When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.

I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.

Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.

The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.

Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.)  Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.

On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.

One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.

(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)

When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.

In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.

The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.

I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.

(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)

I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.

The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.

So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.

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Please don’t hate me for what I am about to do

I’m not planning anything illegal or immoral; all I want to do is get a novel published (though certain segments of society might see that as immoral). I have tried the traditional means, and now I’m going to the route that technology has opened for us.

Unfortunately, that route also attracts heaps of opprobrium.

A recent post of a quote from a guy who describes himself as having worked for three big-name publishing houses and 10 years as an agent is the epitome of this criticism. When you pay for editing, he says, when you pay for cover design, when you pay for marketing, when you pay for anything (emphasis his), “that is a vanity press.” He says you’ll never see your book on store shelves and the only people who will buy it are your relatives. The publishers will make money from those pathetic sales while you’ll be stuck with a garage full of books. (That last part’s not in the post, but it’s sure as hell implied.) As such, it is not the definition of a published author by any yardstick he uses.

I got angry when I saw this. First, this, this “knothead” is trashing the efforts of a lot of good writers who have chosen nontraditional means to publish their books (because, bottom line, it’s a threat to Big Publishing). And then he shows his ignorance when he conflates “vanity press” with “self-published.”

I’m familiar with true vanity presses; I know enough to stay away from them, both as an author and what I saw as an editor of a newspaper’s book-review section. I received several; all were junk. I always looked at them though; you just never knew …

I also received self-published books. Aren’t they the same as vanity press? Only to a point.

A guy in Colorado sent me a book he wrote, and he also paid for the cover art, he paid for formatting, he paid for editing, he paid for printing and he was paying his own marketing costs (all before e-books and e-readers existed, by the way). Under knothead’s definition, that’s “vanity press.” But the author didn’t use any of the existing vanity presses; he formed his own press to publish and market his book. He’d tried to market it the traditional way, but all he received were rejections. He had something to say, he had a good story, he wasn’t about to let his creation fade away. He probably sent copies to dozens of book reviewers all around the country, many of whom likely rejected it out of hand. (“We don’t do self-published vanity books,” they probably sniffed as they threw their copies into the trash.)

I read it. It had a great cover and an intriguing plot. I passed it along to one of my reviewers, an author himself, and he liked it, wrote a nice review. I can’t claim all credit for what happened next, but I like to think I at least helped. Enough praise from other non-snooty reviewers eventually got a Big Publisher to pick it up and soon the author saw his book on store shelves. It’s still in print and still gets glowing reviews. Not bad for self-published, eh, knothead?

Now I’m in the same situation. My novel is a good story, with lots to say, and it’s well-written. People besides me have said so, and none of them are related to me. Some are published authors who gave me guidance while I was writing it. I have been trying for years to get it published by sending it to publishers and agents. All have rejected it. One rejection came back with the hand-scrawled note, “We don’t do superheroes.”

OK, can’t do it the traditional way, so I’ll go the new way: e-publication. And because I’m not artistic enough to design the cover and unsure of myself to do the formatting, I have paid to have all that done. Oh, and the editing, too, by a professional. (“Evil! Evil!” moans knothead. “Vanity publishing!”) I do this because I have no choice.

Perhaps I did give up too early on the traditional agent/publisher method. But I’ve run out of publishers that will first, allow me to submit without an agent; and second, would be even slightly interested in a superhero novel (“As we said before, we don’t do superheroes”). All the agents I contacted – and there were many – declined to represent it (“We don’t do them, either.”). And perhaps they did have a good reason for rejecting it: the book is terrible. Always a possibility, but I know bad and my biased opinion this is not a bad book. Someone else will have to decide the final merits of it. Plus, there’s the issue of time. I’m getting old and would like to at least see something I’ve written published before lights out.

I’m going into this with eyes wide open. I know I’m taking a big chance, possibly even an end to my fiction writing career. (With the state it’s in at this point, no great loss.) I could put the novel out there and not see one sale (well, a couple maybe, my niece and my sister, but those would be family sales, as knothead would gleefully point out). It could be ripped to shreds (metaphorically, of course) and scorned as dreck. Those are risks authors take with any kind of publishing, but e-authors also seem to run the risk of alienating traditional publishers. (“You have e-books for sale? Ewww! I’m calling security!”)

And, of course, I’m dropping the book into a maelstrom where millions of e-books already exist, each trying to catch the eye of a browsing customer. I don’t have a big following so I won’t have automatic sales. I do have one novel available as an e-book, but its sales aren’t exactly burning up the sales chart. (It’s called Rewind, available through E-Reads.com, see the link under the cover image at right. [Yes, that’s self-promotion, that’s the thing authors have to do even when they find it abhorrent, but never mind, go buy a copy.]) So the odds are stacked against me, yet I persist. I’m either tenacious or a fool. (Knothead and his ilk will have no trouble picking which one.)

Another disadvantage will be the lack of reviews. I’m not sure how many magazines or other periodicals or bloggers review independently published books (a more sophisticated way of saying “e-books.”) Not that reviews will boost sales all that much, but any mention anywhere (even negative ones) help. And I’m not sure e-books make any lists of the best novels of the year or are considered for awards. Not that awards are the end-all. But they sure look purty on the mantelpiece.

I do not want to give up on traditional publishing. Indeed, I have a different novel awaiting adjudication now. I sent it in to a traditional publishers four months ago, but outside of an e-mail confirming arrival, I’ve heard nothing since and yet I must wait another couple of months before inquiring on status. And even if I sold it today, it’ll still be around two years before anyone would see the physical copy.

Even with all that, though, I’d still love to see a traditional, ink-on-paper, bound book with fancy cover art on a bookstore shelf. I would love to be part of a marketing campaign, including going out and meeting fans and readers. I would love to see reviews in magazines such as Locus, the definitive magazine about SF publishing. It’s a thrill doing all of that, as I found out with Rewind (though five people came to my first signing, all friends). I go to bookstores and see books by friends on their shelves and I see where the authors are getting interviews and reviews and I see the lines at their autographing sessions. Yes, I get jealous. And I get angry and irritated. But I have to temper my reactions because if my writing career is creaking and clattering along and losing pieces like Howl’s castle, I have to take a lot of the blame for it.

Traditional publishers are getting mean now because they’re panicking. One of those friends whose first published book (and the first in a trilogy) received all sorts of attention ran into problems over cover art, scheduling of the paperback editions and editing and scheduling of the other two books, all from the publisher who bought the series in the first place. So traditional publishing has its pitfalls, too, some of them severe and nearly career-ending (as happened to another friend, but fortunately he’s really smart and a damn good writer so he’s been able to continue his career elsewhere).

Just for fun, let’s examine one of the unsaid things in knothead’s diatribe. What knothead is really saying is that you, the readers, don’t have the sense the creator gave a snail. Agents and publishers are there to take you by the hand and show you what books you like and want ought to read. You can’t do this yourself because only they have the knowledge, experience and keen intellect to pick those authors whose books meet their strict standards. Your intellect is not powerful enough to realize which books are dreck and which ones are good. You must leave such decisions to them.

Baloney. If they were so good, every book they published would be best-sellers, get glowing reviews (and none negative) and the Pulitzer Prize committee, faced with all these deserving books, would be reduced to flipping a coin to determine the winners. None of that happens because Big Publishers have no more idea what makes one book rocket up the charts, another book to become a cultural icon, and yet another a disaster. There is no secret formula (at least not yet) that can predict what the reader wants on any given day.

And readers, that means you are the ones in charge. I will put my book on e-pub sites and hope you will see enough in it to A: buy it and B: tell someone else about it. That’s the real way books become known, through word of mouth. Just ask J.K. Rowling.

My book is called The Tyranny of Heroes, and as I said, it’s about superheroes. I think I have something unique to say about them, and I think the story is good. The cover art has been selected, the formatting is about done, and I hope to make it available in a couple of weeks.

And then, its fate is up to you.