WorldCon. Authors. Fans. Artists. The Hugos. The grumbling-about-the-Hugos. And, most of all? The dealer room. The best and brightest in geeky retail will be converging in one enormous den of commercial wonderment.
One of our favourites? Starfarer's Despatch, run by Arin Komins and Rich Warren. We wanted to know a little more about the fun and games of the bookselling world, and they graciously let us fire a few questions at them.
Rich: I have a Bachelors Degree in Library Science (my dissertation topic was 'Science Fiction and Fantasy, a History and Development of, with Relation to Public Libraries'). I then did an internship with Waterstones, way back in the early 90s. Later I spent four years working in a Barnes & Noble superstore, looking after their science fiction and fantasy section.
Arin: In college, I worked for a chain bookseller (Waldenbooks – remember those?) looking after their science fiction section…but I’ve been a book geek my entire life. I started collecting science fiction and fantasy as a tween, and have now been collecting for the last thirty years. I’m also an inveterate pimper-of-books to friends, relations, coworkers, unsuspecting bystanders, and anyone else I can get to hold still for long enough.
As dedicated haunters-of-many-a-dealer-room, a few years back, we attended a local con here in Chicago (WindyCon) and found very few used booksellers. This bothered us. We asked our local fan groups why this was the case. Local fan and author Steven H. Silver posted in response saying WindyCon had been unable to get used booksellers to come and sell. Well, that was a call to arms if ever we had heard one. We put our money where our mouth was and decided to do something about it. Starfarer’s Despatch was set up shortly thereafter. Chicago had just declared a WorldCon bid so it seemed like the right time.
PK: Besides science fiction and fantasy, what else are you selling?
Rich: Clearly if I have an awareness that something is worth a packet I'll pick it up to resell. I also have a soft spot for a number of authors that are 'under-represented' in recent years: Arthur W. Upfield, Sax Rohmer, William Leonard Marshall, Robert Van Gulik and anything by Harold Lamb, who has seen a recent resurgence of popularity thanks to the wonderful reissues edited by Howard Andrew Jones of Black Gate Magazine and published by University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books).
Arin: I’ll resell anything that I can hand sell to others. So occasional bits of horror, mystery, plenty of fantasy, occasional juvies, and once in a blue moon a game or CD or other such related item that calls our name. In general, though, we tend to stick to “genre” titles.
PK: What are the best parts of the job?
SD: Exposure to a very wide range of books, plus the ability to widen our knowledge about the genre considerably. The many great experiences - both with authors and other booksellers at conventions. The ability to share your enthusiasm about particular books with people, selling something that you love. Books have the ability to change peoples lives; if you can place the right book with a person, you have the real chance to alter the course of their life.
PK: It isn't all roses and song though, right?
SD: Bookselling isn’t our day job, and like all secondary jobs, running a bookselling business as well as working full-time is exceptionally hard. There is little or no time to actually read, which is one of the biggest problems. Processing large quantities of books can be a crushing task, and accurately grading and researching books is quite time-consuming. Spending large amounts of time waiting for book sales to start also can take up more time than you would expect…
SD: Robert A. Heinlein. Without a doubt. We find it very hard to keep his work in stock, it's often the first to sell at conventions and we're left with almost nothing of his by the end. Locally, in Chicago, Spider Robinson is extremely well thought of, and so we sell through quite a bit.
PK:Do you ever stock books that you know you won't profit from, just because you love them? If so, which ones?
SD: I've been told we will get over this by older wiser booksellers, but yes - we have some books we occasionally stock with a very limited/no margin.
- Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn, certainly one of the finest pieces of character based science fiction in this century.
- Merchanter's Luck by C. J. Cherryh (I try and sell it together with Downbelow Station for the background)
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. What more can be said? A truly exceptional book. I purchased several of these to give to my friends, as I felt strongly enough about it.
- Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, which we try to package together with Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, the book that inspired it.
- Last Call and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. His two finest works, and the ones that we use to convince customers to read him.
PK: What's the dealer community like? Was there any grumbling from the competition when you started turning up?
SD: Almost without exception people have been welcoming, both within science fiction and in the wider bookselling community at sales and other places. We've received plenty of advice and suggestions.
In most cases people become booksellers because they love books. The bookselling community is a group of people who love books. It doesn't get better than that.
PK: Sneaky industry questions! What's up with all the folks selling books for a penny on Amazon? How does that even work?
SD: This is just my opinion, but... I feel that the 1-cent sellers are factory-farming the used book industry to extinction. They make their money by striking bulk mailing deals are struck with carriers and using cheap shrink-wrapped packaging.
What people don't realise is that Amazon pays $3.99 to sellers for shipping and then claws back $1.50 per item, plus a percentage. The percentage in this case is zero because the sell price is one cent. That leaves $2.49 of which a few cents goes to the packaging, a bit more for shipping. The seller makes less than a dollar on the item, but the volume of items shipped is high enough to make a profit.
PK: As long as we're tackling the thorny issues... as someone selling physical books, how do you feel about the rise of ebooks?
SD: Ebooks offer the ability to have a quick instant fix when you need that book right now and give the road warrior the ability to carry their library with them.
Regretfully, they still suffer from the plague that is DRM. One has to applaud BAEN Books for being years ahead of the game in removing barriers to reading by supplying their titles DRM free, and in multiple formats. Now Tor are heading that way – and we applaud them too!
There are two areas where ebooks fall down, though. The first is being able to borrow/trade/resell the books you do not enjoy (creating a secondary market for readers) and the second is the more obvious problem: the physical book as a fetish object. Authors cannot sign and inscribe ebooks to a reader right now (although I can easily envision a future where this is possible), nor can ebooks appear in beautiful leather-bound limited editions.
And let’s remember: the batteries will never run out on a mass market paperback, it doesn't really have any limits on lending to your friends, and it's extremely unlikely to be pulled out of your hands when the retailer discovers a rights issue. Used books still represent excellent value for money and will be with us for a long time to come (or at least until ebooks come into a secondary market that isn’t piracy.)
Still, publishing models are changing, and there will likely be 3-5 years before the dust settles. I think we will see a large growth in small presses out there publishing ebooks in combination with deluxe or limited editions, for hardcore fans. So presses like Pandemonium have the right model going forward. [Editor's note: Damn straight.]
Ebooks are also helping out mid-list authors with large catalogues. Their backlists can now be made available, enabling the authors to earn money on their titles. I think the SF Gateway is a fine model for how this is happening.
However, there is no doubt that ebooks are improving access to books and who can argue with that? The two formats will likely coexist for some time.
PK: Looking forward to WorldCon next week - what books are going to be the hot items?
SD: Anything by attending authors, particularly if they don't show up to conventions regularly. I'm guessing if Frederik Pohl shows up (he lives locally but is very frail now) and is signing, then Pohl first editions will likely do well. George R. R. Martin (again). Wild Cards is also very hot right now. As Tor work through re-publishing the earlier books, the value on the later volumes from Bantam and Baen has escalated.
PK: Ok, goofy concluding question - weirdest customer request?
SD: "I need a Science Fiction book with 'purple' in the title, I'm trying to collect a set of Science Fiction books with all of the colours of the rainbow in the title!"
Got more questions? (Or just need to buy a book?) Order from Starfarer's Despatch online at www.sf-despatch.com and they're also on Facebook and Twitter (@sfdespatch). Plus, if you're at WorldCon, swing by and say hello!