How Top Authors Are Supporting Bookstores

Neil Gaiman
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • June 04, 2015 at 12:49 PM

The rise of online shopping has left a lot of bookstores struggling. While the major chains have downsized, independent bookstores have had fewer options when it comes to keeping at least a few lights on, which has meant less bookstores in cities and towns the world over.

But some of the world’s leading authors are stepping up to help in a range of different ways. For starters, many more authors are doing talks at bookstores, particularly independent stores.

There’s a great history of this in Australia, with shops like Avid Reader in Brisbane, Kinokuniya in Sydney and Reader’s Feast in Melbourne building a strong reputation for regular author readings, discussions and community events.

Well known authors also play a big role, with international bestsellers such as JK Rowling, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Paulo Coehlo often doing readings and signings in bookstores around the world. While there’s a long tradition of authors attending these events as a form of promotion their latest releases, the long established reputations of these authors suggests they don’t actually have to do it to get sales, and that it could be more about supporting bookstores that really need the sales.

Neil Gaiman has said as much, even including his support for bookstores in his bestseller American Gods, where he writes:

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”

He’s also taken to social media to encourage people to support independent bookstores, and in January posted on his Facebook page that 5000 signed copies of his novel Trigger Warning would be sent to indie bookshops across the United States.

“See if there’s one of these bookshops near you. Go and visit it. Buy a book from them, or more than one,” he says.

“Buy an unsigned copy of Trigger Warning if they run out of signed ones. Support your local independent bookshops.”

Authors working in bookstores

Gaiman and his wife, musician and author Amanda Palmer, have also signed on as ambassadors for Indies First Day – an annual initiative to get both authors and readers supporting independent bookstores.

Set up by renowned US author Sherman Alexie, bookstore owner Janis Segress and in partnership with the American Booksellers Association, Indies First day is held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in America. It’s widely considered one of the biggest sales days of the year in the US retail world and, is also known as Small Business Saturday – a day where people are encouraged to support all small businesses after the retail frenzy of Black Friday. For the past two years it’s also seen authors including Alexie, Gaiman, Daniel Handler, James Patterson and T.C. Boyle.

The event came about in 2013 after Alexie missed a scheduled reading at Segress’s bookstore in Seattle. When Segress suggested he work as a volunteer in the store for a day, Alexie ran with the idea. According to the LA Times, more than 1000 authors were involved in the first Indies First Day in 2013, and the trend continued in 2014.

The success of Indies First Day (also known as Indies Day) has inspired the movement to head north, with Vancouver-based author Janie Chang launching Canadian Authors For Indies Day on 2nd May 2015.

The inaugural event was a huge success, with almost 700 authors visiting over 123 bookstores across the country. Authors involved included novelist and playwright Ann-Marie Macdonald, bestselling speculative fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay and Kenneth Oppel.

According to the Retail Council of Canada, stores involved saw book sales increase “a staggering 18.5%” in that week compared to three weeks prior. But Chang says there were also some other unexpected, positive outcomes from the event.

“I feel as though we have become a closer community. More intimate and supportive, willing to pitch in for a good cause. Bookstores got to meet new authors, old friends reconnected, and new friendships took off,” she writes on the Authors for Indies blog.

“Someone expressed surprise and delight at how many authors pitched in to help. My response was that we all want indie bookstores to thrive, we just needed the right event to show how much we care. It’s absolutely thrilling that Authors for Indies has turned out to be that event.”

While the event is yet to catch on elsewhere in the world (outside of the odd appearance and call for support at writers festivals), there’s a good chance authors and independent booksellers in other countries will catch on as the Indies Day gains more momentum in the US and Canada.

Authors running bookstores

Author support for physical bookstores sometimes goes beyond simply working in one for a day or signing thousands of books to promote smaller shops. In fact, as bookstores began closing down, a handful of authors took matters into their own hands by opening up their own stores.

Bestselling author and PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Ann Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto) has a great story behind her Nashville bookstore, Parnassus Books: she opened it with two veteran booksellers in 2011 after the last bookstore in the city closed for good.

In an article written for The Atlantic in 2012, Patchett says it was a plan they went along with despite overwhelming criticism and concern that books would soon be dead.

“Hadn’t I heard the news? Had no one thought to tell me? Bookstores were over,” she says of interviews during a book tour to Australia before Parnassus Books had opened.

“Then, one by one, the interviewers recounted the details of their own favorite stores, and I listened. They told me, confidentially and off the record, that they thought I just might succeed.”

She says the process of financing and opening the bookstore made her appreciate them even more, and that she has “inadvertently become the spokesperson for independent bookstores” as a result.

“People still want books; I’ve got the numbers to prove it. I imagine they remember the bookstores of their youth as tenderly as I remember mine,” she says.

“They are lined up outside most mornings when we open our doors, because, I think, they have learned through this journey we’ve all been on that the lowest price does not always represent the best value.”

Values are also what inspired Native American author Louise Erdrich to open Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. The store, which was opened in 2001, specialises in Native American books and arts, but also stocks a range of other fiction and non-fiction collections.

“We exist to keep real conversations between book lovers alive. We exist to nourish and build a community based on books,” the website says.

Similarly, when US media personality and author Garrison Keillor opened Common Good Books in St Paul, Minnesota in 2006, he wrote a poem expressing the value and purpose of bookstores:

A bookstore is for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good – that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
Here in a book-filled room on a busy street,
Strangers — living and dead — are hoping to meet.

More recently, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series Jeff Kinney, opened up a bookstore in the town of Plainville, MA. The store – named An Unlikely Story – officially opened on Saturday 30th May 2015, with residents lining up to explore the store, its café and event space.

In an interview with Quartz, Kinney says he hopes the store will be a legacy for the town and a beacon of light for physical bookstores labouring away in the digital age.

“A physical book has a heft, a permanence that you don’t get digitally,” he says.

“So our hope is that the bookstore will remain a vital, important part of communities across the country and the world. We hope that the disappearance of such stores has leveled off. That there’s a resurgence.”

Funding for bookstores

Another bestselling author who has recently made headlines for his support of bookstores is crime fiction king James Patterson. Patterson – who actually holds a world record for being the first person to sell a million ebooks – has set up a series of grants around the world to support bookstores.

According to his website, in 2014 Patterson gave away over US$1 million to bookstores in the United States to support specific programs and help resource poor independent stores.

“In 2015, James Patterson will continue to support independent bookstores in innovative ways and will champion a new initiative centered on getting our kids reading and supporting school libraries,” the site says.

This initiative includes offering grants to bookstores in Australia, as well as New Zealand and the UK.

Australian and New Zealand stores with dedicated kids sections can apply for up to $5000 for pretty much any program they want to run for children, with Patterson pledging a total of $100,000 to the region.

“Bookshops guard against a future in which far too many children are illiterate,’ Patterson says in a statement.

“So many bookstores are already making a difference in their communities and I’m looking to help bookstores who want to do more.”

He says the proposals and outcomes of the money given out to bookstores in the US and the UK has “thrilled and delighted” him, and he’s looking forward to similarly positive results in Australia and New Zealand, encouraging stores to make proposals both big and small.

“I’m open to all sorts of ideas. From an after-school bookclub, to an emailed newsletter. From a spot bonus to a valued employee, to funds to create a storytelling tent. Send me your ideas and I will read them,” he says.

“For me, making the pledge is the easy part. The tricky task will be deciding which shops to help.”

Patterson has also teamed up with Alexie and Gaiman as a supporter of Indies First Day, giving him firsthand experience on the floor of independent bookstores in the US.

He also recently announced the launch of children’s books imprint Jimmy Books with Little, Brown & Company.

Patterson’s prominence and large financial commitment highlights just how much value even the most famous writers can have for physical bookstores.

So, with authors of this calibre all finding different ways to support bookstores and booksellers, there’s bound to be more people keen to browse and buy books off shelves (rather than screens) around the world.

Images: Neil Gaiman signing a book at independent bookstore Porter Square Books, source: Twitter; Jeff Kinney opening his bookstore in Plainville, source: The Sun Chronicle/YouTube.

Jeff Kinney
Comments (2)
  • June 05, 2015 at 7:24 AM

    Excellent article & reporting. As a Canadian independent who participated in the hugely-successful Authors for Indies, it’s excellent to see its affect reached Australia! Thank you, Kelly

  • Amy Bradney-George
    June 05, 2015 at 9:43 AM

    Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for reading and congratulations on being involved in Authors for Indies in Canada! It’s fantastic to hear how well it did and I hope authors and booksellers in Australia are inspired to do something similar. Best wishes, Amy