In Lieu of Lifeway

The news of another bookstore chain going under is sad news, indeed. As the author of a book that never appeared in brick-and-mortar stores apart from the occasional customer request, I can speak for newbie authors everywhere that the demise of the paper book store tolls a sad bell for writers unknown. Think about your recent book purchases. If you bought a book online, chances are you were looking for that particular book or author. Perhaps, just perhaps, you followed a rabbit trail on Amazon: “readers also bought…” But most likely you typed in the title you were seeking, bought it, did not pass go.

On the other hand, think about the last time you visited a proper bookstore, the kind stocked with proper books. Did you zoom straight to a particular shelf, select a particular book, and leave the building without browsing? Or did you linger at an endcap, run your finger along some colorful spines, flip through a novel you’d never even heard of before? Did you, perhaps, leave the store with an unexpected purchase?

Brick and mortar stores give unknown authors a fighting chance, but they also benefit readers. Give a reader an hour of uninterrupted browsing once a month and see if she doesn’t find a new favorite–and not only the latest and greatest. How many of your favorite books never made the bestseller lists? How many were hidden gems?

It’s no one’s fault that Amazon only shows you a few titles at a time (kudos to Amazon for letting us scroll through “others also bought” at all). Nor that book review sites limit the books they choose to review. But when everyone’s rushing to comment on the same twenty books, there are hundreds (thousands?) that never get a nod. That means there are hundreds (thousands?) of books that might be your next favorite… if, having the chance to see it, you take a chance.

So I wanted to think through some good practices for readers in a non-bookstore age, before books go the way of the dinosaur. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Hang around readers, both in person and online. Talk books. Swap books. Get book suggestions. I love Goodreads for this purpose, the almost mathematical equation: because you love Wendell Berry, you might like Frederick Buechner. I love that you can click on another reader’s name and see what books you’ve enjoyed in common. I also love lurking on websites that swarm with poets and artists who stretch me with their suggestions, sites like The Rabbit Room or Image Journal. If you only ever get a book suggestion from someone who reads exactly what you like, you won’t get very far, now will you?
  2. Go to used bookstores. Maybe this is the future of brick and mortar book sales? At a good used bookstore, there is a far greater selection than even a big box like Barnes and Noble, because the sellers aren’t constrained to focus on current chart-toppers. They tend to be a little musty, disorganized, and sometimes disappointing. On the other hand, you might walk out with a completely unknown and delightful find–maybe the first in a series.
  3. Make goals. As in: for every new release I buy I will also try one a decade old. For every 21st century book, I will read one from another generation. For every familiar author, I’ll try a new writer. It’s often pointed out that reading the Bible just 15 minutes a day will get you through the whole book in a year; think how many other books you could also tackle with an extra 15 minutes a day! Do you spend 15 minutes on Facebook? Hmmm…
  4. Go to the library. If you notice that your library is lacking in a category, donate your own gently used copies to beef it up. Our local libraries have a dismal “inspirational” section (their euphemism for Christian-ish books). Personally, I would love to see churches resurrect robust church libraries, wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s time to make that happen.
  5. Browse new (and old) releases from indie publishers. Fun fact for the non-nerd crowd: it used to be that American publishing was dominated by the “big six,” but since 2013 there are only five, as even two of the giants (Penguin and Random House) merged. These days even the majority of Christian publishers are owned by the same five companies: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. These guys own everything from Zondervan and Thomas Nelson to Puffin and Viking. For Christian-themed books, this means that the decision of what gets published is no longer the sole discretion of a theologically careful committee. It makes for strange bedfellows. Thomas Nelson, for example, is the publishing home to both Al Mohler and Rachel Hollis, while HarperCollins, TN’s parent company, also publishes the Dalai Lama and the Kardashians. However, there are some stalwart indie presses out there that are blazing their own trail, stubbornly holding out against The Man. For instance, Christian Focus Publications graciously accepted Thirty Thousand Days. Clearly they weren’t just in it for the money!

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