The plight of the high street bookshop, struggling against the power of the online giants, is a common complaint either side of the Atlantic. But not often do the prominent players, the authors and publishers, put their words into action and take a stand against the tide.
This month, Dave Eggers, the award-winning campaigning author, is to risk American sales of his new novel, The Every, by limiting access to the hardback copies. Only small bookstores will stock it.
It is a typical move for Eggers, who has long pushed back against the conventions of the industry, setting up his own non-profit publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 1998, two years before his breakout bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it is also something that fits neatly with the subject of his new book. A sequel to his 2013 hit, The Circle, it is a dystopian satire, featuring a company that looks much like Amazon.
For the US release of the book, on Tuesday, Eggers will allow hardcover editions to go on sale only in small bookstores. Weeks later, Vintage, a division of Random House, will publish an e-book and a paperback version. Even then, customers won’t be able to buy the hardcover on Amazon.
Eggers’s maverick move has been met with great gratitude by America’s independent bookstore owners, who are struggling with the huge post-Covid shift to online services.
“It’s made us feel like the author and the publishing industry really care about the smaller stores,” said Laura Scott Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. “It’s been hard to compete with the bigger retailers. Any small advantage we can get in any kind of space is great.”
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and creator of the Miami book fair international, goes further. He believes Eggers is recognising “the important role independent booksellers play in the ecology of our literary culture”. Kaplan sees Eggers’s innovation as support for stores more than an attack on Amazon, which, after all, has had a negative impact on a wide range of other small businesses. The larger question for Kaplan is what would be lost if independent bookshops disappeared.
“You’d be losing a diversity of voices when you lose a diversity of sellers. The people who sell literature in a community help people to discover voices that might not otherwise be introduced,” he said.
In Britain, where Eggers’s publication day will be like any other, retailers are calling out for a similar champion. And many authors will be rallying to the cause on Saturday, Bookshop Day, by attending live events in local bookshops. Leading writers Jeanette Winterson, Ian Rankin, Mark O’Connell, Val McDermid, KN Chimbiri and Piers Torday are among those giving book signings or readings on 9 October.
The grassroots pushback against the dominance of online bookselling has three main prongs in the UK. The first is the growing solidarity between independent bookshops across the nations, typified by the arrival a year ago of uk.bookshop.org, a portal for buying books that pays back to booksellers that are not part of large chains. In 12 months, the site has been joined by 480 independent bookshops, generating £1.6m for them.
Nicole Vanderbilt, the managing director of the British site, said championing the independent bookshop was “vital” work. “They are a fundamental part of their local communities, often offering so much more than simply being a place to buy books. We’re proud to be a place online that offers a glimpse of that expert bookseller touch but, more importantly, allows customers to support indies.”
The second response to online dominance is a campaign to persuade Amazon to let its staff join a union, improve their conditions and so level the playing field. It is led by the union Unite, which has also published a report into Amazon’s business strategies and set up a confidential whistleblowing hotline for workers. “We are calling on Amazon to back a declaration which guarantees workers have the freedom to talk with and form a union without fear across the UK and Ireland,” a Unite spokesperson said this weekend. Callers to the hotline, Unite claims, have spoken of stress, ill health and the daily indignities of a “toxic” working culture.
The third element of the grassroots movement is taking place on high streets. Taking their cue from campaigners such as Eggers, who set up reading venues on America’s west coast, many bookstores are now venues for events and community groups. In the aftermath of the lockdown, the bookshop appears to have become more of a focal point for many people.
“It’s been very clear that everyone is enjoying the experience of browsing, of getting recommendations from the team here and of attending our author events once again,” said Sheryl Shurville, owner of Chorleywood Bookshop in Hertfordshire and Gerrards Cross Books, Buckinghamshire. “All our customers have been incredibly supportive over the last 18 months, but it is great to get some form of normality as we head towards Bookshop Day and the busiest time of the year for bookshops.”
On Saturday, Ann Cleeves, the bestselling author of the Shetland, Vera and Two Rivers novels, will be signing copies at her local bookshop, The Bound in Whitley Bay, Northumberland, while Melissa Cummings-Quarry and Natalie A Carter, authors of Grown: The Black Girls’ Guide to Glowing Up will be attending an event at the newly opened Bookhaus Bristol. The founders of Black Girls’ Book Club will be sharing stories and advice from 4pm. While, in Seaton, Devon, the Owl and Pyramid Bookshop is to host a series of events, including a book treasure hunt for children.
Author Graeme Macrae Burnet will be conducting a mystery drop-in tour of bookshops in the north of England, starting at The Book Case, Hebden Bridge, to sign copies of his book Case Study; and in Rotherham, from Tuesday, Typeset, a new community bookshop and co-working space, is handing out £5 vouchers to five winners of a daily competition for customers who arrive with a five-line poem.
In Eggers’s new book, Mae Holland, the protagonist of The Circle, has become the villainous executive of a company that takes over a rival, with a familiar-sounding founder who “was only too happy to cash out and devote his time to space exploration with his fourth spouse”. But, for the writer, the narrative is more than a chance to poke fun at Jeff Bezos. Eggers is highlighting the huge shift towards online technology in our lives.
“I don’t think most people necessarily realise just how much an inhibiting species change this is – this overwhelming, constant, unavoidable surveillance,” he said recently, adding, “and it’s making us a far less interesting species and far more subservient to technology.”