The Business Rusch: Bookstore Observations

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The Business Rusch: Bookstore Observations

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I live in a town that has no completely new bookstore. We have two marvelous bookstores that feature new and used.  One specializes in mysteries, and the other gets as much of everything as it can. But it only has a tiny storefront, and so “everything” is geared toward Times bestsellers and books on Oregon.

So it’s a treat for me to go to a chain bookstore.  It’s rare and unusual, and I usually spend hours in the store, walking the aisles, looking at trends.  I also spend hundreds of dollars, because I generally only get there once every six weeks or so.  I have a habit of buying books that I won’t remember when I got home rather than making a list.

Or I used to.

I’m not one of those obnoxious people who stands in the aisle of a brick-and-mortar store and downloads the book on my Kindle or iPhone app.  I’m not that crass.

However, I escaped this latest bookstore adventure down only $66, and that included a cupcake, a coffeecake, and a to-go cup of tea.  Dean bought his standard two books.  And the rest—maybe $35—was me.

That’s it.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to spend the money.  I had my standard $150 to $200 budgeted for this bookstore adventure.  I simply couldn’t find what I wanted.

I had a mental list of books I wanted to check out.  I now approach print books this way: Do I want to buy the book in paper or will I be comfortable downloading an e-book?  I’ve learned that I enjoy some things better in print.  For example, I prefer to read short story collections in a print volume so that I can check the story’s length before I begin.  (That’s a habit that has stuck with me since my days editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.)

I also prefer to read nonfiction in paper, especially if I think I’ll use that nonfiction as research for one of my stories or novels. Some of that is that I’m one of those people who reads the footnotes when they appear.  I like footnotes.  I learn things from them.  I also read the bibliography, sometimes going from the footnoted sentence to the footnote to the bibliography to find out more about the book.

I also underline my nonfiction books (sorry, collectors) and make little notes in the margin.  Yes, my Kindle has a function for that, but it’s not one that I like or can easily use.

I am not alone in this nonfiction preference, by the way.  This week, Dominique Raccah, the publisher at Sourcebooks, put up statistics that show nonfiction doesn’t sell nearly as well as fiction in e-book.  Or, to be more precise, she said narrative. And I clearly fit into those trends.  The nonfiction that I have happily read on my Kindle has been creative nonfiction and the occasional dishy celebrity biography.  Things that usually have no research value and a lot of narrative.

So it wasn’t my e-book habit that kept me from buying books.

It was the store itself.

Full disclosure here: I was in a mid-size Barnes & Noble.  Borders is the closest chain bookstore to us (an hour away), but its inventory has become so awful at the moment due to the bankruptcy that it’s not even worth the stop.  Dean and I had driven two hours for our little bookstore fix.  (Usually, when we drive two hours for a bookstore, it’s the independent Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, which is a spectacular store. But we headed south, not north, and so had a visit to B&N instead.)

I brought in my list, had my two hours set aside, and set out through the aisles of the B&N.  Only there weren’t many aisles.  This is the first B&N I’d been in since August.  My visits to chain bookstores are rather like an aunt’s visits with her out-of-town nieces and nephews: the changes are much more obvious because of the time that has passed.  I notice things someone who does into the store every week doesn’t.

Here I noticed that even more retail space has gone to the Nook. The many versions of the Nook were on display, plus large areas set aside so that the customer could look through the B&N e-book catalogue.

All very nice, and very efficient, and somewhat exciting to me, since so much of my backlist has become available in e-book. But unsettling as well.

What B&N replaced with its Nook display was its new book tables.  In the past, you would walk into a B&N, and find row after row of new releases, some stacked at eye level, some on or below the tables.  The new books display was separated by fiction and nonfiction, hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market.

I only found one little stand-up display of mass market paperbacks when there used to be three of them.  There was no obvious display for new trade paperbacks.  The only display that I saw for new hardcovers was behind (!) the discount books.

Within 10 months, B&N had changed its store display so effectively that I couldn’t figure out what this month’s new books were.

I wandered back to the fiction sections and received another shock.  Row after row of books were face-out.  What does that mean? It means that even less retail space is devoted to books.  Books that are spine out take less room than books that are face-out.

Many of the new books had migrated back here. They took up shelf after shelf after shelf that used to be devoted to backlist titles.  The problem was particularly acute in the young adult section (of all places) where I could barely find the new Meg Cabot books, and the books she had out just last year were completely unavailable.

I went through my list. First, my vanity projects. Because I rarely get to bookstores, I look for my own books first.  And within the first month of publication, they should be on the store shelves.  In May, I had two major traditional publishing releases, my latest science fiction novel, City of Ruins, and my latest paranormal romance under my Grayson name, Wickedly Charming. I also have a bunch of short stories out at any one time, so I search for the volumes with those stories.

On my first pass, I didn’t find anything.

My instant reaction, which comes from my years of being traditionally published, was a terrible sinking feeling—the sense that my career was about to take another downturn.  If I can’t find my books within a month of release on a bookstore shelf, then one of two things happened: 1) the books sold out (please, please, please) and the bookstore hasn’t yet reordered; or 2) the book was never ordered in the first place.

The first thing I did was enlist Dean to help me find the books.  He couldn’t find them either.  So he went to the store manager for help.

The manager found Wickedly Charming in the romance new releases shelf.  Neither Dean nor I had realized that the romance new releases went down one entire aisle of romance. We both had assumed that the new releases shelf took up its usual two shelves and nothing more.  And the layout of the books didn’t tell us otherwise.

So we had both gone to the “G” part of the romance section, and couldn’t find the Grayson.  The manager found the Grayson about two shelves away from where Dean and I had given up.

The book looked good and seemed to be selling well.

But City of Ruins wasn’t anywhere to be found. It had a later release date than Wickedly Charming, so at least one copy should have been in the store. The manager looked up City on his handy-dandy ordering computer.  Normally, he would have said that a store his size ordered one copy or five or ten.  In this case, the mid-size B&N stores hadn’t ordered any.  We could, however, order as many copies as we wanted from the warehouse.

The elation of finding the Grayson evaporated as I realized I would have to defend the Rusch name against bad sales numbers yet again.  I felt quite discouraged, something that has happened to me several times because of bad decision-making on the part of the publisher or some glitch in the retailers ordering system or something. (For the worst case I ever went through, take a look at this post about my novel Hitler’s Angel.)

I knew it was survivable, but I didn’t want the fight. Again.

I had slipped back into 1999 thinking.  (See my blog post, “Writing Like It’s 1999” to see what I mean.)  I had completely forgotten the revolution in publishing that was underway.

So I decided to shake off the doldrums and console myself by buying books.  I searched for title after title on my to-buy/to-examine list—and found only a Dashiell Hammett that I wanted to write all over. (I wasn’t about to buy a collectible book for that.)  I looked for new releases from New York Times bestsellers, last year’s new release from other bestsellers, some short story collections, some nonfiction, Meg Cabot (mentioned above), and some reissued Ian Rankins from his pen name, Jack Harvey.  I found two of the Rankin/Harvey books.  I found Meg Cabot’s new release and decided not to buy it.  (It was on my to-examine list, not my to-buy list.)  I picked up an Eloisa James that had a muddy unreadable cover on Kindle, thumbed through it, and decided to buy.

And that’s it.

I had a list of maybe 30 books, and I found five.  All of these books should have been in the store.  None of them should have been rotated out yet.

Dean found me for his half-hour check (he gets bored quicker than I do in a bookstore), and said, “How’s it going?”

I said, “Awful.  I’m extremely frustrated.  I can’t find anything.”

So I enlisted him.  We searched. We asked employees.  We couldn’t find most of the things on my list, and what we could find was often misfiled.  (Some Ellen Datlow short story collections were in the fiction section, not the YA or sf/f section.  In the past, they would have been in all three sections.)  The more I looked, the more discouraged I became.

Then I walked to the center of the store where the coffee shop is, and bought the aforementioned cupcake and cup of tea.  The coffee shop is raised up slightly, and gives a view of the entire store.

And finally, finally, my brain assembled the information I’d been collecting.  In addition to the lost shelf space because of the face-out books, there were more toys/games/tchotchkes on display as well.  The Nook display took out most of the entrance.  There was a 25-30% reduction in the space for actual paper books.

B&N stores do not make these kinds of decisions at the local store level. These decisions come from corporate.  Which means that the reduction in shelf space for physical books has happened throughout the chain.  All 717 of B&N’s named stores probably had a comparable reduction in physical book shelf space.  I searched the web and couldn’t find any statistics on this or really, any evidence that anyone had actually investigated this. So in lieu of actual numbers, let’s say that they have a reduction of physical book shelf space of 20%.

What I did find in my search was this article from The Internet Retailer in February.  For the quarter ending on January 29, B&N had a total sales growth in all of its stores of 6.9% over the year before.  But its net income dropped 24.6%.

Here’s the reason for the decline in shelf space: The web accounted for 89.3% of B&N’s growth in that quarter.   This showed an acceleration of a trend first noted by B&N in 2010.  In the first 3 quarters of 2010, B&N had increased web sales of 53.9%

B&N did not break out its Nook sales or its e-book sales, just the sales from its website in general. But what this information and the decline in brick-and-mortar space used to sell actual physical books tells us is that B&N is counting on the web for most of its business. That’s why it has so much brick-and-mortar space devoted to the Nook.

So…what got lost in B&N’s drive to reduce physical book shelf space? Backlist titles, even by #1 New York Times bestsellers.  After my frustrating search, I mentioned my findings to Dean. We both ventured back into the bookstore proper, and realized that Nora Roberts had considerably less shelf space than she had before.  John Grisham only had a few books besides his current title.  And so it went with all the Number Ones.  In the past, you’d find every available book (except with Roberts. She has about 300 titles; you’d find about 100-150 depending on the size of the store).

Now, you’re finding only about five to ten titles per author.  With the very prolific authors like Roberts or Meg Cabot, that number might go up to twenty. But considering the available backlist, that’s just a drop in the bucket.

Also, a consistent Top Ten New York Times bestseller like Jeffrey Deaver only had one or two titles in the store.  Some Times bestsellers who haven’t had book out in, say, nine months had no copies in the store.  You read that right; no copies of the book at all.

And most surprisingly to me, writers who have vaulted to the #1 position on the Times list in the past two years, like Patricia Briggs, only had their latest release in the store.  Nothing else.

Suddenly, the fact that one of my two midlist titles was in B&N was looking pretty good to me.

But it doesn’t look good for traditional publishing.  When I got home, I contacted my editor about the book that wasn’t in B&N.  He contacted his B&N vendor, who told him that a significant number of copies were in the warehouse.  So the book is available through B&N, just not in the stores.

And I suspect that a lot of titles and authors find themselves in that position now. We’ve been sacrificed to the lost shelf space.

As a writer who is slowly getting her entire backlist up in e-book, I am quite thrilled with B&N’s support of its Nook.  I’ll continue to earn money on titles that were previously out of print and just collecting dust in my files.

As a writer who got her start in the 1980s, that loss of shelf space put a shiver through me.  If we hadn’t been hit by the e-book revolution, this loss of shelf space might have occurred anyway because traditional book sales are slowing—not just because of e-books.  In fact, I’d say that e-books have less to do with it than you would expect.

The reason is price.

The other reason I didn’t spend hundreds of dollars at B&N last weekend? I passed up three nonfiction titles because of their price.  I figured it wasn’t worth $35 to buy the book now.  I made a mental note of it and decided to buy the book when I needed it for research.  Will I buy that book for research? Maybe. If I remember. And if I ever get to researching that topic.

Notice that sales were up at B&N but revenue was down.  E-books are cheaper than traditional books. That’s the other reason that B&N is devoting less floor space to the print book.

Now let’s take a step back and consider what this means for two groups.  First, the traditional publisher.  The traditional publisher still wants to sell more hardcovers than anything else.  And if the largest brick-and-mortar store in the country has reduced its shelf space by 20% for physical books, and that store carries fewer books, then it’ll be harder for the traditional publisher to continue having sales growth in its print books.

In other words, if I were the CEO of a traditional publishing company, and I had just realized what was going on with B&N, I’d be terrified. Combine that with the Borders bankruptcy, which is also reducing shelf space and revenue, and the closure of independent bookstores of the past decade, the decline of shelf space in retail markets like grocery stores, and I’d be damn near catatonic.  This is terrible news for traditional publishers.

If they’re not nimble—and some of them are, but many are not—they’re in for an extremely scary 2012/2013.  I would wager that we will lose some very familiar names in traditional publishing.

Does this mean that traditional publishing will disappear? Hell, no.  It does mean that some traditional publishing companies will go under.  But some will survive and eventually thrive in the new marketplace.

The second group, writers.  Remember my posts about the inaccurate royalty statements for e-books from traditional publishers? Remember how I said I was worried about authors who only publish traditionally, if the royalty statement problem doesn’t get solved?

This is why.  With B&N focusing on its web business, with the phenomenal growth in e-readers, and with the expansion of the reading customers to people who hadn’t had access to some of these books before, a large percentage of the revenue from book sales will come from e-books.  (I don’t know what percentage yet; no one does. We’re all guessing.)  If the writer doesn’t get her fair share of the royalties, she will no longer earn a comfortable living.

But the writer who is self-publishing will make a fortune, even if she sticks to e-books only.  Instead of earning 25% of net (if net is even calculated correctly), the writer will be earning 70% of gross (and sometimes more) on her titles.  She will be earning significantly more money than she ever did on fewer books sold.

And I’m not convinced she’ll sell fewer books. She might sell more books.

But that’s an argument for another column.

Let’s go back to that sinking 1999 feeling. By the time I left B&N, I felt shaken.  Because my touchstones were gone.  When I started, it was a mark of success to have more than one book in a bookstore.  It was a mark of success to have your latest novel prominently displayed.

And if the book wasn’t there, it meant that the writer’s career was in trouble.  It was a sure, clear sign that something had gone wrong.

Now I’m not sure what it means.  All of us traditionally published writers are in the same boat. We’re not getting the kind of exposure we used to get.

Which, frankly, makes traditional publishers less useful than they used to be.  I can get my own books up as e-books in some cases easier than my traditional publishers can.  With some effort, I can get physical books into independent stores as well.  So what is the traditional publisher providing?

These changes are startling.  And on some level a bit unsettling.  I love the bookstore experience.  I love finding new authors and holding a book in my hands.  I was denied that experience at B&N this last week for almost every book on my list.

I did have that experience at Powell’s last month.  I found City of Ruins, I found every book I was searching for.  Powell’s still stocks books. But Powell’s is an independent bookstore, albeit one of the great ones.

Most readers go to chain stores because those are the stores closest to them.  And if the readers are having similar experiences, then that’s driving them to the web.  It’s also going to bring a decline in physical book sales because I know I’m not alone in wanting to check out the paper copy of a book before buying it.

Yes, e-book sales are increasing, but they are—using the best, most provable numbers I can find—still less than 25% (I know, I know. We can argue about that.  I don’t want to.)  Let’s use 25% of all books sold as e-books. That means 75% are still paper.

And with the brick-and-mortar venues declining, it gets harder to find those books, which automatically makes the consumer more cautious about purchasing them.

B&N is achieving its goal of driving more customers to the web. But that is going to hurt the traditional publishing business, perhaps faster than any of us expected (except the most pessimistic bloggers).  Expect more shake-up in the traditional publishing world.  Expect to hear more gloom and doom from that quarter.

Remember, as you do, that publishing is changing, and traditional publishers aren’t the only game in town.  In fact, they haven’t just lost their monopoly.  They’re also losing the battle for the consumer’s eyeballs.

I had a fascinating visit to the bookstore, and not for the reason I expected.  So I thought I’d share.

“The Business Rusch: Bookstore Observations” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




81 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Bookstore Observations

  1. As a reader, I’m saddened by these trends because by and large I don’t like eBooks. The only time I like eBooks is to have something to read on a trip or in another scenario where carrying a book around is a pain – the ONLY one. Even for fiction. And yet, as this goes on, my options drop too.

    My local B&N didn’t – last time I was in a couple months ago – show the radical change you describe. If they do, they will indeed drive me out the door. But not to their web site. To Powell’s. If I lose my local book stores and go to the web, I guarantee you the web site for the place that drove me out the door will be among the last I go to.

    I’m probably an outlier. But I kind of hope that I’m not, because that raises the odds that in fact my happy local book stores with actual books will continue to exist.

    1. You’re not an outlier, Laura. I feel the same way. I want a bookstore to be a bookstore. And B&N has sent me to Powell’s. Now I’m planning my bookstore journeys to last a bit longer (Powell’s is farther away), but I know I’ll enjoy them more.

      I think there will always be print books. You might have to order them online or through an author’s website, but you’ll be able to get them. I will be doing a print edition of all of my books. It just takes a bit more time. But we’ve already started with several. More to come. And that’s because I think print is important–and it’s still 75% of the market at the least. So there are more folks like you than you think.

  2. Oh yes, I’ve already taken advantage of that offer. Of course, I’d already spent several hundred bucks buying their books before tha offer came about. 🙂 I jumped on it when it showed up, and I read everything Baen puts out (did before too, only now it’s kinder to my bank account) I actually think I’m part of the reason Baen began offering that particular perk. 🙂

  3. I’ve been having this very same problem for the past 5 years. British bookstores (chain ones) are, in my opinion, horrible. They carry very little beyond non-fic, literary fic, and crime. Very little. Every time I enter a London bookstore, even one of the big ones, I walk out in frustration.

    And yet, I can find EVERYTHING I want on Amazon. So, for the last 5 years, nearly all my book buying has been done online. But, as you say, price of print is prohibitive. Since I bought my Kindle about 6 weeks ago, I’ve bought at least as many ebooks as I did print books in the whole of last year.

    And people are surprised bookstores are failing?

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