My previous post in the “Clonefiles” series mentioned that Angry Robot titled their post announcing Clonefiles “Supporting Independent Booksellers.” Why did AR decide to include this additional party in their crucial experiment? Is Clonefiles a viable solution for the troubles facing independent bookstores (“indies”) in 2013? My speculation follows.
The indies began to face serious challenges in the early 1990s when the big book chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble entered the arena and began to dominate the bookselling market. Many independent stores closed as a result, and some pundits began to put the very institution of indie booksellers on a deathwatch.
With Borders’ closing in 2011, one might like to say that the tables have turned. However, Borders’ death was a reflection of the declining influence of brick-and-mortar bookstores in general. Even many who claim to love the institution of indie bookstores begrudgingly admit that the fall of independent bookstore might simply be inevitable.
Angry Robot isn’t buying it.
“Indie booksellers are the lifeblood of the community, and as an independent publisher, we’re committed to supporting our friends on the high street,” says AR senior editor Lee Harris in the Clonefiles intropost.
Many who see the indie bookstore as worthy of preservation reflect similar sentiments. IndieBound, a website devoted to connecting readers with their local indies, focuses on the community-wide benefits that stem from indie bookstores. Even President Obama saw fit to comment on the state of the indies, reflecting the truth that small businesses as a whole are suffering. These businesses, claims the President, are “critical to growing our economy.”
AR’s statement makes it clear that they have a personal investment in the health of their “friends on the high street.” While larger corporations tend not to frame company-wide initiatives as personal missions, AR embraces it. Through a lot of their playful language (SF, F, and WTF?!) and very tight publisher-to-fan initiatives (such as The Robot Army, which will be the subject of one or more posts), AR clearly communicates that they are fans on the same level as their buyers.
“We know many readers are madly passionate about their genres,” says AR’s mission statement page. “Angry Robot is too. If anything, we’re too passionate. We are fans, given at any moment to break into a lengthy harangue about why book X is a lost classic or author Y really should give it up already.”
Such talk is also part of the image they want to create. If they want their readers to know that AR is composed of fans, then they want the indie literature community to know that they are a caring member of that community. In the Clonefiles intropost, they describe themselves as “independent publishers.” While AR could easily focus all of their efforts on safer digital initiatives, they choose to create digital AND print initiatives. They wear their heart on their sleeve, which communicates sincerity to their readers. Such earnestness has the potential to foster goodwill amongst readers, which can create fondness for the company as a whole (I know it worked for me). In publishing, creating loyalty to a publisher is quite rate, but AR seems to have succeeded in developing a fanbase with this approach.
However noble Clonefiles might be, can it actually work as an initiative to save independent bookstores? The 2012 Clonefiles trial proved profitable for Mostly Books, but can other indies look to AR as a guideline for saving their own stores?
Previous attempts to drum up business at indie bookstores using e-books has been mixed at best. Kobo started a project where readers purchase a Kobo at select indie bookstores. In turn, future Kobo e-book purchases benefit the store via sales commissions. This reflects a project that Google attempted two years earlier, which was an outright flop. Kobo’s project was significantly more successful, but the sales margins were still smaller than hoped for. There was far more goodwill towards Kobo’s project than there was towards Waterstones’ selling of Kindles and Kindle e-books in their stores, which was dubbed by the Economist as a “Faustian pact.”
Clonefiles has engendered more goodwill than Kobo’s initiative, however, and by innovating with bundling they carved their niche in the indie landscape, which the New York Post claims is the key to keeping an indie bookstore alive. Even in a post-Matchbook world, Clonefiles-carrying stores are still the only providers offering bundled e-books that are both DRM-free and free as in beer.
If these stores maintain that niche factor, however, it will prevent a Clonefiles model from becoming the messiah for the indie bookseller world. Since Matchbook has not fully rolled out yet, we have yet to see whether or not Clonefiles can seriously compete with Amazon’s program. For now, holding onto a niche might be a small victory worth savoring. Only time (and sales figures) can tell.