The Business Rusch: The Year of The Bookstore

Business Rusch logo webA week ago Sunday, one of our local booksellers, Sheldon McArthur of North by Northwest Books, tossed me the April 22, 2013 Publishers Weekly. The issue has a good review of my upcoming Kris DeLake novel, A Spy To Die For, but it turns out that wasn’t why Sheldon gave me the PW. He gave it to me to see my reaction to the ad on the cover. 1407-1

The ad, taken out by mega-bestselling writer James Patterson, appeared in PW, The New York Times Book Review, and Kirkus. It asks, “Who Will Save Our Books?” and it calls for impassioned editorials urging the Federal Government and everyone else to save our bookstores and libraries.

According to the accompanying PW article, Patterson believes the entire publishing industry is in trouble. He says that “everyone” can chip in to fix it. He did the ads to start a dialogue about the future of the book business, and ways to save it.

He says that publishers have to stop complaining and start doing. Then he adds,

The problem continues with media coverage, as Patterson said the same article about the book business being in trouble–with little information beyond that and little mention of possible solutions–is being written over and over. “That article is not worth running,” he said. “The New York Times needs to wake the fuck up.”

I do agree with his last point: The New York Times needs to wake up. But really, that’s beside the point. The industry is changing, and Patterson sees only one corner of it. He’s seeing it from the lofty position of being one of the biggest bestsellers in the world, and he doesn’t realize that looking down from the 87th floor gives you a wide, but often inaccurate, view of what’s happening on the street.

If you follow the above link to PW’s article on the Patterson ad, you’ll note that it quotes Patterson entirely, and adds no other analysis. Patterson, you see, is not just a big bestseller, but he’s a huge supporter of literacy. He’s donated hundreds of thousands of books to the troops, and he launched a great kid’s reading promotion site called ReadKiddoRead which at the moment, unfortunately, is also running Patterson’s ad.

PW, which is following most industry trends, isn’t about to point out that, with this ad, Patterson stepped in it. Not because they just made money off him for the ad. Not because he’s going to piss off the Times or because he’s wrong about the fact that the dialogue is inaccurate. But because his conclusions are wrong from the limited data he’s getting, and PW  knows it.

Fact: The Number of Independent Bookstores has grown steadily since 2009. Look at the accompanying chart from the American Booksellers Association.  The number of independent bookstores has 0318-us-society-cindependent_full_600grown from 1,401 to 1,567 in three  years. But that’s not the interesting part of the chart. The interesting part is the location number. Yeah, the ABA counts only 166 new bookstores (only!), but the number of bookstore locations has increased by 249. That means the indies are expanding. They’re making money. They’re doing well.

Realize too, that the ABA doesn’t count all retail book locations. If a coffee shop sells books, but calls itself a coffee shop, it’s not a bookstore. It doesn’t count. And not every bookseller signs up with the American Booksellers Association. According to this somewhat pessimistic article , there were 10,800 bookstores in the United States as of October of 2012. That number includes chain stores as well as indies. 10,800 bookstores. Not places—like your grocery store—that carry books. And realize that when we’re talking about bookstores, we’re talking brick-and-mortar stores that specialize in paper books. We’re not talking about e-bookstores.

 Get the difference here? There are a lot, a lot, a lot of book venues, and they’re growing.

Fact: Independent Bookstores have become players again. Sales at independent bookstores count for 10% of the market. Sales at Barnes & Noble count for 20% and Amazon for 29%.  If sales continue the way they’re going, independent booksellers will capture even more of the market.

Sales at independent bookstores rose 8% in 2012 over 2011, while sales at Barnes & Noble were in the words of one writer, “tepid.” This growth prompted Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia and author of the 2012 memoir The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, to declare to The Christian Science Monitor that “2012 was the year of the bookstore.”

In the same article, Texan Steve Bercu , owner of BookPeople and a founder of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, says, “We had the best year in store history in 2012. It was the third best year in a row. We’re up 12 percent so far for 2013.”

Fact: E-books haven’t killed the indies. In fact, indies can now profit from e-book sales. How, you might ask? Well, in August of 2012, Kobo partnered with the American Booksellers Association to help indies sell e-books. This is from the press release:

Booksellers will be able to offer a total experience for their customers including a full line of eReaders, eReading accessories, and ebooks from Kobo’s catalog of nearly 3 million titles. ABA members will share in the revenue on every sale.  The program includes valuable training, in-store merchandising, marketing, sales, and logistics solutions to help independents be successful. ABA members will also be able to offer ebooks directly to their customers online.

The important part here is “valuable training, in-store merchandising, marketing, sales, and logistics solutions.” During the fall of 2012, participating booksellers closed their stores for a day or two or sent staff to a local Kobo workshop class. Participating retailers include large stores like Powell’s and small ones like Sheldon’s North by Northwest books.

If you’re wondering how the e-book part of this works, Galley Cat has a helpful little article here, explaining it all.

The press release states that Kobo expected 400 booksellers to sign on, but the last statistic I saw had 450 retailers already participating in the program. Here’s the list of participating bookstores in the United States. I didn’t count, but it might be more than 450 now.

Honestly, if you’re an indie writer or a hybrid writer and your book is not on Kobo, then you’re missing a huge growing market, not just internationally, but in the States as well.

This is why Sheldon handed me the PW with two fingers, as if someone had pooped on the magazine. He wanted to me to express my opinion of the ad since, as a friend, he knew without asking that I thought it unfortunate. I won’t say it was stupid, though, because, as I said, Patterson’s beliefs also come from statistics.

You need to understand a few things about a big bestseller’s career before you can understand why Patterson believes the entire industry is in trouble.

James Patterson’s first bestseller hit the shelves in 1993. The first movie based on one of his bestsellers, Kiss The Girls, appeared in 1997. When the big distribution collapse hit the industry right around that time, Patterson’s sales increased, unlike the sales of 90% of established authors.

Why?

A brief history—very brief, because we’re covering a lot here. In 1993, when Patterson’s first book came out, there were thousands of small book distributers scattered around the country. They were regional and they understood their region as well as you understand your hometown.

Toward the middle of the decade, large grocery store chains became major players in the book industry. Safeway, Albertsons, and others had large book sections, and they bought a lot of books. Corporate at the various grocery stores decided that it disliked dealing with hundreds of tiny invoices per month and declared that it would only buy from a handful of independent distributers. Those distributers got to “compete” for the business.

The problem was that only a few distributers got the bulk of the business right at the same time that chain bookstores worked to drive out the independents. In 1997, there were 12, 363 bookstores around the country. Because of the actions of the big chains, 1,000 independents closed between 2000 and 2007. We’re regaining bookstores (see above), but the effect of these losses was cumulative on the people who distributed to bookstores. The independent distributers went out of business first.

Chain bookstores had national in-house buyers, not regional distributers. The remaining business belonged to places like the independents (which were closing) and big non-bookstore chains like groceries. When those businesses demanded that they would work only with a handful of distributors, the distributors who won that lottery had to scramble. No longer could they sell the books of Oregon writers to Oregon readers. They had to sell national books to a national chain.

The problem was that these distributors did not know which books would sell nationally, so they punted. They only ordered bestsellers—and that included Patterson.

Indeed, if you look at all of Patterson’s book sales, the bulk of them occurred after the collapse of the distribution system. He’s one of the guys who benefitted from the shrinking book market.

Of course, he doesn’t know that or if he does, I’m sure he doesn’t realize his success occurred in part because he was already on the bestseller list at the time of the collapse. That he continued to have success when many other bestsellers didn’t is a tribute to his storytelling skills. But sales figures he enjoyed were partially inflated by the collapse of the regional market.

Now, look at the statistics for the last few years. Independent bookstores are back, and they have 10% of the market—and that percentage is growing. They also order differently than the chain bookstores and the other chains like Costco, Wal-Mart, and the grocery stores.

Local bookstores order according to the needs of their clientele. Sheldon, who used to own the very famous Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles (and he “retired” to Lincoln City), specializes in mystery books and books by local authors.

According to ABA head Oren Teicher, the buy-local movement is one of the reasons independent bookstores are growing. The Christian Science Monitor article paraphrases him this way:

Independent bookstores are what urbanists call “third places,” like farmers’ markets, that add to a community’s sense of identity. And like farmers’ markets, some customers come for the atmosphere, not the prices.

What this means for writers like Patterson is that their sales are declining. These sales would have declined even if the indie-publishing revolution hadn’t happened. Centralized ordering only exists in a few chains now that Borders has vanished, and even then, the numbers are down. Barnes & Noble made news this year when it announced that it was going to increase the number of titles it carried in its store by de-emphasizing the Nook. B&N had tried to carry fewer book titles on site in previous years and add all kinds of other products, almost destroying its brand.

There are other reasons Patterson’s numbers are going down. There are fewer display slots for mass market paperbacks. Publishers are trying to get readers to go to e-books for the cheap option by decreasing mass market altogether. And print runs have changed, which Dean Wesley Smith explains in a blog post from earlier this week.

I’ll discuss all of this in depth next week and probably the week after, but here’s the upshot.

Not only are the sales figures for bestsellers declining across the board, but their income is as well. Publishers aren’t paying advances in such large numbers, but even if they were, the royalty payments have declined. Some of that is because ebooks have a different payment structure, but some of it is the leveling of the playing field.

Readers have a finite budget for books. There are readers, like my husband, who adore James Patterson’s books. There are other readers who picked up the latest Patterson because nothing else looked interesting. We all do that with books; our tastes vary (and let’s not discuss our tastes in the comments, okay?) and we sometimes buy books to read on a flight or while we’re waiting in a hospital waiting room because it’s the only book of its type in the gift shop or airport bookstore, not because the author is a favorite.

With the rise of e-books, that person waiting for a flight doesn’t need to buy the next Patterson. She can download whatever book she wants right there in the airport and happily read it while jetting across country—even if that book is self-published by the author.

Those choices cut into sales of bestsellers. They also cut into sales of traditional publishers.

At the moment, all methods of counting paper book sales across the United States only count traditionally published books. This will change in the next six months. Again, I’ll deal with that in future posts. But for the short term, what writers like James Patterson are seeing is this: their sales figures have gone down. Reports in PW showing industry print statistics also show a decline in print sales for the big bestsellers.

Traditional publishers are whining more than usual because the industry is changing under their feet and they’re struggling to keep up. I had to laugh at Mike Shatzkin’s piece today  in which he discussed how the industry needs to grow its marketshare, and he decided the only way to figure that out was to ignore the successful new kids on the block who were using technology to their advantage, and to talk to the old-timers.

Yep. That’s how you grow a business. Talk to the people who are struggling to find a clue.

Which is what Patterson has been doing. He’s been talking to bookstore owners who are friends of his, talking to the heads of publishing houses, and talking to other bestselling writers. Patterson is a very, very, very smart guy. He understands business better than most writers ever will.

But what he doesn’t realize is that his information is corrupted.

The old-time booksellers are leaving the business. They’re closing their stores because running a bookstore the way that you did in 1995 no longer works. From The Christian Science Monitor:

Today’s [bookstore] owners often have researched the business and worked in other stores before they started putting up shelves. [Daniel] Goldin, for example, worked as a buyer for Schwartz Books and bought his storefront location from the former owners when the local chain closed in 2009 after 82 years.

In another encouraging sign, John Mutter, editor in chief of Shelf Awareness, publisher of two industry newsletters, sees more young owners than he did five years ago, when industry events “were a sea of gray hair,” he says.

These new people understand social media, technology, and how to use things like Kobo’s program. They order books differently, and they operate the stores differently. They also are new, and probably not the people that James Patterson consulted. Mike Shatzkin certainly won’t talk with them either, to the detriment of the folks at Digital Book World.

Other bestsellers believe that book reading is declining. Anyone who has read Scott Turow’s misguided posts for the Author’s Guild knows that. Patterson’s ad was in direct response to Turow. Patterson wants to do something to save an industry that, from the perspective of the People At The Top, is dying.

And for them, it is. A revolution is sweeping the book industry. Dean and I learned some lessons about that in April, which I’ll be sharing in the next few weeks.

Disruptive change like the kind that the book industry is going through will provide new players, new people who will rise to the top. They’ll do it in ways that would not have worked in the old system.

Here’s the confusing part: the old system will continue to work, just not at the numbers that it saw when everything consolidated at the beginning of this century.

Right now, mass market bestsellers can hit the New York Times extended list with anything from 17,000 sales to 30,000 sales. The numbers at the top of the list are much lower than they were in the past as well.

There are several reasons for this:

1) There are fewer outlets for mass market sales. Even the grocery chains, which precipitated the distribution crisis, carry fewer books in the store, and many of those books are trade paperbacks and hardcovers, not mass-market paperbacks.

2) The big publishers want readers to buy the ebook as the cheap edition, and some heavy readers are doing just that. But more importantly, the big publishers are deliberately publishing fewer mass market paperbacks to drive readers to e-books. (Forgetting, of course, that the bulk of mass market readers can’t afford a dedicated e-reader or may not even have a credit card so that they can shop online.)

3) Independent booksellers (10% of the market!) don’t always carry bestsellers, figuring that the chains can offer those books at better discounts. So 10% of the market ignores certain types of books in favor of niche books.

4) And of course, the readers themselves, faced with their own limited budgets and a plethora of choices aren’t always buying bestsellers when the books come out, figuring those books will be easy to find years from now, when a midlist book might not.

What’s the upshot of this besides the fact that Patterson’s ad did him no credit? It’s that book sales are growing in a healthy way. And if your book is in print, then you will have the opportunity to sell your book in a variety of venues, including chain stores. I’ll deal with that indepth in the next few weeks.

The growth in independent booksellers, the rise of Kobo which allows ebooks into local bookstores, and the growth of the book market is fantastic news for writers.

Our industry doesn’t need a bailout. The dialogue that Patterson calls for can and should continue. But it should include the small booksellers, the independently published writers, and readers themselves.

Oh, wait! We are having that discussion. We’re just not doing it on the pages of The New York Times, which is, after all, the company paper in a company town.

And if Patterson had asked me if he could put his ad on my blog, I would have told him that he could not. Not because I disagreed with it, but because I don’t take ads here.

This business blog is entirely funded by the readers—and I intend to keep it that way.

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“The Business Rusch: The Year of the Bookstore” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 




 

 

 

 

 

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46 Comments

  1. First, advance apologies for when it shows. It’s interesting to see how some things in this really grab my mood’s throttle. Not 100%, nor anywhere close, but noticeably.

    “He says that “everyone” can chip in to fix it. ”

    Probably. What do I get? Oh. That. Not interested.

    “That article is not worth running,”

    You used a Vanity Press, sir. By any other name, but you paid for it.

    “[…]looking down from the 87th floor[…]”

    Hm… High Rise, Ballard, 1975. Just a triggered image about the Publishing Industry.

    “[…] he’s a huge supporter of literacy. He’s donated hundreds of thousands of books”

    Out of his pocket, I’m sure. His publisher had nothing at all to do with it. Branding, neither. And they were accurately substracted from his “total sales” reports to media.

    “[…] he launched a great kid’s reading promotion site […] also running Patterson’s ad.”

    How charming of him. So, is he gearing that ad to kids or that site to parents? Not that the site, in any way, is there to promote his work, of course. Never.

    “PW, which is following most industry trends, isn’t about to point out that […] Patterson stepped in it.[…] But because his conclusions are wrong from the limited data he’s getting, and PW knows it.”

    And that’s why they won’t? They only point mistakes when they aren’t? Sorry, I think I get your meaning, but it makes me wonder.

    Kobo stores: 550 – State Names. Since I don’t see Hawai’i, that’s over 500 for sure. Also, have you noticed how those without an hyperlink stand out?

    “I won’t say it was stupid, though, because, as I said, Patterson’s beliefs also come from statistics.”

    Having a datum come from statistics doesn’t make your opinions immediately wise. Counterexample: The world’s overfed, more calories per person than we can eat, so no famine anywhere. He’s mistaken, knowingly or not. I don’t know what’s worse.

    Also, someone said “his conclusions are wrong from the limited data he’s getting”. So the fact that his stats are right doesn’t even enter into play.

    Sorry, the moment someone in the top of an industry opens his mouth, I expect him to be knowledgeable about it. Not only about his tiny corner, unless he’s specifically keeping himself there. If I talk about, say, Spain, you’ll expect me to know some more about it than, say, a New York journalist, even if reporting is _his_ job, not mine; or to extrapolate wildly from my city to the rest of my country (as is, similar to having someone from LA extrapolate to San Antonio, DC or deep into the Appalachians). The moment he opens his mouth about publishing, he _must_ talk with a minimum of knowledge and refrain from what he doesn’t understand. If he doesn’t he’s twice off: first because he doesn’t know, which is the least, and second because he doesn’t realize he doesn’t know. We’re not talking an off-the-cuff sentence at dinner, that was a *campaign*. If he _does_ know but chooses to ignore it…

    Query: distro collapse. I recall the comic book part of it, as it was felt here, but… how widespread was it? Related? Remember: non-US cit.

    “No longer could they sell the books of Oregon writers to Oregon readers. They had to sell national books to a national chain.”

    Sorry, I’m calling bullshit. They _could_. They could have set, for example, regional collections. Doesn’t McDonald’s have specific regional extras in TX, or Spain? It was _easier_ not to do it, and if you just got handled Walmart on a platter, why should you? But it could have been done.

    “Readers have a finite budget for books.”

    No-no…! We have a finite _time_ budget. If you can eat and you can’t read, you’re doing something wrong.

    Books, the drug of choice for the next generation. Get yours! Call 555-…

    “Traditional publishers are whining more than usual because the industry is changing under their feet and they’re struggling to keep up.”

    They’re just some poor boys, from a poor enterprise. Spare them their coin from this monstrosity.

    “Yep. That’s how you grow a business. Talk to the people who are struggling to find a clue.”

    Well, it’s a proven method to protect established religions. If it goes on, you’ll have 1st amendment court fights with “NY Big V” bishops.

    You’ve made the point previously, so I won’t insist on the many instances that it pops out in your article.

    “Today’s [bookstore] owners often have researched the business and worked in other stores before they started putting up shelves.”

    Good gracious! The horror! They did a professional apprenticeship! We’re Doooomed!

    “Other bestsellers believe that book reading is declining. Anyone who has read Scott Turow’s […]”

    My thoughts on the suspect notwithstanding, how much of an effort to promote literacy is the AG doing? And those bestsellers? It occurs to me that using those same n-thousand bucks those ads cost might have produced better results if used _constructively_. But, of course, you can’t pamper yourself on that, it’s too… plebeian.

    “Dean and I learned some lessons about that in April, which I’ll be sharing in the next few weeks.”

    I can deal with fiction cliffhangers, but what you do in these is sheer torture.

    “(Forgetting, of course, that the bulk of mass market readers can’t afford a dedicated e-reader or may not even have a credit card so that they can shop online.)”

    Forgetting or dismissing? How much of it is sheer hubris? “If they can’t adapt, they’re not Important Customers”.

    “[…]those books will be easy to find years from now, when a midlist book might not.”

    Well, I’ve personally always got _other people’s_ books when it came to bestsellers. You could count on _someone_ having them. Ain’t as true as it used to be, though, but I’m not missing it.

    “The dialogue […] should include the small booksellers, the independently published writers, and readers themselves.”

    That… that… But _anyone_ could say _anything_!! That’s not dialogue, that’s Anarchy!

    “Oh, wait! We are having that discussion. We’re just not doing it on […] The New York Times”

    See? Anarchy!

    “[…]the company paper in a company town.”

    You load sixteen tons, what do you get
    Another day older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
    I owe my soul to the company store

    Take care.

    Ferran

    Reply
    • A quick respons here, Ferran:

      “Query: distro collapse. I recall the comic book part of it, as it was felt here, but… how widespread was it? Related? Remember: non-US cit.”

      The distribution collapse was huge here in the US. And not the same as the comic book collapse at all. That was a different distribution collapse. I have no idea what the impact was in foreign distribution, but your access to mid-list novels by US writers decreased because they were no longer being published. So that had an impact. I’ll have to check on the other.

      ““No longer could they sell the books of Oregon writers to Oregon readers. They had to sell national books to a national chain.” Sorry, I’m calling bullshit. They _could_. They could have set, for example, regional collections. Doesn’t McDonald’s have specific regional extras in TX, or Spain? It was _easier_ not to do it, and if you just got handled Walmart on a platter, why should you? But it could have been done.”

      No, it couldn’t have. These businesses had to build from a regional business to a national one in the space of weeks. That required capital and management and bookkeeping skills most of them did not have. Only a handful put together the resources to handle such big accounts and after about a year or so half of those distributors went belly-up because of the financial and management drain. If you’ve never experienced sudden “success” like this, then you don’t understand that it kills more businesses than it saves. It’s difficult and almost impossible to survive. So you’re wrong on that last point. Once they knew they could survive, they could reestablish regional businesses, but if they were an Oregon business, they really had no idea what sold in Tennessee. Remember, the US is *huge,* many many times the size of Spain, and so doing things regionally from one area of the country to another requires yet another set of business skills most of these distributors took years to learn. By then, the indie bookstores were mostly gone, so there was no point. There is a point now, but I’ll be getting to that. :-)

      “Forgetting or dismissing? How much of it is sheer hubris? “If they can’t adapt, they’re not Important Customers”.

      Yeah, sadly. That might be a factor.

      Thanks!

      Reply
      • I don’t say they had to do it overnight. And I’m not surprised about death by success. And I’m not even saying it’s easy. I’m saying it could have been done. By steps, if you will, by… whatever.

        Going from regional to, basically, continental is hard enough. Do you really need to trash your whole previous experience?

        Take care.

        Reply
    • “Readers have a finite budget for books.”

      No-no…! We have a finite _time_ budget. If you can eat and you can’t read, you’re doing something wrong.

      I have never not bought a book because I didn’t have time to read it (as my TBR bookshelf so aptly demonstrates…). However, I have often passed up books because I couldn’t afford to buy more at the time.

      However, I will note that I am much more likely to read a book that I borrowed from the library than one I purchased.

      Reply
      • I’m more likely to pay fines on books I borrowed than I am to read them quickly. Hence I only read library books in the library itself. (Says the woman who had to pay library fines before she could receive her college diploma.)

        Reply
  2. I had no idea Kobo was doing this with indie bookstores, but it’s a great development. It’s nice to see that my local indie is on that Kobo list. It’s about 15-20 minutes from where I live.

    I might drop in and check it out, especially since the bookstore just recently moved from their larger quarters to something much smaller.

    Thanks for another great informational post. :-)

    Reply
    • I figured most writers don’t know about this, Nancy. It’s a great program, and for a variety of reasons, including one that Geoff mentions in the comments. Note what’s going on with ads, which I had totally forgotten about. :-)

      Reply
  3. I saw Mike Shatzkin’s post and I didn’t get it until I read yours.

    It is quite strange to watch what is happening in publishing. It’s a typical 20th Century, pyramid model that appears to be turning on it’s head for the 21st Century. It may end up hour-glass shaped before everything is said and done. (Lot’s of readers, lots of writers and fewer distributors in the middle.) But right now, everything is topsy-turvy.

    No wonder people like Patterson are in a panic.

    I can’t thank you enough for putting things into perspective. I don’t often comment, but I read your posts religiously.

    Reply
    • Not only are they panicked, they don’t understand what’s happening, and that has to be frightening. I have great empathy for that. Of course, the information is out there, but they’re really not asking the right people or the right questions. :-) Thanks, Kat.

      Reply
  4. I’d like to gently — gently for me, anyway — point out two ironic aspects of this particular screed in PW that also bear consideration.

    (1) Consider the source(s). To put it mildly, PW is not a proactive publication. There’s a more-than-faint whiff of “civilization ends at the Hudson” about the publication — and its staff. Further, even under the “new” ownership (one of its former owners, according to several different elevator conversations, kept PW for the prestige while it ran international arms shows), PW is what those of us who study this sort of thing call “agency-captured”: It is essentially controlled by the industry that it covers (or regulates), and almost never criticizes fundamental practices or conflicts of interest in that industry.

    Things don’t get much better when considering J___ P___. Patterson, once upon a time, was an author. He is now a book packager… and if publishing did not have the contortions of the First Amendment to fall back upon, would not be allowed to call himself an author of almost anything that had come out under his name since close to a decade ago.* I’m not saying that the packager’s perspective is meaningless, or even that in substance he doesn’t have some valuable things to say; I’m only agreeing, from a more systemic viewpoint, with Our Gracious Hostess’s criticism of the 87th-floor vantage point. As a specific example, consider his purported support for libraries. He means “central branch public libraries in cities over 250,000 that are less than a quarter of a mile or so from a large bookstore that normally stocks his books, or has an existing personal connection to him.” Now, as it happens, I’m no fan of overdispersed branch library systems, like all of those in the Bay Area, that “need” to have “core collections” in every branch and leave no room for exploration at any of them. However, there are a helluva lot of readers, and libraries, that don’t fit that idea.

    (2) Consider the unstated measure of value: velocity. The Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit would have been adjudged publishing failures for the three years or so after their respective initial publications (and in the case of Oz, actually were). In today’s trade fiction (and trade general nonfiction) publishing industry segments, they would have been remaindered before the end of that third year in favor not of something better, nor of something that would sell more, but of something that would sell faster. Conversely, there just aren’t a helluva lot of books that have outsold either Baum or Tolkein over their lifetimes… even when annualized. Put another way, steady sales are an “indie author”‘s friend, but are anathema to those whose worldview is built around industrial finance. The latter need that rush of fast sales to maintain credibility; that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual returns.

    Once again, this is part of the 87th-floor view problem. It’s not just that one can’t see down into the alleys, or into the suburbs, from that lofty skyscraper perch; it’s that one can’t see the customers at any time. It has become increasingly apparent to me over the years that most publishing industry gurus — and I’m explicitly including a lot of authors-turned-gurus in there, such as (but not limited to) J___ P___ — do not read extensively any more. They might skim a few things thrown at them by publicists seeking blurbs, but they don’t immerse themselves. If, that is, they ever did; one must wonder if, say, D___ S___ or S___ G___ ever just browsed at a local library west of the Hudson, let alone made a habit of it. And not just the new-book shelves in their selected subcategories, either: The main stacks (even in their selected subcategories), where the low-velocity sellers remain available for decades… and their own works are seldom found.

    * Aside: Under the rules that apply to patents, J___ P___ would not be entitled to call himself an “inventor” of any work of fiction that he appears to have been involved in publishing since 2002 or so. But those aren’t the rules for copyright claims, nor are they the rules for unfair trade practices and/or misdesignation of origin.

    Reply
    • Thanks, CE. Velocity is a problem, a serious one, and it’s the only way that publishers know to get books paid for and taken seriously. Word of mouth vanished years ago and has been revived by indie writers. I’m fascinated when I watch the self-published writers who went traditional appear in their traditional venues and vanish quickly and wonder what’s going on. If they’re smart, they kept e-book rights. If not, they’re experiencing something new, fast, and scary.

      Reply
    • I must strenuously disagree with this last assertion. He would absolutely be entitled to refer to himself as an inventor in the patent analogy. However, he would not be entitled to refer to himself as the *sole* inventor in most cases, from my understanding of his process, and to the extent that that the other authors added novel and unobvious material required to make the book “practicable,” they would *have* to be listed as co-inventors, or the application might be legally inadequate.

      Reply
      • Mr Cabot, we’re going to have to agree to disagree; as I read current PTO guidelines and the last few inventorship decisions out of the Federal Circuit, P___’s involvement (by analogy) is not enough to be named as an inventor (let alone a “sole inventor”). (Ironically, it’s enough to be named as lead author on an article in a scientific journal, which was part of my point.) He acts as the equivalent of a university department head, not as the leader of a particular scientific inquiry group; telling someone what problem to solve and/or research just isn’t enough. Even telling someone which chemical pathway to research when trying to synthesize a hypothetical enzyme is not enough… and the latter is a somewhat generous view of the actual working method involved here.

        Admittedly, this is all reasoning by analogy. My ultimate point is that J___ P___ does not, and cannot, speak for “authors”, and my analogy was perhaps not the best tool for getting that across quickly.

        Reply
  5. I’m glad to see this evidence that the local independent bookstore is thriving. Running a bookstore will always be a chancy business, just like running a restaurant, but I’d like to believe it can be done.

    There seem to be two major challenges to running a brick-&-mortar bookstore. The first is–as with any retailer–location; a bookstore needs foot traffic to help make its cash flow, & unfortunately locations with good foot traffic tend to have higher rents. Not every bookstore can be a destination like Powell’s–I’m in Portland–but even Powell’s flagship store is located on a major street (West Burnside). One bookstore I loved, Lookingglass Books, used to be located downtown until higher rents forced it to relocate to the Sellwood neighborhood where there wasn’t the foot traffic. (And I never went there because it was so far out of my way.) After a few years of struggling, the owner finally closed it.

    Another challenge is visibility. While I haven’t read the print media in the last few months, I haven’t seen any ads for bookstores, for example Barnes & Noble. (Nor for Powell’s, come to think about it.) As a result, I forget there are any brick-&-mortar stores here in Portland besides Powell’s. But I’ve encountered an important exception to this lately: over the last few weeks I’ve heard radio ads for the Kobo reader & these ads include a mention for local bookstores. (The stores this ad mention happen to be Powell’s, & one I thought had gone out of business, Broadway Books.) This might not generate sales, but it does help local bookstores remind people that they still exist.

    Bookstores that focus on challenges like these two–& not on Amazon underpricing them–as well as presenting the traditional bookstore experience, will stay in business.

    Reply
    • I had forgotten about those ads, Geoff. I saw the Kobo ad for Powell’s as well. And it was in prime time, so it was an expensive ad. Great cool nifty stuff. And important.

      I agree about your other points. Thanks for making them.

      Reply
    • Hey Geoff I’m super bummed Looking Glass closed, that was the one up the street and off Burnside right? Near Jake’s? I loved that place. I never knew where it moved to.

      Broadway books is still going?

      I just googled Cameron’s and it’s still there! I’m so happy. I bought a ton of Robert E. Howard stuff there. It was the first place I ever stole from, on accident. They put out those book racks, I figured they were promotional feebees…I was new to the city. Ah memories…:-)

      Reply
      • Jo, I believe you’re describing “Old Oregon”, which was on 12th near Alder for a long time, then moved around the corner to a spot on 12th before it closed. Which was a long time ago… maybe 20 years ago? But “Old Oregon” was a wonderful used bookstore.

        Lookingglass Books used to be on Taylor opposite the Hilton, in a storefront that was below the sidewalk. The store had to move when Pioneer Place was built, & the owners found a new location a block or two away but still on Taylor, where the store remained, with a new owner (if I understand correctly) until the early 2000s when rents forced the owner to move to Sellwood.

        I figure Cameron’s will there forever, selling old copies of Life magazine.

        Reply
  6. Kris, I’m going to make an assumption, and it might be wrong…

    I’ll bet you get asked if you’ll publish “The Business Rusch” in the form of a Greatest Hits collection via paperback, Kindle etc…

    I’m asking again. :)

    Now to today’s post… well thought out, and I think that Mr. Patterson’s ad came across as “whiny”. I believe if a number of people got that impression, it may have impacted the response to the ad.

    I have no statistical proof, just an educated guess.

    It also read as a little “elitist” and seemed to alienate the very base of readers (average authors, indie bookstores etc…) that could have helped him spread the word in a more positive way.

    I base this on the number of blog posts and other responses (email etc…) that I’ve seen on this ad.

    That being said, Mr. Patterson did accomplish one important objective he mentioned with this ad, he did start the discussion in a big way.

    Reply
    • I have been doing that under different titles, Joseph. The Pursuit of Perfection, Dealbreakers, etc, are all BR articles. The problem is that so much of this stuff dates quickly–what was true in 2012 isn’t true now–and so I’m reluctant to spend the effort to put things in a “best-of” form. :-) Maybe readers should vote and we do a best of annually or something. :-)

      And yes, I think Patterson did at least start a discussion…

      Reply
      • Well, I just ordered the Pursuit of Perfection one because that initial post changed my life and is totally worth having on my Kindle. :)

        So at least some of the posts should work pretty well in that format.

        Reply
      • It would be fascinating to do an annual collection, if for no other reason than to be able to look back at them in 10 years and see what was going on.

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  7. Great analysis, Kris. Thanks for the article!

    I’ve been that person in the airport bookstore. Blarg. Almost never any books I actually wanted to read. But with my e-readers, I never have to be in that position again. (happy sigh)

    Reply
    • Me too. And I rarely read those authors again. Which is sad. The only one I kept reading was Randy Wayne White, that I recall anyway.

      Reply
    • Yes, that bit of the article brought back so many bad memories of being stranded in airports so long I ran out of reading material and was stuck with the selections offered by airport bookstores! And I’d sit there reading something I wasn’t very interested in and wasn’t really enjoying, all the while thinking of my immense TBR stack at home that I was NOT getting to use this time (delays of up to 36 hours sometimes) to read! Arrrggghhh!

      Now I leave home with a well-loaded e-reader and one “emergency” print book–for that portion of the flight when you’re not allowed to use the e-reader, and in case the e-reader breaks or runs out of power while in transit.

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  8. I think Patterson has a POV that is shaded by his experences. He’s been on top for twenty years and has half a dozen books a year published with his name on them. You can’t go into any store that has books on the shelves without seeing at least one of his novels.

    Most authors are not as lucky. Most of us will never see our novels in Walmart, Target, or other big-box chain. In fact, theose big box stores are trimming the titles they carry. I wanted to get the last Dresden Files novel through Walmart, but I was told by the person working the book section of Walmart (not an associate, but a vendor)that they were not carring the book in the store and would have to order it off their website. This is a NYT best-selling author and a popular series, but didn’t make the cut.

    The industry is changing, as all industries do when technology advances. The Old Guard is digging in trying to slow the changes, but all they’re doing is leving furrows in the ground as they are dragged along. I predict that the first publisher who stops fighting the changes and embraces them will give that company an advantage. But the days of the bix six dictating what the reader sees are over. Now, they are battling thousands of self-publishers on a near equal footing and they are not use to that. The steps they have taken so far are more stumble than steps, and it’s going to take a while for them to learn the new steps.

    Patterson has to realize that the industry is changing, evolving into a whole new business because of technology. He’s not in any danger of becoming forgotten, but the Old Guard Publishers have to change if they’re going to survive. He can’t see that, and until he does, he’s going to defend the old system.

    Craig

    Reply
  9. I think one of the reasons Patterson’s sales have declined is that there are readers like me who stopped reading him when he stopped writing his own books. I don’t know how many of us there are, but surely I can’t be the only one.

    Reply
    • Every author has ebbs and flows in sales figures, which should be mitigated by new readers coming on. The changes he’s seeing are drastic, outside the normal ebb and flow, and that’s what he’s responding to.

      Reply
  10. Sometimes I think you must have an MBA, as intelligent as you are about all this. Keep up the great analysis.

    Reply
    • :-) Thanks, David. A history degree and too many years as a journalist, info junkie, who used to be a business writer. It rubs off. ;-)

      Reply
      • Thanks for giving hope to this Sociology major/Business Administration minor. I know enough about US job figures to make me depressed and it’s nice to know that someone can use their history degree with the aplomb you are clearly putting it to.

        Sidebar: Hi! I’m Roscoe, found my way here from Dean’s blog.

        Reply
        • I never tried to use my degree as it was intended, Roscoe. I decided to be a writer when I was maybe 5 so I was getting the degree for my writing. :-) It has turned out to be a great decision.

          Reply
  11. I went to Green Apple Books in San Francisco this week, which is one of those wonderful new/used stores that straggles off in different directions endlessly with more books everywhere. I bought 3 used and one new. They’re one of the Kobo sellers and their signage is very informative and enticing. I may have to start getting some ebooks through them.

    (Also in their favor: They’re in a flat part of San Fran. Not touristy. Good dim sum nearby (Lunch for five = $18). Awesome tea retailer across the street, which does tastings just like wine tastings. Four books and 10 future pots of tea, what more could I ask for?)

    Reply
  12. Sadly, while indie bookstores may be increasing they aren’t evenly distributed across the country. I still have to travel 50 miles to get to the nearest location even in suburban NJ.

    Reply
    • Yeah, we have to drive for certain types of new books as well. It’s frustrating for people who live outside major urban areas.

      Reply
      • Living as we do in a small town, I’ve noticed there’s a toxic brand of corporate think that anyone outside a ten mile radius of a population center or one of your stores simply doesn’t exist. Often this applies even to the customers of your stores outside population centers (thus some of the bizarre management decisions at the Safeway, which is our only local major-chain supermarket).

        And yet, when chains enter small markets (or sometimes even operate within 100 miles or more of small markets) they can end up destroying all kinds of small businesses that they don’t actually replace.

        I think some of that has happened with small, local bookstores. That supermarket may only carry 75 titles, but if they’re the best-selling 75 titles, it can cut the heart out of a small-store’s profits. And if the supermarket cuts back to carrying only 30 titles, it doesn’t help the bookstore that’s already closed, or so damaged that nothing will save it.

        One good outgrowth of all these changes, and it comes qualified with a lot of uncertain to one degree or another uncertain ‘ifs,’ is IF the decline of print books has stopped, or at least has slowed long-term to a slow and stable decline, and IF smart indie bookstores can indeed use the new situation to build a profitable and stable business model, and IF that model can be quantified, and IF it can somehow be passed on to potential new bookstore owners, it might lead to a resurgence of the small-town bookstore in ruralized areas that have long lacked for them.

        Reply
        • Steve, all of your “ifs” are already being done. That’s what the Winter Institutes are through the ABA, that’s what all the training is via the ABA, teaching small booksellers how to be viable. Most successful small bookstores make their profit these days on books other than the bestsellers. And they almost made no money on bestsellers anyway because of pricing and discounting in the chains, so the successful small bookstores moved away from the bestseller model almost a decade ago. Last week, statistics came out that foot traffic for all brick-and-mortar booksellers is up in the first quarter by 27% over last year. People are still buying print, and are going back to bookstores now. Good news all, imho.

          Reply
  13. Say goodbye to the old boss (publishers), and hello to the new boss (readers). Like any new technology, ebooks — and self-publishing — are drastically changing the landscape, and setting the world on its head.

    It’s going to be a harder transition for some than for others, but we’re standing on a vast new frontier, and I, for one, am very excited. :)

    Reply
  14. I had never heard of Kobo until I read your blog. Curious, why Kobo over Kindle? I have had a Kindle for a year now and love it. I have never felt deprived. I have never even thought of going to a bookstore to buy an ebook. That makes no sense to me at all. As a consumer I don’t feel that Kindle leaves anything out. As a writer I feel that putting my books on Kindle makes the most sense from all the outlets I’ve explored. I also offer pdfs, which can be read by other e-readers. Am I really missing any sales by not having my books on Kobo?

    Reply
    • You’re missing sales all over the world. Most of my sales on Kobo come from Canada, England, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand. The US sales are just starting to catch up. Ever since last summer, Kobo has poured money into the States. They’re funding independent bookstores, they’re giving away e-readers, they’re designing websites for booksellers, they’re training bookstore owners in how to survive in the digital age. They’re going head-to=head with Amazon and they have the money to do so. In my opinion, if your e-books aren’t in every single market you can find–and that includes B&N and All Romance/Omnilit, Apple, etc–then you’re probably losing readers because they can’t easily download your books. The easy part is the key. Things are changing so fast in this industry that trying to do what worked in 2011 is like trying to sell books the way they did in 1950. It’s strange, in an industry that has been stable for so many years.

      Reply
      • Oh my goodness, I’m glad I make a point of reading these comments–and thank you for mentioning Omnilit, Kris! I knew that ARE also sold non-romance ebooks at some point, but apparently forgot about it before starting to publish six months ago, so I never signed up there. I’m doing so now. I’m excited to have another venue for selling my ebooks!

        Reply
    • Wendy, IMHO, as a *writer* you want your books up at as many places as possible. It should be the choice of the reader whether they buy them as Kindle ebooks, or Kobo, or as an epub book they can sideload onto the reader of their choice.

      Some people like Kindle, some people prefer Kobo, some like sony…

      You’re best off chosing to make your work available in all print, audible, and ebook formats that you can.

      There are, of course, people whose opinion differs.

      Reply
  15. So… why aren’t bookstores selling ebook reader devices to go along with their new ebook market? or at least doing commission sales or handing out coupons. Both the bookstores and the device makers could benefit.

    Reply
    • They are. Through Kobo. If the bookstore is part of the Kobo program, then the bookstore gets discounted e-readers from Kobo. Any book ordered on that e-reader, purchased through a particular bookstore, pays a slight commission to that bookstore. Rather like the Amazon Affiliates program. It’s a great deal for booksellers, and gets them into the e-book marketplace.

      Reply

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