Won't you be my neighbor? (Brazos Bookstore's new loyalty program)
To be truthful, I have mixed feelings about Brazos Bookstore. As a reader, I think it's Nirvana, of course. But as a hometown writer who's never been shown one speck of love by them in ten years and seven books...well, I have to say they suck like those stupid stupid boys who never asked me out in high school probably because they were intimidated by how smart I was. In any case, I have to hand it to Brazos that they do an amazing job of not only surviving but thriving while more and more independent booksellers wither and die.
So what makes Brazos different? For starters, the author events. They've trained, nurtured, and husbanded a growing audience for both big name and emerging author events. So many stores completely blow off that opportunity. Midlist novelists are an endangered species these days, and what little hope we have of survival is hinged to stores like Brazos. Their web site is a little lumpy, but it offers the opportunity to buy books online from an indie. Gotta love that.
In 2006, Brazos weathered hard times by bringing in a dozen investors at a premium of ten grand each, and -- from a distance, at least -- that appeared to really light a fire under the place. (In a good way.) Yesterday, PW reported on Brazos' new incentive program that allows people to invest (sort of) at a lesser level.
“It’s a tough business,” store manager Jane Moser told PW. “We think anyone who becomes a Friend of Brazos is getting a lot for their money. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
I might be spinning that a bit differently in my own head, but I agree.
Dubbed “Friends of Brazos,” annual membership starts at the $50 “Manuscript Level,” which bestows an invitation to one private author event, an evening with publishers' sales reps previewing forthcoming titles, and 20% off any in stock title four times a year. Subsequent levels, including “Paperback Level” ($150) and Hardcover Level ($500), offer more private functions, such as author dinners, and additional discounts. Membership tops out at the “First Edition Level” which costs $1,000 and offers, in addition to other benefits, a ticket to the UP Experience (a day-long seminar held in Houston in February that features featuring 20 speakers and is modeled on the TED [Technology Enterntainment Design] conference). “We can’t compete nose to nose with the chains on discounts, so we’re doing something different,” said Moser.
Asked if customers might balk at the idea of a $1,000 loyalty membership, Moser acknowledged that it might seem like a lot, “until one realizes The First Edition level is actually a bargain, considering a ticket to the UP Experience alone costs $1,000.”
Okay...but c'mon. If I consider that First Edition level membership (and I am considering it) it's not about the UP Experience ticket, for which I would not even joke about paying a thousand bucks. (I'm sorry, darlin', but come on. I don't care if it's a one day seminar at which I'm sported about on the shoulders of Chippendale dancers. That's...Come. On.) It's about joining with others to support this store because I want to do my part to create a culture in which stores like Brazos are supported.
The "Friends of Brazos" program is different from the discount memberships at B&N or Borders because it's not about saving money, it's about being in a relationship with this store. It asks people to recognize the value of books in general and indie booksellers in specific. It frustrates me that they'd even try to pitch it as some kind of Mattress Mack bargain in fiscal terms. It doesn't work on that basis. The real issue is this: Do I want to pay twice what WalMart is asking for the latest Elmore Leonard novel? No. But do I want to live in a world where WalMart has sway over decisions in the publishing industry? Hell no! That's worth a thousand bucks to me, if I can spare a thousand bucks, and if I can't, it's certainly worth the hundred-fifty.
From the author's perspective (not to mention any agent you ask), the fiction market has never been tougher. If we allow the decline of indie booksellers and small presses to continue, we consign a whole lot of novelists to a lifetime of night shifts at 7-11 -- where they'll sit reading books that bear the WalMart stamp of aproval. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Something I remember from the little induction ceremony they do in the United Methodist Church -- when you become a member, you don't have to espouse a lot of dogma. They simply ask you if you are willing to be a good neighbor and support this community of faith "with your prayers, gifts, and presence". We have to face the fact that indie bookstores need no less from us.