Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Buying In

Who would suffer if we lost our favorite independent bookstores, and especially if we lost Porter Square Books? Not just the staff. Not just the little kids who come to story time. And not even just readers. In some ways, the biggest losers would be local writers.

Here's my story. A year ago, Yale University Press published Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating, which I wrote with my co-author, arachnologist Catherine L. Craig. This is my first book. I'm hardly a big-name author or celebrity. (Have you heard of me? Thought not.) Yale pushed hard to get us reviews in all the popular newspapers and magazines any writer would like to get reviews in. No dice. In the U. S., trying to sell a book by non-celebrities about spiders, evolution, genetics, and proteins--even though there's some bizarre spider sex featured--is tough. And without reviews, reporters and radio programs aren't interested. Publications in England lapped the book up. The Times: "a fascinating and readable account of one of the great, overlooked mysteries of life." The Sunday Telegraph: "full of amusing facts and observations." BBC Wildlife Magazine: "This supremely absorbing book examines one of nature's most extraordinary creations." See, it's not like we were trying to peddle dreck. But U.S. newspapers and magazines have drastically cut back on the column inches they devote to book reviewing over the last decade, some newspapers discarding their separate book review sections altogether. We were just one of tens of thousands of books vying for their attention, and given that very few science books for nonscientists get reviewed anyway (start keeping track; you'll be surprised given that we're supposedly such a technological society), we reconciled ourselves to being essentially invisible, just like lots of other worthy books.

So when I went to ask Ellen Jarrett at PSB whether she would consider giving us a reading spot, I wasn't exactly expecting her to say yes. What was in it for PSB? We had great blurbs, but there weren't any reviews, or interviews, or articles they could cite to generate buzz. But I knew PSB had a history of promoting local authors and also of co-sponsoring events with the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, which I've been a member of for about 25 years. I left a book and a flyer with Ellen and went home.

Ellen said yes. I felt like a high school senior hearing I'd just gotten into my first-choice college--the same mix of elation and nervousness. I'd never done a reading before. But we rustled up as many friends for the audience as we could, and it was absolutely exhilarating.

That was our first big break after publication. The PSB reading gave us credibility when I approached other venues less interested in the "local" issue, even though we still weren't getting any stateside reviews. And things began to build slowly from there.

Just recently, nearly a year later, PSB's support of us no-name authors has been vindicated. The Boston Authors Club named Spider Silk a Highly Recommended Book. ForeWord Reviews gave the book its Silver Award in the Nature Category of its Book of the Year Awards. And just last week we found out that we're longlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, maybe the premier book award for science books written for nonscientists. But Ellen had no idea any of that would happen. She just knew the book looked interesting and, most important, I was a local writer.

Writing is a tough business. Most of us make very little money from our writing. By giving us reading spots, PSB helps us make a few immediate sales and lay the groundwork for future sales. Readings also help us network with other writers: I talked to Dominique Browning at her PSB reading after she wondered whether it was true that hummingbirds knit spider silk into their nests (it is), and she very nicely mentioned Spider Silk in her widely read blog. Plus, of course, hanging out in Cafe Zing before or after browsing often results in serendipitous conversations with other writers.

PSB does all this for writers, but it's not a charity. It's a business. We penurious writers can get books cheaper from Amazon. I'm glad to sell a copy of Spider Silk anywhere from any outlet, but Amazon doesn't care about me or the local writing community. Because my co-author and I are of a certain age, most of our friends remember when Cambridge was a mecca for book buyers and have mourned the loss of bookstore after bookstore. So they bought Spider Silk from PSB at my reading, even though they could have gotten it cheaper from Amazon. We didn't even have to ask them to do this--they know from experience what eventually happens when you don't buy books locally.

So, fellow local writers, when we go to a reading at PSB, we should buy something, even if it's not the book being featured. No one begrudges buying a ticket when we go to the movies, but for some reason we think spending an hour and a half at a bookstore listening to something we'll never hear anywhere else should be free. We should buy the books we want to own at PSB. And we should tell our local readers why they should buy our book at PSB, even if it costs more. Almost any book you can get from Amazon, including ebooks, you can get from PSB: if it's not on the shelves today, you can order it. I'm sure most of us follow these rules already, but in tough times, for writers AND bookstores, they seem worth repeating.

The future reading you save may be your own.


Beach Chair Diaries said...

Congratuations Leslie on your book. In January you did a reading at the National Writers' Union Annual Event.
I agree with you to keep our local independent bookstores in business, besides who wants to pay the shipping from on-line companies.
Janet Spurr, Author of Beach Chair Diaries, Summer Tales from Maine to Maui

Leslie Brunetta said...

Thank you, Janet. You're an inspiration to many local authors yourself!

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