The Business Rusch: Bookstores
(Changing Times Part Six)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In September, I attended a science fiction convention in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig is in the former German Democratic Republic, or what was then called East Germany. The science fiction fans who put on the convention had started a science fiction club before the Berlin Wall came down. The club focused on reading and so did the convention (which held its first event just two years after the Wall fell). We had a lot of conversations about reading and literature. I learned a great deal.
But what surprised me the most were the conversations about bookstores.
More than one person called going to the bookstore in East Germany an adventure. One fan told me he never knew what he would find. Each bookstore was different. Some stores had GDR-approved versions of certain titles which were edited for content, and some stores had the unabridged version hidden in the back. More than one bookstore carried books with typewritten pages shoved in select spots, replacing the material the censors had taken out.
All of these fans told me they missed the adventure aspect of going to a bookstore. “Now,” one fan said, “going to a bookstore is like going to any store. You get the same books no matter where you go.”
He liked the availability of uncensored books, but missed that moment of discovery, the moment when he knew he had found a treasure.
I love the idea of a bookstore as a place of adventure. Books have always been both adventure and comfort for me, and bookstores places of wonder.
But I had noticed in recent years that if I went to one bookstore specializing in new books, I didn’t need to go to another for at least a week, maybe more. I wouldn’t find anything that new or different. (This does not apply, of course, to used bookstores, which still provide a heck of a treasure hunt.)
About two weeks ago, I went to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I always stop at Powell’s main store when I’m in Portland, and even though I had gone to the Beaverton store for a wonderful book signing (with 29 other sf/f authors), I still had to stop at the flagship store. I didn’t expect to spend a lot of money. Instead, I spent four times what I had budgeted—and was happy to do so.
Now, please understand that I live in a very small town. We have one new bookstore that specializes mostly in mysteries. We have a handful of new books at our local grocery stores and discount outlets. And we have some of the best used bookstores in the entire country, including Robert’s Bookshop, which is known worldwide.
To save my sanity, I go to a larger city about once a month and go to a large new bookstore. The closest store to me is a Borders, one mountain range away. I get to Powell’s about four times a year, and I usually spend a lot of money on each visit.
But as I said, I didn’t expect to this year. I have a Kindle now, which I use a lot. I now download samples of books that I have seen positive reviews of or a great ad for or have heard of through friends. I order all of my favorites online or through North by Northwest Books, the aforementioned mystery shop.
So what did I buy at Powell’s? Books I realized I might never see again, books I’m going to read Real Soon Now. Books I hadn’t heard of, books I didn’t know existed, some by my favorite authors.
Without my experience in Powell’s this month, the bookstore section in my series on the changes in publishing might have been a bit different. I really had thought that I had all my reading bases covered, with the reviews, the ads, the online ordering and free samples, and the books that my dealer (I mean, my friend who owns North by Northwest) slips me from the trunk of his car every Sunday.
Yet I hadn’t realized just how much I missed.
Before I go any farther, let me add the obligatory series paragraph. This bookstore essay is part of my very long series on the changing times in the publishing industry. I’ve covered the way the changes will impact large and small publishers already. I’ll do some more pieces on the effect of the changes on writers published and unpublished, as well as the effect on readers. I’ll probably discuss things like pricing and marketing and promotion by the end of the series, which I suspect I’ll finish some time in January.
If you haven’t read any of these posts, I suggest you at least look at my introduction before you read any farther.
Bookstores have changed a lot in the past two decades, and it took my trip to Leipzig to help me figure out why. In the United States, we didn’t go through anything as dramatic as the cultural shift that happened in East Germany in 1990, but we did go through a shift in the way we buy books. And please note: At this point, I’m not talking about the rise of e-books. I’ll get to those lovely creatures in a minute.
Twenty years ago, chain bookstores lived side by side with independent bookstores. Chain bookstores mostly existed inside malls, small stores that didn’t have a lot of inventory per storefront. You stopped at a B. Dalton’s bookstore to pick up the latest bestseller while you were shopping for shoes or buying an Orange Julius. The B. Dalton’s wasn’t your destination; the mall was.
Retailing changed in the mid-1990s, going from smaller stores in large malls to the big box retailers that discounted everything. Box stores existed near the mall, and often provided a selection that other stores couldn’t compete with at a ridiculously low price.
In the book business, the rise of the large chain bookstores—Barnes & Noble called them “superstores”—had another devastating effect. It all but destroyed the independent bookseller.
Some of that destruction was on purpose. The mega bookstore would move into a neighborhood with an established independent store, and the megastore would knock the independent out of business. The megastore did that with incredible selection at devastatingly low prices.
What the customer lost, however, was the personal touch—the recommended reading, the hand-sell. About that time, I went into a Barnes & Noble Superstore looking for Connie Willis’s latest book. The store manager sent me to their “sci-fi” guy who claimed to know everything there was to know about science fiction. Except that he had never heard of the most decorated author in the field nor had he even heard of a Hugo award. At the time, I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which the store had on the racks, and my husband asked if this “expert” if he had ever read a copy.
“There’s a science fiction magazine?” the “expert” said. “Really? I’ll have to order one.”
Then Dean handed him the copy off their own shelf.
Readers got very frustrated by the lack of service at superstores but that didn’t stop anyone from shopping there. People went for the latest bestsellers and new releases, browsing, and searching on their own. No one expected bookstore employees to even so much as read any longer.
Nora Ephron captured the mood of that time—and the frustration of readers—very well in You’ve Got Mail. She also dealt with the conflict between books as a business and books as a calling. Meg Ryan had a calling; Tom Hanks’ family was in business.
Right about then, Amazon.com started up. Only a few of us shopped for books online in the beginning. In fact, at that point, Barnes & Noble’s online website was so badly designed that more often than not, you couldn’t complete your order. Or if you did, the books got shipped to the wrong address. Eventually, B&N fixed their interface (right now, I think it’s the loveliest book site on the web), but not before losing thousands of online customers to Amazon.
Amazon filled part of the niche left by the independents. I didn’t have to go to a superstore and search for the latest Connie Willis (or endure the pontificating of the so-called “expert”). I could order that book online.
But online shopping does not replicate the bookstore experience, no matter how hard the online stores try. The recommendations only work sometimes. The little lists—people who bought this book also bought these books—don’t work at all, at least for me. Online stores work best when you need to find a book that you know you want or to look for the entire backlist of an author you’ve just discovered.
Browsing online is hard and often frustrating. The books on The New York Times bestseller list are available anywhere. The books on the online stores bestseller lists are often quirky and change within hours.
But browsing in chain superstores can be just as frustrating. Over the years, the stores have become more homogenous, not less. When I was in Memphis in 1997, I went to one of the chain stores and found an entire regional section, which I managed to buy out. In Florida ten years later, I found one shelf of local books, all of which were available elsewhere. I noticed the same trend in Boise and in the TriCities. The only way to know you were in a different town was to step outside and look at the weather or the skyline or the cars in the parking lot.
The superstores have a wide selection of books, but not a wide variety. And as the independents disappeared, variety disappeared as well.
Some of this loss of variety happened as the entire book distribution system collapsed. In the late 1990s, large grocery chains which carried books in addition to produce and canned goods got tired of receiving hundreds of invoices from their book suppliers all over the country. Back then, books got delivered to all of the book outlets from grocery stores to chain bookstores via regional book distributors—people who knew that people in Iowa loved high fantasy novels and people in Idaho preferred romance novels. Each regional book distributor was an independent. The distributor for mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon lived just down the driveway from us.
Safeway, Albertsons, and the other national chains decided to hold a competition. The distributor who could handle their volume the best and the most efficiently got their business. For a few months, book distribution became a cutthroat business, and by the end, only a dozen or so distributors out of hundreds survived. When you hear the myth that only bestsellers sell to readers, that bit of conventional wisdom comes from this period. During the great upheaval, only bestsellers did sell, because those were the only books guaranteed to appeal to readers all over America.
Independent bookstores could still special order or order directly from publishers. The problem was that fewer and fewer readers went to independent stores. Those stores closed by the hundreds. The web soon became the best place to find niche books. Unfortunately, the web made browsing hard, so the reader had to know what niche book she wanted or at least what type of niche book she wanted.
That lovely experience of going to the bookstore and discovering something or someone new became more and more circumscribed. It became harder and harder to find that unique book the one you didn’t know you wanted until you had it in your hands.
In some ways, the electronic book has ameliorated this problem. Now, when I read a review of a book and it sounds interesting, I immediately grab my Kindle, look for the title, and download a free sample of the book. I currently have 90 different items on my Kindle and the bulk of those are free samples. I’ve bought about half of the free samples I’ve actually read. I’ll probably continue that trend as I go along, but it might take me years to actually read all of those free samples.
At least, however, those books will remain available in e-format. But more importantly, I remain aware of them. I always plan to take a list with me to the bookstore so that I can find specific books and I never do. Over the years, I’ve forgotten about more books that sound interesting than I’ve actually bought. And many times, I’ve checked for those books at one of the chain bookstores, didn’t find the book, and then forgot to order it online when I got home, costing the author a sale.
In last week’s comment section, Skip mentioned that he no longer buys books that he thinks he might like. I don’t do that as much either. I order the free sample instead. He suggested that the free sample option cost sales. But I wonder. Compared with all the books I just plain forgot about and all the books that I never saw because they weren’t in the local chain, I wonder if I won’t end up buying more books over time.
But back to the bookstore. Will ordering books online—both in e-book format and in regular format—destroy the bookstores the way that the rise of the superstores nearly destroyed the independents?
Many pundits think so. And they might be right about the superstores. Borders teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, constantly searching for a way to survive. Barnes & Noble is scrambling to provide more than just a book in its shopping experience. It has in-store specials for Nook owners. It has always had the coffee shop, which in some stores has become a lunch place as well. In many of its stores, B&N now offers book-related items, toys, pillows, mugs as another way to bring in customers.
But for the first time in years, the number of independent bookstores has increased rather than decreased. And considering that we’re still in the thick of a recession, that’s pretty amazing.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores now have to provide an experience that’s different than one you can get online. Independents can’t offer the discounts that the chains get on bestsellers—although the American Booksellers Association, in conjunction with a number of publishers, is working to change that. But bestsellers are everywhere. You can buy the latest Stephen King or Nora Roberts at Safeway or Target or Wal-Mart as well as at the independents or B&N. But you can’t get the latest Kristine Kathryn Rusch book in all of those places, nor can you get the most definitive history of the region you’re visiting.
For those books, you need to go to a bookstore.
Independents are beginning to realize this. They’re establishing that local niche that has been missing for years. Even though the regional book distributors are gone, ordering for the independents has become easier. They can order online through their Baker & Taylor or Ingram’s account.
Now North by Northwest Books can carry a large Oregon coast section. 57th Street Books can offer Chicago-specific books, or, even better, books that specialize in the Hyde Park neighborhood where the store is located.
A lot of bookstores now do special orders for customers all over the world. And the bookstore owners become an arbiter of taste—if the owner of Poison Pen in Phoenix likes a mystery novel, then chances are half of her customers will like that book as well.
Bookstores have started to realize that they need to provide a unique experience, from nifty book signings to readings to poetry slams. They also have started to realize that they need to offer books not easily found online or in the chains. And many bookstore owners, who have gotten into this business because they love to read, really enjoy sharing the books that have pleased them over the years. These booksellers still hand-sell, and that’s going to become more and more important as the years go on.
So the rise of online bookstores and e-books will change the brick-and-mortar bookstore landscape. That landscape is already changing—and in a way that pleases people like me. Bookstores will provide adventure again. Readers will be able to go into a store and discover something new, some new author or a new book they’ve never heard of before. Because the niftiest thing about books is that you don’t know what you want until you find it.
I’m actually looking forward to this change. It will benefit not only the independent bookseller, but readers, writers, and publishers as well.
Of course, people will still read online. But they’ll have a choice of format in the various books they buy. Or the way that they read those books. I suspect this series of posts will become a short book on publishing. So y’all are reading another book by me as I write it. I am (obviously) not getting an advance for it, so I appreciate any donation you make to keep me writing. I also appreciate it when you spread the word to others about this series. And I like the comments because they make me think. I’m constantly learning too, and I like that. Thanks, everyone—and have a great holiday season.
“The Business Rusch: Bookstores” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.