Dodd’s, Borders & Fast-moving Trains

There use to be an independent bookstore in my neighborhood called Dodd’s. It was on 2nd street, a very trendy shopping area here. The store was always packed and it had all the trappings of an independent book seller: knowledgeable employees, a pretty good “We recommend” section, regular author readings and signings, plenty of books by local writers and that soft, musty smell only small bookstores seem to possess. It was a great place to either go and buy a book, or just spend an hour roaming the shelves. I loved it.

Then Border’s came to town, followed closely by Barnes & Nobel. I soon found myself going there instead of Dodd’s because, well, everyone else did. (Note: this was before I discovered the writer in me and my esteem of all things literary.) I loved the newness of it, the clean carpets, the fancy displays, the self-help kiosks, the Starbucks.

 When Dodd’s decided to close, it made the front page of our local paper. I read the article and felt a sharp pang of guilt when I came to a quote by the owner. It went something like this:

“We were doing okay until Border’s opened up.”

 I gulped and winced as the realization came to me: I KILLED DODD’S BOOKS!

Well, not me alone. There were plenty others who abandoned the old favorite for the new and shiny mega-store. But that didn’t make me feel any better, so I did what any guilt-laden capitalist would do. I went back to Dodd’s and bought books. Lots of them because my guilt was fueled by a 50% off sale.

Flash forward 15 years.

Borders Announces Bankruptcy

Unlike my guilt-ridden feelings over the independent bookstore, my reaction to this news was pretty indifferent. To say I was surprised would be an exaggeration. I shopped at Borders, bought many books there, and even used it as a reading, socializing and writing spot. But after a while, it just didn’t feel right. The corporate, we’re only here to make money atmosphere seemed to squash my muse, so I stopped going there regularly. Instead I found a few local coffee shops in town that I can write in, hang out, or meet with other writers. I either get my books on Amazon, or the library.

 Do I feel guilty about Borders closing? Not in the least. Yeah, folks losing their jobs and hundreds of empty buildings in cities does depress me, but as a writer, what worries me the most is how rapidly the book business is changing, a business I hope to soon be a part of. I imagine it will be like trying to jump onto a fast-moving train, and all signs indicate that the train will not be slowing down anytime soon.

After researching, talking to other writers, going to workshops, panel discussions and reading every “How to Get Published (or an Agent) article in P & W and Writers Digest, I’m pretty confused. Writers have too many choices. In the “old days” the steps seemed pretty clear: Write a fantastic manuscript, get an agent, get published. Of course there were exceptions, like Stephen King, but they were just that–exceptions.

But in the year 2011, has the exception now become the rule? Self-publishing has gained a lot of momentum from both new and established writers. Once called “vanity books,” self publishing now seems the brave and bold way to go.

 Brave, bold and, scary as hell. Building platforms, marketing, blogging, tweeting, FaceBook-ing, and everything else are all the things a self-published author must do—on their own. Those who don’t will surely get squashed under the rails and end up with cases of unsold books cluttering their living room. Even the E-book route is not guaranteed. No one likes clicking on to their site and seeing the “Books Sold” counter remain stubbornly in the double digits. And those, you know, where the ones your mother bought to give to her bridge club friends.

 So, here I am, like many of my friends, at a crucial point in our writerly journeys. To self-publish or not? To endure months, and months of queries and rejections. To have a publisher keep your manuscript for eight months (true story) only to return it with the sad news that they, just like Borders, are going out of business. “Good-luck placing your manuscript with another publisher.”

One thing the bankruptcy of Borders does not portend is the death of  books and readers who buy them. Experts have a lot of opinions as to why Borders failed, and most of them have nothing to do with the lack of book sales, and there are winners and losers  in this turn of events.

I want to be one of the winners. Although the chance of seeing my book on the shelves of the local Borders is now dead, I need to focus on the many other opportunities out there. [cliché warning] When one door closes, another door opens, and writers today have many, many doors to choose from. But deciding which is best for you, for your particular manuscript, that seems like the hardest part of it all. Maybe even harder than writing the damn book in the first place.