Book Smart

Staying Indie in the Age of Amazon

By Colin Battis 

In 2007, Amazon released the first Kindle e-reader. It sold out in less than six hours. This was the start of what many believed would be the death of printed books. Amazon had already begun shaking up the business of bookselling by making it easier to have reading delivered than to go out and browse the shelves of the nearest bookstore. Then, with the Kindle — which was quickly joined by the Nook, the iPad, and a swarm of less successful e-readers — people wouldn’t even need to buy paper books.

he future seemed dark for the printed word. The popular bookstore chain Borders went out of business without warning. Publisher profits plummeted, as e-books started capturing more and more of the market. Newspapers were filled with authors and columnists making pessimistic predictions.

Luckily, the end of paper books and comfortable neighborhood bookshops failed to arrive. The past five years have seen a lot of growth for the book. Compared to the 1,651 independent bookstores that were clinging to life in 2009, there are now 2,524 indie bookstores in the US. Still, things aren’t the way that they used to be. While independent sellers are doing well, the enormous chain Barnes & Noble has struggled to keep their footing. The “Big Five,” publishing houses in New York that have dominated book publishing for decades, have seen losses over the years that are shaking their hold on the publishing industry.

With Amazon and the Internet on the scene, the old ways of doing things are threatened like never before. Today, the book market is wider and more diverse than most could have imagined. Thanks to e-books and new printing methods, many writers unable to find a seat at the Big Five’s table have been able to publish their own work anyway.

Consider Philadelphia as an example. The city is home to a thriving literary community, one with deep roots. Many writers who hope to find mainstream success move to New York City, where they can be close to the agents and editors at the heart of the publishing industry. Those who stay in Philly, which lacks a powerhouse of its own where writers can score major book deals, tend to embrace the indie scene.

I went out to talk to some of the publishers and booksellers who are part of literary Philadelphia, to ask them a question — how do they keep their head above water in a business that has become so tough? What I found was that for these people on the margins of the market, it isn’t enough to have a business strategy. They need a personal reason to stay in the game.

For David Castro, the founder of Arch Street Press, that reason is his lifelong mission of advancing social entrepreneurship and leadership. Castro founded a nonprofit called the Institute for Leadership Education, Advancement, and Development, or ILEAD. “I had an interest not just in leadership development as it stood, but in evolving leadership into the future,” he said.

Wanting to be part of that change, Castro wrote a book, and didn’t know where to publish it. That made him interested in the business model of publishing.

“First of all, it’s so New York-centric,” he explained. “It’s heavily driven by a phalanx of editors and PR people, and I was not convinced. I talked to people in the industry who told me that most of what they publish didn’t make money, and the things that did only made money because people were already throwing lots of money behind them… I started to look at the whole publishing thing and I said this is kind of ridiculous.” Continue reading

The Passion of Stephen Fried

The journalist and author has spent a lifetime pursuing stories about people

By Colin Battis 

“I stayed by the phone that entire time, just waiting to be sued. A week, maybe ten days later, I got a call from the main source, who was a medical examiner. He told me she had confessed, and nobody else knew. I remember I fell on the ground in my office crying, because I realized at that point how worried I was, ‘cause we hadn’t heard anything, that we had gotten some major thing wrong.”

Stephen Fried speaks casually about solving the largest-ever case involving children killed by their own mother, sitting in an office that seems like that of a stereotypical professor or academic. Every available surface of desk, shelf, or windowsill seems weighed down by books, magazines, or sticky notes.

Some of that material relates to Fried’s latest project: a foray into history to write an acclaimed biography of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and important figure in treating mental illness.

As he leans back in his chair, Fried’s face is accidentally framed next to a bobblehead figure of himself, which does a great job of capturing his shock of curly white hair and the eyebrows that arch sternly above his glasses.

Author and Journalist Stephen Fried

There are a few concessions to the accomplishments of his 40-year career in journalism- framed newspaper articles and magazine covers, copies of his own books, and a cluster of awards. One of those awards is a medal from the Vidocq Society, an organization of forensic professionals specializing in cold cases, given to him for his investigation of a woman who had killed eight of her ten children and had gotten away with it, fooling authorities into believing it was a tragic case of SIDS.

This is the story Fried is currently caught up in telling, having passed the part where he turned over his material to the police and just now caught up to when the killer confessed to her crimes.

“People always said that this woman is either the most sympathetic woman in history and we were reopening every one of her wounds, 30 years later,” Fried said. “Or this is the worst unsolved crime in the history of being a mom, in which case you are saving the memories of the most kids ever killed by the person who gave birth to them…”

Though he might look perfectly suited to the stereotype of a ‘writer’, Fried is harder to pin down in person, leaning back in his office chair and seeming to enjoy each question that comes his way as an exercise in dissecting his own career. He pivots from decade to decade, jumping from high to low points as he questions or looks back fondly on his own decisions and strokes of luck.

Continue reading