For ages I've seen the steady decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores, so it came as no shock when I struck out trying to get my newly published novel onto local bookshelves. Even so, the experience left me scratching my head. How had I managed three strikes without even swinging the bat?
Considering the intense competition for precious shelf space, I knew I didn't stand a chance against the big league authors that dominate the best seller lists, but playing the local author game seemed like an opportunity to at least step up to the plate. I envisioned a small end-cap inside a local bookstore with a handful of my dazzling, professionally minted books propped up on display. A placard posted amongst them would boast of an author with local ties.
With a paperback copy of my breakout novel tucked at my side, I marched into the city mall on a quiet weekday afternoon. My heart pounded out of my chest as I approached the one and only bookstore, a well-known chain I won't mention here. I considered turning back, but I knew if I did, I'd never build the courage to step back up to bat.
Once I breached the front doors, calmness settled over me. I was surrounded by books. I was in my element. I belonged.
The checkout counter sat unattended, so I briefly stepped through the empty bookstore in search of a manager. Only one other person was present, the young woman stocking shelves from an open box. My newfound confidence withered at the thought of interrupting her work. I slid to the register and waited there, feeling an uncanny resemblance to a travelling salesman.
Eons later, the young patriarch bobbed up behind me and circled the counter. "Are you ready to check out?"
"Hello," I said. "I'm a local author, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in featuring my new novel on your shelves."
I offered my unblemished book for her scrutiny, and to my surprise she accepted it without pushing it away as contraband.
After a quick skim of the front and back cover, she jotted the title and the ISBN number onto a Post-it note. With eager eyes, she asked for my telephone number. "I'll call you," she added once she'd written it down.
Soon afterward, I trod through the mall parking lot, shaking my head at how silly I'd been. I knew the cliché: don't call us, we'll call you.
Low and behold, less than an hour later, my cell phone rang. I drew back my Louisville Slugger to knock one out of the park as I enthusiastically answered the call.
"I'm sorry," said the bookstore manager. "I talked to our headquarters, and we can't choose which books are shipped to our store. I'll give you the name of our corporate contact and you can call her to see if they'll distribute your book."
I jotted down the name and number, but I never called.
Within a few short weeks, I knocked the dirt off my cleats and stepped back up to the plate. I was still in the game.
A quick internet search yielded two bookstores in our downtown business district, the first being the college bookstore. I shied away from that one immediately, not ready to risk the criticism of my good ole Alma Mater.
On my lunch break, I rushed home to grab a copy of one of my books, and before long I pulled up along the brick streets of our quaint downtown and parked outside the glass storefront of what turned out to be a newsstand rather than a bookstore. I drew in a hopeful breath and stepped onto the sidewalk. The internet was never wrong.
Once inside, my last dwindling hope was dashed as I gazed over racks and racks of magazines, but no books. I'd been thrown a wild curveball.
As if to prevent me from screaming foul, a small end-cap of non-fiction books flashed in my face, touting the history of our great city and state. I couldn't imagine a more bizarre scene than picturing my colorful science fiction cover intermingled with the amber historical covers on the shelf.
I turned away discouraged.
Down but not out, I kept alive my dream of seeing my books on a shelf. Digging deep, I travelled thirty miles north to my home town. A friend of mine had told me she held a book signing there for her children's book. Perfect!
Many of the small businesses in my home town had changed names in the years since I'd lived there, but many were still the same. I circled the handful of streets in search of a bookstore, drawing annoyed honks as I crept along at a snail's pace, gawking at one side of the street, only to return minutes later to scour the other.
When my diligence had turned up nothing, I pulled up to the family owned drug store and headed inside. An eclectic array of crafts, scented candles, and knick-knacks of all sorts filled the small shop. Tucked away in a corner, a small magazine rack had exactly that, magazines.
The pharmacist called out from behind his raised counter, asking if he could help me find something.
"I doubt it," I said. "Is there still a bookstore in this town?"
"No," he said with a look of nostalgia. "The internet did away with it years ago. Same way with the video rentals."
I wasn't surprised; it's what I'd expected from the start. I responded with unexpected candor. "It sure is tough for a local author to get recognized without bookstores. The internet is so massive it's hard to break into."
The sympathetic pharmacist nodded and went back to counting pills.
"Thanks for your help," I said.
He wished me luck, and I slumped through the drug store toward the exit. Along the way, a glass pedestal case held a stack of three books with their mate propped on top for display. The paperback history of my home state gloated proudly at me.
I could easily have envisioned my own book in similar display somewhere amid the diversity of merchandise inside the small town shop, but I kept right on walking.