Doc Martyn’s Soul: A Farmer’s Market for the Book World

Growing local, farm-to-table, Lo-Lo, locavore…local is where it’s at! Locally sourced, locally available, everything within reach of where it came from, nothing shipped half way around the world – these sentiments dominate a lot of the dinner table conversation at the moment. There’s no denying that consumers are savvy about where their food is coming from and how it got to their plate. But, are consumers concerned about the same issues for other products?

Most modern-day products just cannot be sourced and produced locally. Most manufacturing plants are no longer local and haven’t been for some time. So, even if the product is imagined, designed, and managed locally, it is almost certainly going to be made somewhere else in the world. The modern supply chain system makes this somewhat inevitable. There is no way to truly create a locavore movement around some products as there is with food. But is it possible with books?

Given that the final act of printing and binding the books is usually not performed close to the publisher, the easy answer would be no. But often, there is actually quite a local history to many published books. At Nebraska we publish (and have done for almost seventy-five years) a large number of books with local ties, with various aspects providing the “local” in what we do. Sometimes the local is provided by the subject: this fall season we have Dan O’Brien’s Wild Idea, Philip Burnham’s Song of Dewey Beard, and Paul Johnsgard’s Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, for example. The grown-locally aspect sometimes comes from the author. Margaret Jacobs, Ted Kooser, Johnsgard and O’Brien again, and Steve Sieberson all live in the region and all bring a local flavor to what they write and what we publish. The third part of the analogy is the publisher. Like many university presses and independent publishers, we thrive on being the publisher of record for our region—the Great Plains and much of the West. This geographical responsibility means that the Press is where we take our “place” and mix it with our content providers. Our offices are where the “grown-local” or farmers market or farm-to-table motif is best prepared, savored, and marketed.

But we are still lacking somewhat in the analogy with the farm-to-table, locavore food products. Many of these locally sourced foods are now available locally through farmers’ markets and crop cooperatives (or CSAs). Is there a book equivalent? Could we see an explosion of quirky little book markets spring up on Saturday mornings; locavore readers devouring the best local books as people already do with local produce? I don’t think we need to see this development, however. There’s a part of me that loves the idea of strolling through a throng of book-loving people gazing at the myriad titles on display in a park near downtown Lincoln, say, or on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus. But, honestly, we don’t need to do that. We have already the mechanism to deliver the locally sourced, locally grown books that we’re discussing: the bookstore.

The challenge is not how do we provide our potential locavore book consumer with the books, but how do we best partner with our local bookstores to ensure that our local and regional titles get a seat at the table? Walk into your nearest bookstore. Chances are there will be a local interest section. Chances are it will not be large or complete or near the front of the store. How then, as publishers of regionally interesting content do we get our books in front of the very customers most likely to purchase those books? Let’s be honest, a reader in New York City is far less likely to buy Johnsgard’s Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie than one in Lincoln; the local is most definitely a factor.

We have to work closely with our local and regional bookselling partners to find a way that makes sense for both them and us to highlight our titles of local interest and to ensure that we both sell as many copies as we possibly can. We’re investing staff time and a little bit of money into such endeavors locally right now. We’re starting an outreach campaign to our local bookstores, creating personal, face-to-face relationships, not through our sales reps (although they do a good job of this) but through our own people getting into the stores, talking to the sales staff there, and educating them about our local-interest titles. We’re going to experiment a bit. Can we partner with one local bookstore at the actual farmers’ market to sell our books? Can we devise a mutually beneficial system for highlighting our local-interest books in high-traffic areas of the bookstore? Is there something that will trigger the local media’s interest in these titles that we’re not currently doing? None of these experiments will cost us actual dollars. Instead, it’s going to be time and effort on our staff’s part. In some ways, the time and effort will be the equivalent of the farmer’s toil between planting and harvesting.

We’ve been publishing local for almost three-quarters of a century. But with the current renewed fascination with all things local, now is the time for us to embrace our regional publishing heritage, to metaphorically set up our table at the farmers’ market, and to engage with the community so that they realize what they have in their own back yard.

-Martyn (@martynbeeny)