The Business Rusch: Bookstores (Changing Times Part Six)
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.
We have a great local independent 3rd Place Books in Kirkland, WA, that is toying with the book-coffee shop-POD model. During a recent tour by my writing group we were told that the Espresso POD machine was primarily used for personal books (6 copies for the family…). They had run out a hundred copies of a 90-page Haitian-English medical dictionary which they then shipped to the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. They said that one of the most severely limiting factors was the availability of the on-line electronic files, but they were seeing improvement there. They also said that the cost of those files and the cost of the dedicated operator often made it cheaper to sell off the shelf and restock through standard channels. Clearly a few kinks in the system yet. But they liked the machine a lot and intended to keep working at it. This was all about 6 months ago, haven’t spoken with them since.
I wonder how much it’s changed in just those six months. Everything is moving so quickly in publishing right now, it’s almost overwhelming.
My concern, Kris, is that I don’t think indie bookstores can cash in on ebooks in any major way by themselves. It requires a large-scale effort to set up some sort of infrastructure.
ABA could and should be doing something about this, but if they are, I haven’t heard of it yet. (Somebody, anybody, feel free to educate me if I’ve missed something.)
There’s a niche there that, if not filled, some third-party will move into. But like I said, if it’s a third-party, there’s no knowing what kind of deal they’ll cut for the bookstores (and as I’ve said, there’s a big potential to do it without cutting bookstores in for a cent, even as they’re used as free show-rooms for some digital ordering scheme).
I’m not saying these things will happen, but SOMETHING’S going to happen, and I think the indies need to be proactive if they don’t want to be shut out.
(By the way, I’m going to pass along a thought I had some time ago. There’s ALREADY a third-party solution which indie bookstores could potentially used to cash in on ebook sales, and it exists TODAY. It occurred to me as I was looking at a novel in a local store, and feeling bad because I wanted it, but I prefer almost ALL novels in ebook form these days. I was wishing there were some way they could share in the sale, having helped me discover the book, and and idea came to mind. It’s the good-old Amazon Affiliate program. My idea is for the store to encourage customers to buy directly from them, but if they prefer ebooks, or find they need to order on-line for some reason, the bookstore encourages them to use the affiliate link on the store’s website. In fact, a terminal could be provided in the store for them to do just that. The affiliate program doesn’t pay a huge return on sales, but anything is better than zero, and it’s a way of using your competition against itself. And given that many indies are already working with Amazon through their ABE subsidiary, that’s not a huge stretch. Just a thought anyway.)
I suspect the stores will go directly through the publisher and/or writer for e-books, maybe via gift cards. More on that later.
Kris said: Unfortunately, they had a catastrophic increase in rent in the last year and the owner (who was older) decided to close rather than move.
Dang! That is sad news. I didn’t know P&P was going under.
Independent bookstores are notoriously low-margin ventures, sometimes only clearing a few percent (or less), so they are extremely vulnerable to unfavorable changes in the business environment. I suspect that indies are actually more vulnerable to changes in the returns policy than e-books. OTOH, if the return policy went away the stores most likely to survive are those who really know their customers & niche and can make smart inventory decisions–the very kinds of bookstores I think you’re describing, Kris.
You misunderstood me, Lyn. I think “shop physically, buy electronically” is a great idea, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen, one way or another. But if I had to bet on it being done by a store or chain, my money is on Barnes & Noble.
But the indie bookstores could and should have been working on it a year or so ago, and they’d have had a chance at leapfrogging the chains. But they’re just not that forward-thinking.
Actually, I’m afraid how it’s probably going to happen is as a phone app not affiliated with any store (like the apps that let your phone listen to a snibbit of a song through its microphone, identify it, and then take you to a store to buy it). It’s going to let you take a picture of the barcode (or maybe even the cover, who knows?) on any book, and take you an online store (maybe Amazon, maybe the app developer’s own store) to buy the ebook. They’ll get the sale, the the store only gets money if you buy some coffee.
If that happens, then retailers will scramble to catch up, but I suspect by then they’ll be too late.
Except, Steve Y, you’re looking at indies as one thing, and they are many things. Some will find a great way to capitalize on e-books, others won’t. The new model(s) will get created, and then new stores will spring up using them.
And yeah, Steve M., it’s gone. Or will be soon. The returns changes will hurt the indies unless they have some kind of back-up model, like so many do now with used as well as new books. We’ll see. This is a very, very dynamic time in the publishing industry and everything will change on some level. (Hence these posts)
I was at our local big-box bookstore the other day, which, besides the ebook kiosk (which was prominent, but not overbearing), still has a greater proportion of books than “other products,” for which I’m glad. I don’t go to the bookstore for stationery, games, toys, etc. I go for books.
I also go for the comfortable camaraderie of the cafe area, which is always filled with people sipping coffee, browsing a stack of books to decide which to take home, surfing the web, and just visiting. (That particular day, I was lucky to plunk my stack of books down on the last open table!) In our big-box store, which also has armchair seating scattered around the bookshelves, the cafe has grown from three or four tables to twenty or more, and seems to be a big draw. (It was also a huge draw at an indie bookstore/coffee shop we loved that was -sadly- torn down a couple of years ago so a road could be widened.) Whenever I find a bookstore that has that sort of atmosphere, I always end up a regular visitor – and a regular customer.
“What I’d love to see for indies would be a way of shopping physically, with the option of buying electronically, so that I could find a book I like on the shelf, swipe it (with my phone, or directly with my ebook reader, or at a checkout kiosk), and instantly buy the electronic edition, with the store getting their cut for the transaction. But if that happens, I see them being behind the curve, not ahead of it, and that makes me worry.”
I don’t think that’s so far behind the curve – in fact, I was wishing for something very much like that when I was at the bookstore the other day. (Of course, I was also wishing for a pocket inventory of the books I already have, because I’d pulled two books off the shelf that I thought looked very interesting and then put them back because I couldn’t remember if I’d already bought them. Turns out, I had!)
I was also wishing for an employee who actually *knew* more about their products than how to look them up on the computer. I wanted recommendations for some good, cozy mysteries, and neither of the people at the information desk (a young girl, and an older man who had “worked there forever”) had any idea what I was talking about.
Really nice post, Kris!
I very much agree with the point that independent bookstores will survive by becoming high-touch (offering expertise and personal service that readers can’t get anywhere else.)
I often watch About Books on C-SPAN 2 on the weekends. The format is authors giving talks/readings (usually) at bookstores and is almost exclusively non-fiction: politics, history, culture, science. (My wife calls it the Home Shopping Network for books, because I often see something I’ve never heard of before that I must have.)
Anyway, the events are often held at bookstores that seem to have developed a certain niche (e.g. Politics & Prose in Washington DC.) It seems to me that some of these nonfiction bookstores are already following the model that Kris is discussing. With some creativity and imagination, I suspect it could work for fiction indies, too.
Thanks, Steve & Lyn. I was thinking of Politics & Prose when I wrote this, Steve. Unfortunately, they had a catastrophic increase in rent in the last year and the owner (who was older) decided to close rather than move. The recession is having an impact everywhere. I was disappointed, because P&P was on the top of my to-visit list when I finally got to D.C. Guess I waited too long. (Home Shopping Network for books. LOL!)
I always wish the employees knew something about books, Lyn. What irritates me is that they often don’t know what’s in their own inventory or how those books are being received by customers or anyone else for that matter. I think “service” is not a great word in chain bookstores.
However, I go to them often for the same reasons that you do. I like the size, I like the cafe, and I like the atmosphere. Few indies can compete, except for Powell’s which bills itself as a city of books–and it is. One block long, three (four?) stories high, it’s bigger than most chain bookstores. So those of you who complained in e-mail that I hate big stores…um…clearly you’ve never been to Powell’s (and you should. It’s great).
I’ve always thought that the ultimate Indie neighborhood bookstore would combine the friendliness and expertise you mentioned with a coffee shop and an on-site POD press. After getting the recommendations and perhaps browsing the free samples on a screen (or the one copy of each book on the shelf), you simply mention to the clerk that you want a hard copy. They tell you to go have a cappuccino or spend fifteen minutes doing more browsing while they pull down the ebook version and then print and bind a paper copy for you. Or you buy the one copy in stock and they fire up the POD press and 15 minutes later there’s a replacement copy on the shelf for the next shopper/reader.
Obviously we’re not quite there as a practical business model for a variety of reasons, but it’s a great daydream.
And a great idea, Ed. Dean has that same vision. 🙂
Regarding East German bookstores, they were also popular among visiting West Germans, because books were cheap in former East Germany and often well-made. I still have some wonderfully illustrated East German children’s books. West German students also liked East German bookstores, because you could e.g. get the multi-volume collected works of Karl Marx for a ridiculously low price, compared to the West German editions.
I agree with Steven York above regarding the homogenization of toy stores. I used to be an avid toy collector, but these days I hardly ever go into a toy store anymore, because it’s just the same bland, cheap, made-in-China crap everywhere. The joy of discovery – the ten-year-old toy still sitting in its original packaging on a shelf, the tie-in toy to a TV show that’s never been broadcast here, the strange doll or plush toy you’ve never seen elsewhere, the jars full of tiny plastic figurines, all of that is gone. What is more, toy departments have shrunk and a lot of toy stores, both independent and chain, devote a lot of floorspace to stuff that isn’t toys such as baby supplies, kids’ clothing and so on.
I’d say that the situation regarding bookstores, even chain bookstores, in Germany is still better than in the US. Individual chain stores still have an individual focus based on local tastes, e.g. one store is good for fantasy and SF, another is good for crime fiction, etc… At least in my area, all of the chain stores have a big local section, but maybe that’s because I live in a city with a strong regional publishing and local history tradition. Some chain stores even carry quirky local lit mags and the like, though that depends on the manager. What really has declined in recent years are the book sections of department stores. Used to be that you could sometimes find something really interesting in department store book sections, e.g. an illustrated history of torture and execution in the Middle Ages and so on. Nowadays, I don’t even bother with department store book sections anymore, because it’s all bestsellers all the time. The book sections have shrunk, too, along with all of the other sections that made department stores fun to visit, such as the craft or toy sections. Nowadays, department stores focus mainly on fashion and cosmetics with all of the other stuff an afterthought.
Though you can still find some very offbeat books in places where you wouldn’t expect them. For example, one of my most interesting book discoveries of recent times, a book on ritual magic intended for kids and teenagers, was made on a “Buy 2 for the price of 1” table in a bookstore in Amsterdam airport of all places. The second book (I split my purchase with a gentleman who only wanted one book as well), a history of the Glorious Revolution, was not your usual airport bookstore fare as well.
John, I explicitly note that it’s not all garbage. But the signal to noise ratio is extremely poor, and frankly I don’t have the time to filter it. And there really is a ton of garbage there – are you disputing this? It’s been awhile since I did this exercise, but I just grabbed my kindle and went to the kindle storefront. I go to category books->science fiction. Sort by bestseller is the only evident sort order. There are 12914 works listed. The top 40 are dominated by either free books or books that students would need to read for class. How far down do I have to go before I start running into absolute crap? When the total number of works listed was around 5k, you only had to go 300-400 deep before this happened. With 12k works I’d be very surprised if it took more than a thousand. Does that mean that the works ranked from 5000-6000 are all garbage? Of course not. But how in the world am I supposed to find the, charitably, 10 percent that aren’t?
Kris, yes, ebooks are 9% of sales this year – they were 3.3% last year, 1.2% the year before, 0.6% the year before. That’s an exponential curve. And sure, it would be naive to just plot the curve and assume ebooks become 100% of the market in about 5 years – but I think it would also be naive to think that the curve doesn’t continue for at least a little while, and 2 more years of that curve will put ebooks at somewhere near a majority. My assumption is that the ebook market will more or less cannibalize the paperback market, to the point that the paperback market will basically just go away sometime in the next decade. And sure, yes, there will be the odd ‘bought this in a physical format after reading it’ but that, as a percentage, won’t be any more significant than the current percentage who buy a book in paperback, decide they like the series and decide that future books in the series will be hardback and go ahead and buy the current ones in hardback for completeness.
As for younger readers, depends on the definition of ‘younger’ as to whether it surprises me. If by younger you mean YA – well, quite a bit of the YA market doesn’t have kindle-format ebooks available, and kindles are still a little expensive to give to kids. If you mean early 20s? Yes, that would surprise me, though I suspect the cost of the kindle/nook/ipad is a big part, and that should be changing.
Good post, Kris.
Since this series is about business in general, rather than just publishing, I’d like to add that the loss of “sense of adventure” while shopping applies to many businesses beyond books. It used to be you could get that sense of adventure almost anywhere, the toy store, the hardware store, even the grocery store.
Toys represent the worst-case I think, the model that for some time I was terrified books were following. These days, indie toystores are all but extinct (and the few surviving chains aren’t that healthy). Everything is about deep discounting on top selling toys. Every toy store and toy department looks the same.
It’s all about the rapid turn of product, a few best-selling brands owned by the major companies, and lots of movie and TV tie-in toys. And to make things worse, our risk-adverse society has made safety-laws so draconian, that it’s almost impossible for small toy manufacturers to meet requirements to sell product. So you have only major companies, and shady importers of Chinese junk-toys who can fold-their tents and run the instant somebody notices they’re using paint with too much lead in it.
What’s left of the toy business is mostly scooped up by Wal-Mart, and to a lesser extent, Target and a few other retailers, and Wal-Mart in particular is still busy trying to run it into the ground.
But publishing has started to veer away from that model, and I’m not worried about that so much. Ebooks are here as a solid fallback, no matter what happens to the print book business or to print book retailing. Those are still a mess, and I see inevitable disasters ahead, but BOOKS, the words, not the paper package, will survive and be more diverse than ever.
Like toys, I think the big-box stores are in for a shakeout. Barnes and Noble will probably survive. Borders might or might not. I’ve got my doubts about anyone else.
I hadn’t been in a Barnes and Noble recently, until I walked into one in Reno a month or so back. I was stunned, as I’d been in the same store six months or so earlier. There was a huge Nook display and sales area front and center. The floor area devoted to books was way down (though I still found interesting stuff to buy, mainly because it had a good aviation section, catering to local interests rather than corporate plan).
Interestingly, there were TWO toy and game sections. A really big one upstairs aimed at kids, and a smaller one downstairs aimed at adults and teens. The emphasis was on “brain” toys. Complex games, science toys, history toys, building toys, puzzles, trivia games.
To be honest, that Barnes and Noble is one of the more interesting toy-stores I’ve been in in quite a while. This was not the stuff you’ll find at Wal-Mart, and it had a good synergy with the books. They’re exploiting the weakness in another retail area, in a way that makes sense to their business. It’s this kind of thinking that has me more optimistic about B&N’s future. They’re WAY out of denial, and know they have to change drastically to survive the changes going on in publishing. I think they’ve got a good shot.
Some indie bookstores have been doing this for years, adding other retail products to their stores, paying the rent by selling coffee as well as books, and so on, with varying degrees of success. What they don’t have, currently, is an effective way to sell ebooks, and I worry that they’re going to get squeezed out of the market before they even start. (And yes, I know ebooks are still less than 10% of the market. I knew that when we had this conversation not that long ago, and it was 5%, and 3%, and 1.5%. We’ll still be talking about this when it’s 25% and 50%, if the print publishing system hasn’t collapsed under its own weight by then! If you’re sitting down to make a 5-year business plan, you just can’t keep saying “ebooks aren’t important, or you’re doomed.)
The future for indies may depend on if dedicated ebook readers will always be a major part of the market, or if general purpose pad devices and phone become the norm once their technology improves a bit more. If the former, then I think Amazon and Barnes and Noble pretty much have the lock, and it’s too late unless one of them (most likely Amazon) sees a market in opening their system to independent stores. But if the latter, then the independent booksellers could potentially, at any time, sweep in with an app-based store and possibly remain competitive.
Another factor hinges not on what percentage of the market ebooks are taking, but what specific PARTS of the market they’re taking, and I haven’t seen numbers on that yet. If most of those people buying Nooks and Kindles are using them mostly to buy current best-sellers, then most of the hurt goes to the big-box stores and major retailers like Wal-Mart. But if those people are using them to buy lesser known authors, back-list titles, and more obscure books, then thats hitting the indies where they live.
But it also remains true, that people can’t buy what they don’t know about, and what indies have always been good at is introducing readers to the unknown. So maybe those Kindle/Nook people are reading current bestsellers because those are what’s bright, and shiny, and that they know about, and all those sales of smaller, lesser-known books are lost before they begin. That’s bad for everybody.
What I’d love to see for indies would be a way of shopping physically, with the option of buying electronically, so that I could find a book I like on the shelf, swipe it (with my phone, or directly with my ebook reader, or at a checkout of kiosk), and instantly buy the electronic edition, with the store getting their cut for the transaction. But if that happens, I see them being behind the curve, not ahead of it, and that makes me worry.
Of course, some of the best stores will survive. They’ve already survived several waves of shake-outs, and if the current economy hasn’t already killed them, then they’re obviously pretty well run. But the changes, and challenges, have just begun.
If I were running an independent bookstore, I’d definitely want used and collectible books as part of my mix, as demand for these is likely to survive any print-business collapse. I’d also be trying to diversify my revenue streams as much as possible, and not lean too hard on the new book business. I’d also try to make a business plan that allows for flexible downsizing (or transitioning floor-space into other types of retail products) without sinking the whole ship. Even with used books, I think quality is going to become more important than quality.
Great food for thought, there, Steve. I love what you have to say and hope folks who are running the stores will look. I think we’ll see a lot of changes ahead, and the stores that crop up will be interesting ones.
Skip, I’ve already discussed the argument that physical books will/won’t go away in previous posts in this series, so don’t want to rehash it all here. Just look at the previous posts & their comments. As for younger readers, the statistics run from high school to age 30. I agree that some of it is the price of the e-reader, but not all of it, since so many people younger than thirty have cell phones. A lot of young people read on their cell phones, although in the U.S. comparitively few younger people do compared to young people in, say, Japan. Again, those statistics surprise me, but that might change as people get older. I honestly don’t know.
Cora, thanks for the post. I did notice how different the bookstores were in the few shops I went into in Germany. The selection was different in all of them, which I liked a great deal. (I wished I could read German since so many of the books were lovely. But I did find a lot of English language books as well–and bought too many of them.)
I can’t help but wondering whether Skip (above) has read Dean’s posts on the New World of Publishing. It seems rather arbitrary and condescending to call self-published works “garbage”. I guess I’m a bit sensitive on the subject having just uploaded my first short story collection (of stories previously published in magazines and anthologies) on Createspace, Kindle, and Smashwords. Come to think of it, Kris’s “Freelancer’s Survival Guide” is published on Createspace as well. Who was it who said “90% of everything is crap”? Was it Sturgeon? I think so. Certainly most of what mainstream publishing turns out is crap, and of course most of what is self-published is too. But I believe that the new opportunities in publishing modern technology has given us will help us to find brilliant, though perhaps odd and quirky voices, that were not allowed to be heard by past publishing models. Just before I came to this post I was reading a list of writers who self-published before they became known. It included Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allen Poe, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, and so on. Any of those names sound familiar?
Very good points, John. I was hoping someone would take him on about this. (I’m doing a longer post on this very topic later.) Thanks!
First off, Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!
I like what you had to say about bookstores. I’d like to add a thought. When I was blogging about publishing, I wondered if bookstores might consider adding e-book kiosks. The thought came from that survey I mentioned to you. Specifically, from the results suggesting that younger readers liked buying from stores (as opposed to online), and the hint that this could be due to the store being a social experience. Talking about books in a store probably encourages book purchases, but what about harder to find titles? I wonder if the answer isn’t the kiosk.
It’s good to hear you’re having good experiences with independent stores. I have to say, however, that the Wichita independent might now be less author-friendly. A local SF author and acquaintance told me that when he asked the store about a signing, he was told he’d have to pay $50.
My last signing there was three years ago for one of my Kansas history books. I was disappointed with the little effort they put into it. All they did was email their regular customers; no contacting the Wichita newspaper, no offer to contact local Civil War enthusiasts, nothing. The email didn’t even work, since it seems most of the regulars weren’t big purchasers of Kansas history. I haven’t bothered to go back for an event since, and I don’t feel motivated to.
I have done some signings at small-town stores, and while they weren’t great, the people were nice and willing to have me back. I guess it all goes back to what you wrote, and how hungry stores are to keep their customers (and local authors) happy.
Robert, you’re looking at indie stores from a writer’s perspective, not a book buyer’s perspective. An indie bookstore often can’t afford to have a failed signing. The point of a signing in an indie store (or any store) is to bring in customers. So unless you’re John Grisham or someone like that, you’re not going to help the store. You’re asking the store to help you. That’s a whole different attitude. As a former retail store owner, I would prefer to put all that time and effort into something that will introduce me to various customers instead of folks who already know who I am. When you have a signing with Grisham or King or someone like that, then other books sell, and that’s a very good thing. (This is why I love Grisham’s indie book tours every year. He supports the stores who supported him when he didn’t have a name.)
Please remember, folks, I’m talking about the entire publishing industry here, not just the writer-focused part of it. And that industry includes booksellers as well as readers. In my experience, readers who stumble on a booksigning are very uncomfortable, worried that they’re expected to buy books not because they want to but because they’re forced into them.
Honestly, my worst treatment as a writer has come from the chains. But I’ve had great experiences in them as well. It’s just as bad for the bookstore when the signing doesn’t go well.
As for e-book kiosks–yep, that’s a great idea. I do think nothing beats word of mouth, however. And the indies are better set up for that.
Interesting comments again. I do almost all of my reading on the Kindle, I have something over a hundred books there in my backlog, mostly from Baen’s webscriptions where it wasn’t the primary reason I bought that webscription. I use those as a pile to sample from as I clear the books that I bought the webscription for. But if I end up liking an author I’ll frequently go back and fill in whatever back catalog Baen has for that author, sometimes buying more webscriptions, so the pile never seems to drain.
The Kindle store is a mess. It absolutely stinks at book discovery. There seems to be no way at all to do what I used to do on a regular basis in a brick and mortar store, which is start at the beginning of the A’s, and just go through the entire stock sequentially, looking for new (to me) authors, with covers that catch my eye. And even if you could, Amazon doesn’t filter between the self-published garbage that comes through their print on demand business (although that’s not all garbage, the signal to noise ratio here is not good enough to make it worth exploring in general without someone else having filtered it first), so it’s just difficult.
So there’s definitely a market for something to provide that filter and appropriate suggestions. Amazon tries to do this in their targeted emails, but over the years I can only think of a handful of times in which they succeeded in suggesting something that I hadn’t already heard of and probably already read, just not ordered through them, that I actually wanted. Example, I buy Fleet of Worlds, from Niven/Lerner, and I get emails suggesting that I buy Ringworld. Really, Amazon? Is there enough of a population of people whose introduction to Known Space is this book, and haven’t already read Ringworld? I know, they got the suggestion by people filling in holes in their library and buying both together, but those people probably weren’t buying the ebooks. And even if they were, they weren’t buying Fleet of Worlds first.
So Amazon’s filter and suggestion methods are sub-par, and not likely to get much better any time soon. I’d love to have a substitute suggestion method like you are describing with independent bookstores, except that I’m not particuarly interested in buying very many more physical editions of books. So that indy bookseller suggests a new author or book for me, and I have no way of them getting paid. This is a quandary for me. I want these people to stay in business, so the neo-Luddites that who cling to old-style books made of dead plant matter have some place to buy their wares, helping to keep the authors I like writing. But I just don’t see a long-term future for them if there’s not a way for people like me to pay them (or better yet, get Amazon to pay them for the referral instead of me). Can an indy bookstore survive on hardcover sales alone? That’s the question, because it seems to me that in the near future, that’s all that will be available, the paperback will mostly die off, replaced by the ebook. That may not happen in 5 years, or even 10 (though 10 wouldn’t really surprise me).
Skip, you have to remember that right now, e-books are 9.2% of the market for books, and even less for younger readers (a statistic that still surprises me). That means more than 90% of all readers read regular books. Other studies have found that when someone finds a “keeper” in an e-book, they buy the hard copy to put on their shelf. So yeah, indies will still have a function. I think there are a variety of suggestions to keep indies alive, some of which I’ll get to in later posts, some in the writer posts. And one way is to give out e-books with a percentage of the cost. Even so, hardcopy books won’t go away (see my earlier posts in this series). They might become targeted to a more specialized audience, however.