Portrait of a Bookstore

This guest post by graduate assistant Javaria Afghani explores the current state of the book publishing industry and small, independently-owned bookstores during a night at Women and Children First in Andersonville. She attended a book reading for Professor Christine Sneed, who teaches creative writing in the MAWP program.

Christine Sneed reads from her new book, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry. Photo courtesy of Joshua Covell.


On November 17th, I attended Christine Sneed’s book release party for Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) at Women and Children First in Andersonville. Christine, as many of her students call her, is a warm and encouraging instructor. She is also honest. How many times have I heard her speak eloquently on the chutzpah needed to pursue a career in writing. She’ll explain that we’ll be turned down, repeatedly, and that we’ll have to maintain a certain sense of crazy confidence to keep going. I appreciate the forthrightness of these statements, the way they lodge uncomfortably in your mind. She is steeling us because she is kind. Last quarter she graciously shared her process for keeping track of submissions with our winter quarter class, as well as her own experiences of doggedly submitting and resubmitting through a flurry of denials.

It was in this same winter class that I remember listening to Christine speak about publishing Portraits (the winner of the 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction). By summer the book had a cover design, a photograph Christine had found online that the photographer allowed her to use. And so I arrived at Women and Children First excited to see the final product. I was not alone; the bookstore was a warm buzz of excitement. Current and former students, colleagues, family, former teachers, and all-around book lovers crowded the small space to support Christine. Many of us followed along in our newly purchased hardcovers as she read from “By the Way.”

Women and Children First, established in 1979, is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country and a Chicago institution. Like many other small businesses, they have struggled in the last few years, and their survival has been tenuous at times. I bought Portraits at Women and Children First, but when someone at the release party asked when the e-book would be available, it made me wonder if small bookstores have any chance of survival down the line. Christine had not yet heard if an e-book would be in the works; UMass Press may well be waiting to see how the book performs. The publishing industry has been wrestling with the challenges of selling print media in a digital age for years now, and it was in this moment, as we patrons stuffed dollars in a donation box, that all the frothy issues of what it means to be a writer, publisher, and consumer in our digital age bumped up against each other. (We need only look to the woeful state of Barnes and Noble and Borders to ascertain how these challenges are playing out.)

Does print media have any chance at all against the behemoth that is Amazon? The unfortunate answer is “No,” an answer that has been altogether apparent but long coming—the publishing industry has been slow recognizing it, to their own detriment. Christine’s book is priced at $24.95 but currently is on sale on Amazon for $16.47. This purchase then qualifies for free two-day shipping if you sign up for a (free) trial of Amazon Prime, which I have done when buying books for my classes. (I subsequently canceled the subscription afterwards, feeling very pleased to have seemingly outsmarted the system.) Moreover, if you don’t mind your pages slightly ruffled and read, you can buy a used copy though Amazon. A “like-new” copy is currently available for $12.50. And this is all before we arrive at the e-book predicament. While I’m happy to support a local bookstore, and I do feel that the work they do is important, the truth is that I would have bought the book through Amazon if I had not been there for a book release party. If an e-book had been available, my friends with Kindles would have bought it through Amazon as well.

It is not news that the publishing houses are moribund, and will likely never be as powerful as they were. Whatever alchemy they perform, whatever restructuring and innovating they must undergo will never return them to their former glory. I find it hard to imagine how bookstores will fit into this digital equation, and keeping a small independent bookstore afloat seems nearly impossible. When I think how exciting it was to see Christine’s book cover for the first time, I wonder if writers and readers alike will miss this increasingly impractical print version. I think of the long line that formed toward the end of the night, all of us pressed with our books up against our chests, waiting for Christine to sign our title page. The image doesn’t quite work if instead of hardcovers, we had Kindles nestled in our arms.

Christine Sneed is a professor of literature and creative writing at DePaul University. Her work has been published in Best American Short Stories 2008, New England Review, and Massachusetts Review, among others. Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry is available from University of Massachusetts Press. Christine Sneed teaches ENG 484: Writing What You Don’t (Yet) Know in Winter Quarter 2011.


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