I used to live in Portland and sell books to Powell’s frequently. Recently, I learned about their web book buying program, and settled in to see how it works.
I was somewhat disturbed to read “no print on demand” on their list of guidelines for what they buy. I know a lot of good books that have used this technology, and Powell’s is an independent store. Yet, here was a line that means they will stock and sell only mainstream-published books through one of their largest-reaching purchasing methods.
Of course, I have also seen weak books published through print on demand. I’ve seen fiction books with wandering pointless plots and sudden losses of continuity, and nonfiction with unparsable paragraphs and thickets of misspellings. I understand wanting to wade through fewer bad books. Buying a book is a commitment of their their money and shelving space. Having a gatekeeper — in this case, traditional publishers — helps them choose books that will be profitable for them more efficiently.
As a reader, I’d like to have a gatekeeper too. It would be wonderful to have someone presort books so I could count on buying well-written, well-edited books that I would enjoy. The problem for me is that traditional publishers are not doing a very good job of it. When I go to Barnes and Noble to look for books, I seldom find any new science fiction I want to read. Barnes and Noble works so closely with traditional publishers that they influence which books reach print, and they are doing it in a way that doesn’t work for me. In other words, their gatekeeping is keeping books I’d like away from me instead of raising the quality of books available to me.
I used to look to Locus for science fiction recommendations. However, some time back I found they’d sent me too many cynical or bleak books. They were prioritizing workmanship and literary quality over enjoyability.
There are more books than ever available to choose from. A quality gatekeeper would be a genuine service to me. Until I find one I can trust, I do what many readers do — I rely on the recommendations of friends and I read books by my favorite authors.
As a writer, that is your opportunity. If you can show me that you will consistently deliver what I like, you can make a customer for life.