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The case for and against independence

My efforts with getting book events at independent bookstores fascinate me. Indies in smaller towns elsewhere are incredibly interested in having me around. Urban indies could give a shit. Corporate stores, sadly, welcome me with open arms.

What’s an anti-corporate iconoclast to do? Indies were the first stores I contacted because, like many of my local-yokel pals, thought there was dignity and purpose in supporting the local merchant. After all, you help them make money by moving your books.

But big-city stores can’t be bothered with small potatoes like me. My book is not a national bestseller and won’t be. So, at urban and suburban independents, I don’t matter, regardless how local I am. I can’t compete with Sarah Palin, Dean Koontz, and Dan Brown.

More insulting, several famous independents won’t hold an event unless the author can come up with half or more of the advertising budget. This means that authors with money or with big-giant corporate commercial presses get access to their vaunted stacks. Sure, they will put your book in their stores, but they really don’t care if it goes anywhere. They have Stephen King.

This practice (which, I suspect, keeps bothersome self-published authors at bay) prevents an author like me, with a decent book from a great, but small press from accessing markets that would likely contribute my total sales and them move those books.

Some might argue, as I think they do, that they have a product to sell. The have steady, reliable phalanxes of book buyers. There’s worth in that.

The question is, then, if it’s just about profit, what separates them from, say, Chapters, Books-a-Million, and amazon.com?

Oddly, urban and suburban chain stores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, are more accommodating than the independent bookstore competitors. At least I can get into those stores and slog books, even if they will never know my name.

I’m an author. It’s hard enough to be an author without having bookstore owners stand in the way. Sadly, this means that I, too, am reduced to joining the corporate team.

It’s inevitable, perhaps, as William H. Whyte pointed out first in The Organization Man and Alfred Chandler further supported in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Corporations force small business to operate on economic and financial models similar to those that work best for corporations. Corporations only buy and subsume businesses easily absorbed into their organization—even when the corporate-acquired small- and medium-sized companies are able to operate as they always have. When the companies can’t be bought, corporations will bring economies of scale and expertise to bear to compete with those not easily bought or swallowed. This, then, acts as a standardizing influence on the way all businesses run. Bookkeeping, for instance, while looking very different at GE from that done at Mom and Pop Shop, is essentially the same way of understanding the movement and exchange of money.

In addition, the corporation influences the way money is made, moved, lent, and repaid. This, then further streamlines small business in fundamental ways. Very fundamental since the goal of business is making and moving money.

Perpetuating this process, the economies of scale these combinations create (corporations, by the way, used to be called “combinations”) lead corporate decision makers to do what’s best to maintain those scales. It may mean buying competing businesses, or contracting out, outsourcing, or closing in-house operations depending on their usefulness to the risk-reducing and money-making structures of corporate organization.

In any case, according to Chandler and other historians that followed, corporations can absorb existing businesses or recreate competing businesses in-house because the corporation itself is a conglomeration of what were or could have been independent businesses.

A great example of this is The Pitch and other indie weekly “alternative” newspapers that the New Times and Village Voice organizations bought up through the 1990s. It was no trick to buy out “independent” and “local” business people in a market that, at the time, was a growth and high-margin industry. Regardless of the intentions and resolve of those who touted their “locally owned” status as a marketing tool, they understood that at some point, they would have to sell anyway or be driven out of the market by a VV or NT competitor that the corporations could encourage, fund, and support.

Both organizations, NT and VV, bought local papers and, essentially, allowed them to run as they always have. But not really. While the papers and their money-making and moving operations remained somewhat independent, funneling profits up the chain, the corporate functionaries were assessing how best to control the editorial and publishing operations to create the highest profits. The result was a change in direction to relatively innocuous, sensational, personality-centered reporting similar to that of Geraldo. No longer were the papers critical of all aspects of economy, culture, government, and politics. They could not be. It does not do to piss off the people you might be able to sell ad space to.

In the end, the two corporations were so much alike out of the necessities of money making and moving that when the head of the New Times Corporation got ambitious, his corporation was able to subsume Village Voice. All of it, including its newspapers, corporate managers, and its advertising cooperative, its contracting and distribution departments, and public relations organization. New Times even absorbed the more respected and well-known name, becoming Village Voice Media.

So, when we look at corporate, chain bookstores giant, their individual stores operate much like independent businesses–with highly centralized control of content, image, and physical architecture. Each store is accountable for inventories, profit, labor costs, and other business incidentals–just like an independent business. Operations that lower costs to stores and increase their profits consolidate under one roof–banks of actuaries, accountants, price consultants, marketing stooges, and managers, as well as procurement, finance, shareholder relations, and public relations departments. They own distribution centers, and, in some cases, publish their own books.

All of these corporate departments and functions, at some point, were or could have been independent businesses or individual entrepreneurs (think Marley and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Thus, even when corporations outsource and contract certain operations, contractors and outsourcers are beholden to the whims, desires, wants, and needs of corporate clients. This then influences the ways that these independent operators create products, make and move money, and manage their businesses.

Ultimately, corporations have become centers of universes whose human, financial, and social geographies shift and move according to managerial decisions. Managers cannot operate with complete control, however, as corporate organization creates reflexive paradigms in which managers must take into consideration the decisions and needs of their departments and contractors who are in direct contact with their markets—which are then influenced by managerial decisions, and back and forth in a consistent but not reciprocal process.

So, independent bookstores in smaller markets must make decisions that make money in standardized and regulated ways. This puts them constantly under threat. Their success and increasing margins may decrease competition by eliminating small or less efficient bookstores. On the other hand, this decreasingly competitive market raises margins. This creates and environment inviting corporate competition.

Hastings books and video is a great example of this. With economies of scale, it took over small-town markets where independent bookstores once operated in competition with each other. The Hastings organization also replaced small-town video- and video game stores. The combined books, video, and gaming under one roof, further eliminating competition from smaller, single-venture stores.

In the end, independents outside urban, and small- and medium-sized cities stay in business because the corporation has yet to figure out how to remake the small-shop atmosphere and make enough money there. But indies in larger markets operate much like their corporate competitors—seeking out the most lucrative and high-margin products to sell (in this case, bestselling books and authors) and replicating themselves the way corporations do. They dress themselves in a cool, once-upon-a-time atmosphere and local interest but really don’t care that much about small-time, even local artists that might contribute more to their communities than just green dollars in a big house.

So, independent and local always good? Don’t buy it. Corporate always bad? In terms of accumulation of power, yes. In terms of benefit to the nascent writer, no.

In the end, they are both in the business of profit. And depending on how you accept, critique, or reject capitalism as it exists today, that can be a very good thing or just another unquestioned mythology perpetrating itself.

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