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. Great stuff, Kris (and all the responses, too). A couple of things on the same topic:

    1. From books to clothing to cosmetics, less and less product is being stocked in the brick-and-mortar stores. Things I like are now often only available online. Looks like a rapidly increasing trend to me.

    2. As to back lists, current and historical, I think the Tax Reform Act of 1986 could be tagged with starting that one. Once the books in warehouses were taxed as active inventory, the economic reason to keep these books available disappeared. The inventory just cost too much for publishers to maintain. It has just progressed from there.

  2. Drm is indeed a serious issue, and one the publishers are not handling well. As baen has proven, nondrm books sell, and they sell well. Drm books don’t sell anywhere near the copies nondrm books do, simply because they’re not accessible to as many folks. And, let me tell everyone something about pirates. Most pirates don’t read the books they collect, at least the ones I refer to as pirates anyhow. They simply collect books, so they can have the largest collection, and brag they have thousands and thousands of books, most of which they broke the encryption on. Software pirates are the same way. What the drm folks call pirates are the folks who make a copy of a book, either because they’re not ure if they’re going to like it, or because they honestly don’t have the funds to purchase a copy a the moment. I have fit into both of these categories in the past. If the person likes the book/author, in almost all cases, these so-called pirates will go and purchase a copy of the book, as well as anything else by that author they can find. I have done this. They will also tend to remember authors they like, and in future when funds permit, these “pirates” will go and buy copies of books they found by other means. The real pirates, the ones drm advocates claim take thousands of dollars from the ebook market, are the ones that just collect ebooks, and never bother to read most of them. These are folks who wouldn’t have purchased the books in the first place, so (imo) the author truly hasn’t lost anything, while the other kinds of pirates, the ones w/lack of fund, or just aren’t sure, almost always lead to additional sales. I can tell you that I would be spending several hundred dollars more on ebooks than I currently do if drm didn’t exist, and i could purchase any book I like, and read it on my computer or some supported device. The problem, (and the honest to god truth) is that drm isn’t a barrier to pirates, since there’s tools to strip drm from most formats, but the honest person who is trying to do things properly gets hurt by it all, because (like me) it won’t work on their system, or when they loose their nook, or it breaks, now how are they going to red those 250 books they bought for that format. (palm doc readers anyone?) +Drm helps nobody, and only places artificial restrictions on who can enjoy ebooks and where. I have enough legal sources now, I no longer troll the newsgroups for ebooks, and through disk crshes and the like, I’ve lost all of the ones I had in the past, but that still doesn’t change the fact that there are several books/authors I now read regularly who I would not have bothered to do so w/o exposure via the books I found in the newsgroups, either when I was in college, or via the need to strip drm from ms lit format books, since that’s the only format I had for some books I wanted to ead (anne mccaffrey pern books for example) which weren’t (and still aren’t) available in non-drm formats. I own them all, but I can’t currently read them, because I don’t have mac software that works with voiceover (the screen reader for the mac) and so they just sit there taking up space on my hd, but I can’t read them even if I wanted to. Admittedly, I’ve already read them, and rarely reread a book once I’m done with it, but still, having ebooks I can’t read is a lot like buying a car you can’t drive, bu I bought the ebooks anyway, because I wanted to suppor the authors who wrote them. The piracy numbers industry proponents toss around are mostly made up numbers anyhow, just like the ones tossed around by the software pirate fos did 20 years ago. Nobody knows how many are out there, but given a choice, most folks will generally do th right thing, and buy a book they liked, whether it be in physical form, or in author sponsored ebook form later on. I honestly think a little bit of piracy is a good thing, and should be likened to a library. An author gets no copensation when a book gets checked out of a library, but nobody complains about that, and how many millions of books get checked out of libraries every year. Piracy is a problem, sure, but I don’t believe it’s as big a problem as the ebook publishers would have you believe. And, as I said above, for folks like me, drm is just a barrier to reading books I’d like to read, and I guess, by most definitions, I qualify as a pirate, when I strip drm from a book I already bought just so I can read the silly thing. But given a choice, I doubt most folks would agree with that assessment, though ebook publishers definitely would.

  3. The prices on Movies/Music at B&N are in no way competetive with other stores, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, and far more expensive than Internet prices, including B&N.Com… Older CD’s and DVD’s and Blu-Rays have short discounts (or are sold at retail), pretty much, unless there is a special sale going on… I’m curious as to how B&N can justify continuing to sell CD’s and DVD’s, they don’t seem to be moving very many… I’m in B&N every week,and I’ve noticed they are now shelving comic books on the same shelves entertainment and current events mags are displayed on… Thor and ET and JLA and Time, side by side! I’ve never seen anyone buy a comic book or graphic novel at B&N, since their first stores opened in the early 90’s in Atlanta… Folks just stand and read them, ruining the comics… I’ve also never seen anyone buy any of the games or novelty/gift items that are taking up half their stores now… I guess the old saying, “Dance with him what brung ya…” is lost on the corporate beancounters making these decision at B&N… Bookstores should be about books, not pens, pads, and puzzles… Most folks still come to bookstores for books… You’d think the “brains” who set up corporate chain bookstores would understand this, and have an inkling of how to sell books… Nope… B&N Corporate is pretty much killing their business, nation-wide… It’s sad…

  4. I’ve been ranting about the sorry selection of new books at B&N stores for several years… There are 5 B&N’s within 50 miles of my Zip Code in Ga, with the closest being 30 miles, and new, having opened just over 3 years ago… The closest store is one of the nicest B&N’s in Ga, HUGE!, with a Music/Movies section, Wi-Fi, and a Cafe… I have no clue as to the criteria that determines which new SF/Fantasy books they carry… Case-in-point: The Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 was published in late May of this year by TOR… I just checked, and none of the 5 stores closest to me has the book in stock, almost a month after it’s publication… Had to order it from Mark & Cindy Ziesing, just as I ordered your new PYR book, City of Riuns… Offtimes, I check ahead, and books which B& says are in stock are not in stock when I get there… It would help if they shelved the new stuff when it arrives, and not stand around shooting the beeeze with each other so much… Sometimes they find them in the back, sometimes not… I’m ordering more and more of my books, because the chains won’t carry them… Atlanta’s SF & Mystery Bookshop closed in May of 2004, and there hasn’t been a decent SF/Fantasy section at any of the chains since, at least in Georgia… B&N is a store for casual readers, who don’t know what they are missing, or care… Local B&N clerks are extremely limited in their book knowledge… B&N’s clerks seem to have to look everything up, authors and titles, and aren’t even very familiar with the titles they do have in stock, or where they are/should be shelved… Hence all the “Post-it Notes” I see… They don’t strike me as “Book” people, by any definition… WaldenBooks and B.Dalton stores in local malls were far superior to today’s chain “Superstores”, (contradiction-in-terms alert!)even way back in the 1970’s/80’s… Today’s Corporate chains McBookstores are a joke… Pretty much worthless for folks who know and love books… The Nook is the only thing I’ve seen B&N actively having their sales clerks hawk in over 20 years of shopping there… I’ve spent a fortune at B&N over the years, and have never made any friends… I don’t know them, and they don’t know me, or appreciate my business… Going to any B&N store is just as impersonal as ordering online… Bookstores used to be MAGIC! Not anymore… At least cool stuff is still being published…

  5. I actually heard about the change coming to B&N stores through a book seller to B&N, who mentioned they were going to “increase the toys&Gifts area by a bit.” Since my day-job company sells games to B&N, I was wondering if this would be a good thing overall. Then the change hit my local store.

    It was not subtle at all. There was already a Nook kiosk, but it was off-center. they pulled it right into the middle and placed it about 10 feet centered right on the opening door. New releases got shoved to one side, and shortened by a lot.

    Then, their toys and games section which used to be a few narrow display walls kinda shoved into a wide aisle, followed right behind the Nook change. I thought, maybe another wall or two, maybe some more media-related works. Nope. They laid waste to about 800 square feet of retail area, rebuilt shelving, and began displaying all sorts of toys and games, a lot of which had nothing to do with fiction properties. Stuff for babies. Stuff that belonged really in a ToysRUs. To make room they destroyed the TEEN section, shoving it into a single wall of poorly organized books and some scattered tables.

    What surprised me more was that mystery got shoved way into the far back corner, and sci-fi only got shoved halfway into the corner.

    Talking to some of the employees, a few loosened up enough to claim that they were really not happy with the changes. Mostly, it seemed, because their customers are not happy with the changes. Maybe they will back off from this craziness at some point.

    But I’m not holding my breath.

  6. I love bookstores, even 90 percent of the books are inaccessible to me. I’m blind, so have to either purchase audio books, or buy them in drm free ebook versions so I can read them on my pc or mac (most things these days get done on my mac) so unfortunately, the nook is out for me, as is the kendle, the palm, and just about every other reading device tht has ever been released. I have to depend on folks like baen’s webscriptions to get my books, or sites like who releases things in drm free formats, though fictionwise is going downhill hast, and the only thing I buy there now is analog and asimov’s magazines, but I love to read, do it all the time, but not having books in accessible formats is driving me nuts. I read about all sorts of books I’d like to read, then find out they’re available on nook, or amazon’t format, or something else equally inaccessible, then just have to shrug and go on reading things I can get in drm free formats, because the folks who make the software to read the drm books don’t consider the visually impaired when they build their software. And, that means, I can’t spend nearly as much a I’d like to spend on books to read. I have no idea how many others are in the same boat, but it’s not a small number, I know that much from discussions and posts I’ve read in other places. When publishers realize this, perhaps their sales will increase.

    1. DRM is a serious issue, Travis, and one I hope publishers drop. I like having my books available. Yeah, I’m not thrilled with the pirates. In fact, they make me mad. But I’ll put up with them so that the most people possible can read my work. I mean, shoplifters make me angry as well, but I’m not locking my books up in bookstores.

      Great points everyone on B&N. Kenneth, bookstores *did* used to be magic. I miss that. (sigh)

      I’ll be in and out on answers, everyone, since I’m teaching a class and not always near the computer. So if I don’t respond, it just means that I’m pressed for time this week.

  7. I happened to be in Portland this week and stopped by one of the Powell’s books stores in the airport. It’s a very nice (if small in terminal C) bookstore, they had two sections of Sci-Fi books, with handwritten tags on the shelves giving info about some of the series (for example, what order to read the wheel of time series in, or introducing Jim Butcher’s Dresden files “Imagine a grownup, american Harry Potter…”)

    they had (past tense) one copy of City of Ruins on the shelf

    a very nice store

  8. Thank you for voicing what I’ve been thinking for some time now.

    I like you love to roam the bookstore, find the books I want while looking for others to add to my collection. The only boostore close to me now is a Borders. They never seem to have all the new releases and I find I’m being pointed back to the internet to buy online. I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot!

  9. Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful analysis. I’m also delighted to see your donation button — there isn’t much crowdfunded nonfiction and this is really good. I’m broke, but will link to this elsewhere.

  10. Sorry to double post, but I just wanted to say that I used to work as a bookseller and this time of year we did cull our inventory. And the way that works is if a title didn’t sell within a certain amount of time (I forget now how long) we’d take it down and strip it. However, and here’s the kicker, that same title usually ends up coming back again because distributors have a certain amount of back titles they like to keep on their shelf. So yes, we’d strip it only to re-shelve it weeks later.

    1. I’m closing in on a major deadline, so it’s been hard for me to be online the past 24 hours. I really appreciate all the comments. I’m not going to respond to all of them that I missed except to say, thank you all for the comments and thanks for the lively discussion. I’m happy to get the comments on the changes in the stores, but sorry to see that we’re all reporting the same thing. (sigh) Or at least, sorry as a reader. As a writer with a lot of stuff to e-publish, I’m feeling pretty good about all of this.

  11. You made some interesting observations and one I’ve observed in the bookstores near me.

    In an economy where people are pinching their pennies why would you have more impulse buying junk in place of the substantive materials that people go into a bookstore seeking? It is just bad business strategy.

    When people have money to burn you can put out all the useless crap you want; but when the economy is bad you put out low cost items of what you are known for or you make a high priced purchase worth someones while. It may not get you as much money, but it keeps people coming back to your store so after they have weathered the bad time they still think of you for your product and service.

    Originally I was interested in ebooks because I’ve simply run out of room for more books in my house especially books that I’ll probably only read once or twice — think mass market genre books — but planned to purchase books that I thought were special (books from my favorite series or poetry books or craft books which are just not ebook friendly). But most of the time when I purchase a book I order it because none of the bookstores here have it. I think the number of books being published has outstripped the ability for B&M to keep pace. I was actually told by a Borders express employee that going to their website was probably a better idea than coming to the store (he was being kind and honest).

  12. Kris, your observations come as no surprise. Retailing in general is in the midst of a sea change, and booksellers are no exception. Publishing has been dealing for decades with the problem of too many books chasing too few readers, with periodic wrenching readjustments as a major house trimmed its lines, and the rest followed suit. No one wanted to be first, because publishing less books meant less display space in bookstores which they would not get back, and bookstores were the primary place readers discovered new works.

    What we are seeing now is another aspect of the same problem: too many retail outlets chasing too few customers. I was bemused before Borders declared bankruptcy, when the CEO of the venture capital outfit that owned about 45% of it in one ay or another committed to raising the funding to allow Borders to make a takeover attempt on B&N. Seriously, WTF? Both were in trouble, but Borders was by far the weaker company, and I saw the question as *when* they would declare bankruptcy, not *if*.

    Part of the problem for retailers is that stores are often on long-term leases you don’t just walk away from, and while all knew there were too many outlets, closing them wasn’t a simple process. I suspect one motive to Borders timing in declaring bankruptcy is that bankruptcy makes breaking leases and closing outlets easier. The closest Borders to me (about four blocks away in NYC) is one that got the chop, though there are several others still in operation.

    I gave a presentation on ebooks for a local SF club in NJ at a B&N outlet there, and was interested to note what got pride of place. It was two floors, but most *books* were upstairs. The downstairs area was devoted to the cafe, magazines, comics, calendars, games, and gifts. The books downstairs were mostly popular YA titles. No surprise there, either – Juvenile/YA is one of the few bright spots in publishing.

    One question I had back when the Sony Reader and later the B&N nook were released is how you established a continuing relationship with the customer once they had a reader, and didn’t need to visit a store to get books. Emphasizing non-book items is one answer, and a way to keep the customers coming back to the store.

    Meanwhile, B&N will be shedding outlets too, but in a planned manner. As leases come up on properties, many simply won’t be renewed.

    So none of what you report is a surprise here. It’s pretty much what I would expect to happen. The problem for retailers is simply surviving, when the web means the customers often don’t have to visit a store to get what they want, and you can expect this to extend beyond book retailers. Outlets will close, and the ones that remain will shift product mixes and change store layouts to attract customers and keep them by (hopefully) stocking stuff you really do need to visit the store to get.

  13. 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.

    OMG, this is totally me too! 🙂 I love to see what else the writer unearthed/has to say in the footnote, and then I’m usually curious to see the full name of the book he referenced (I’ve bought some of those as well; I’m such a history junkie ;-)).

    So I decided to shake off the doldrums and console myself by buying books.

    I can’t tell you how many times of done that, but only with print books. (It’s that whole impulse buy thing with ebooks.) When there was a Borders just 10 minutes away, I would do like you’ve done, and have a set amount to spend on (mostly) fantasy fiction, with an occasional mystery or Stephanie Plum novel in the mix. (I’m from Jersey, so how could I not get into those Plum novels? :-))

    I really miss browsing the aisles, picking up an author I’d never heard of, liking what I read…yeah, I can do that with a sample, but it’s not the same. ::sigh::

  14. You’ve done a great job of illustrating the reasons why I stopped visiting my local B&N a year ago. I couldn’t find the books I wanted. And the clincher? “We can order that for you,” leaves me with a choice of paying full price and waiting 10 days and having to run an errand to pick the book up, or ordering myself off Amazon, paying 60% of cover price, and having the book delivered to my door in 2 days. I pity the B&N employees who have to tell me they can order it. They cringe even before I open my mouth because they KNOW what I’m going to say.

    When I quit visiting B&N a year ago, I also refused to invest heavily in eBooks because I’ve already lost an electronic library to the DRM trap, so I went to buying almost all used books, and amazoning the few gotta-have new releases. Now I’m buying eBooks almost exclusively. And, because I hate losing libraries to DRM nonsense, I’m buying self-published books almost exclusively.

    Where are the indy bookstores in all of this? I happen to be fortunate enough to live near two, both of which were fabulous in 1990. Both of which regularly tempted me to plunk down hundreds of dollars. Today, both are stocking hardbacks and a few trade, and almost no mass market. Neither carries the books I want to read. They have both completely and utterly lost my business. And it makes me sad because I would love to go back to the Tattered Cover of decades past.

  15. Our B&N seems to be resisting the trend for now, but the Borders long ago became less about books and more about music, toys, plush stuffed animals, games, t-shirts, posters… It’s really quite sad, because I don’t want those things from a bookstore. I want books, damn it.

    On the other hand, there are a few warning signs. There’s an apocalyptic fiction book called “Daybreak” that came out a bit ago in hardback; I read it for a while, decided I wanted to get the first book (as Daybreak was Book #2) and it just wasn’t there. Not in stock. B&N had a half-dozen copies of “Daybreak” displayed prominently in the New Titles section, but not the prequel? That makes no sense, given how many readers want to read series in order.

    What makes less sense is the movement of certain books onto shelves. Earlier this year, Patrick Rothfuss’s much-anticipated book “The Wise Man’s Fear” came out. Pre-orders alone boosted it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list.

    But the day it became available, it wasn’t there. Not in the “New Titles” section of the store, not in the section for hardback SF & F, not in the new releases section of the SF&F area. I had to ask an employee, who got a copy out of the back. He said the books hadn’t been put out on the shelves at all.

    We’re talking about a bestseller, the sequel to another bestseller. And it wasn’t on the shelves the day it became available to buy. I sure hope the store corrected this after I left, but it’s entirely possible that the books just stayed back there. Now I wonder if this is an isolated incident, or simply the first signs of what has affected the chain bookstores elsewhere.

  16. One wonders how all of this will affect libraries, which are publicly funded in various ways, and yet have relied on major publishers for 99 % of their titles, going back forever. It’s a simple choice, $35 for one hardcover, or many e-books, which require no shelf space at all. The problem is that paper and ink require fuel to transport, plus the time, the labour, the insurance, etc. When people talk about ‘the cost of producing an e-book’ and that means it has to cost $17.99 retail, I wonder where they get that–but it may be supporting other, less profitable aspects of their operation.

    1. Louis, libraries will change as well. But there are companies that now distribute e-books to libraries. If I had the time, I’d list them here, but I don’t. Suffice to say, these companies also distribute indie e-books as well as the big ones, so libraries can buy cheaper e=books if they want. Nice, huh?

  17. Mark!!

    Just want to say ‘Hi!’ In my comment, I was referring to the Barnes & Noble in Greenville, SC. If you were the manager there back when ‘The Notebook’ came out, we’ve probably met. I used to go there almost every week.

    Small world.

    (I didn’t know Nicholas Sparks lived (or used to live) in Greenville.)

    Sorry for the hijack …

  18. I was in B&N today in Tampa, FL. I was checking on the “front or store” placement of a book League Entertainment did with our friend, Adam-Troy Castro. The book is V Is for Vampire and was released on June 7th. Harper Collins informed us that it would have “front of store” placement for 2 weeks. Because of the changes (you so accurately described) that were made at all B&N stores, front of store placement is nearly in the center of the store, off centered from the large Nook display. In fact, after searching the whole store, it was at the very last table I looked at.

    It would seem that B&N is beginning to adopt the same strategy that Books A Million did 10 years ago. At the time, ereaders were still a distant thought, but BAMM saw that they could increase revenue by focusing on internet sales. Combine the increased popularity of ereaders with a stagnant economy, and it’s easy to see how large bookstore chains would begin to behave like timid television networks. Any drop in viewership (or readership in this case) and the product is replaced with the “next big thing.”

    It will be the smaller publishers, who can innovate quicker and who have less debt and legacy costs that will survive the transition.

  19. Your post enthralled me! When you were discussing the layout of the B&N store I “almost” skipped down to comment about how my local B&N now looks exactly the same! For obvious reason’s I’m glad I didn’t. I often tell people that B&N is going to survive because they are on top of it! and move with the times! That doesn’t mean I like the direction they’re heading because I like the traditional bookstore. For several months, I’ve also been telling anyone who will listen that I think you are going to see the return of the independent bookstore as the primary source of books. That they will need a more community feel and broad range of services than in the past. It’s just wild though isn’t it?

  20. I wrote up a (over!)long reply earlier, but my computer hiccuped and I lost it, sorry!

    But the root was, yeah, noticed the same thing in my local B&N. It’s a two-story huge store, but almost half the space is non-book stuff.

    Of course, I’m not really helping. I’ve gone in a few times this year, looking for books, and tend to walk out empty-handed or spending much less than I thought I would, for the same reasons you found.

    I look at that ebook percent. It’s “only” 25% now, but then it was “only” 3% in January 2010. Will ebooks be “only” 50% of the market by this time next year? Some folks think so. But even with “only” 25% of the market shifting from print to digital, in a retail industry that has traditionally run on pretty slim margins, how long can brick and mortar bookstores survive with 1/4 of their sales gone? And that’s not even counting the sales Amazon is soaking up by undercutting brick and mortar stores on price.

    So yeah, I think B&N is working hard to bring people to their online presence (for print and digital), and is trying to buy time by packing their stores with assorted other things alongside the books, because books just aren’t making the rent by themselves anymore.

  21. I first noticed this at B&N in January and vowed not to go back. Forgot my promise and returned in the spring. Not only had so much sq.ft. been turned over to the Nook or to toys – in other parts of the store where there was still space the tables that had always displayed books by topic were gone. Both times I complained to staff – got murmurs of agreement from a salesperson the first time, and a lot of pushback from a manager the second time. It’s too bad – despite it being a chain it had been a good bookstore and I almost always bought several hundred dollars worth of books.

    Even more disturbing is that I noticed a similar, if a bit more subtle shift at an indie bookstore in my town. More calendars, notebooks and scones – and fewer books. And I live in Cambridge – America’s “most literate city” according to Amazon – ha!

    I’ve been very bummed out by what I’ve been observing – we seem to be losing independent stores of all stripes. My sad prediction is that retail outside of the big box is quickly being reduced to not much beyond banks, cellphone stores and restaurants. Sure makes American towns and cities less interesting places.

  22. “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.”

    Think about how a location-based service/app could help out the brick-and-mortar bookstore! You download in the store, it knows you’re there, it pays a commission to the store. had an item this morning about a new one, Book Crawler. They described it in the following way: “Users can see maps of where their favorite books have been read near them, ‘check in’ to a location via the book they are currently reading, and connect with nearby users who share their reading interests.” And there was one from LibraryThing, too, the Local Book iPhone app.

    The app could certainly be designed to “phone home” and pay a commission based on your purchase online occurring while you were browsing in a book store.

    1. LP, do you have a link to the Book Crawler story? I did a quick (and I do mean quick) scan and couldn’t find it. This is something I’d like to see.

  23. I haven’t been to Powell’s main store in a while, but I was in the west-side satellite recently, and was amazed at how the books had thinned out, and how much non-book merchandise was taking up space. And yes, there was a “bed, bath, and beyond” feel to it. Lots of kitchen and household stuff. Some games and puzzles. Book accessories. And a shrinking pool of book shelving webbed through it all, like ice-floes in a thaw.

    Frankly, none of this shocks me, and it doesn’t much surprise me really. The melting-ice metaphor seems apt. One day you’re standing at an icy firmament, and the next, you’re on an ice cube looking at an ocean. It can happen very quickly, and when it happens, it happens EVERYWHERE at once.

    There’s where I think a lot of the ongoing analysis of the situation breaks down. It’s too easy to look at the (already large) trees (publishing, distributors, chain-stores, indie-stores) and miss that the forest is burning down.

    Print is imploding. It will survive in some form for a while, maybe even forever (though I find this dubious, other than a curiosity and collectible). Stores can’t stay open without books, publishers can’t survive without stores, stores can’t survive without print buyers, distributors can’t survive without all of the above, and indie stores can’t survive without most of the above plus a loyal clientele of hard-core readers (who evidence shows, are among the quickest to adopt ebooks). The print ecosystem is collapsing, and what will be left after the Great Extinction, nobody can say.

    So, while I’ve long fully-agreed with Kris’ mantra that “publishing will survive,” I’m not sure what part of it will survive, how big that bit will be, or if it will still be doing anything I have even the slightest interest in. I suspect not.

    My feeling is, it’s going to turn into something like the movie industry: event driven, celebrity-driven, brand-driven, high-budget, focused on high-volume, high-velocity products (maybe only some of them books) which is not where the great majority of writers live. (Or where they possibly could live. That’s a small ice-floe with room for only a few on it.)

    Bookstores, or at least the entities that operate them, may survive, but it’s really doubtful how many books they’ll still have. Indie stores may see short-term benefits as the chains pull back, but I don’t think that will last. Too many long-time stores are shutting down, too many old-time owners looking at getting out while they still can with their shirts. There are new stores opening, but there are ALWAYS new stores opening, and in the best of times, few survive very long.

    Yet, for those of us who are writers, this may be sad and confusing, but it isn’t inherently bad. We don’t NEED stores, distributors, publishers or prints. We need ourselves, our words, readers, and a way to bring them together. All those elements are very strong at the moment.

    Don’t confuse the publishing business or the bookstore with the writing business. They’re related, but they’re not at all the same, unless you just stand there until the ice melts underneath you.

  24. Used to run a B. Dalton in downtown Chicago back when mgrs. had free rein; found some old paperback spin racks in basement (this was an OLD store) and placed them near the front door. Loaded all four with genre books (mystery, romance, SF/fantasy, and horror/thriller) – constantly had to refill them so just kept moving more books from their sections to these racks (if there wasn’t enough new to put in them); fav part of the job actually.

    Ran a B&N in Greenville SC when THE NOTEBOOK came out (Sparks lived a few houses down from me in my neighborhood; my son took care of his dogs – knew him when he was a pharma salesman and was passing around his rough draft to select neighbors). I put up a table near the front door and ended up selling over 2000 copies just off that table via hand selling / visibility (sold more copies than any individual B&N in the country).

    Those were the good ole days …

  25. I really lost interest in bookstores over a decade ago. Five years ago I essentially stopped waling into brick and mortar bookstores entirely with the exception of the very occasional “poke my head in and see if things have gotten better or worse” or Half Price books. But when I go to half price I’m looking for old yummy gems that can even be hard to find on amazon.

    But I agree. Paper is not dead. Mass Market paperbacks, however, are going the way of the dinosaur. E-books are the new Mass Market paperback. Authors who sell well enough will get their books in hardcover releases. Midlist authors might get some trade paperbacks. But the Mass Market paperback is pretty much in its death throws I think.

  26. As a former store manager of a B&N, a B. Dalton, a Crown, a Media Play, and a Rizzoli I am so very glad I’m not that any longer. I was a major hand seller and face out king and that’s not what traditional book retail is anymore, if it ever was. I also was very very aware of what was selling and I would restock quickly; don’t believe mgrs. nowadays have that option, even if they are aware they are out of a title. SO, when I pop into my regular B&N (actually both as we somehow managed to get two even though we’re not that big a metropolis), I can never find any of the award winning SF books ever because either they sold out never to return until the trade/mass version or inexplicably they will never get them in (WINDUP GIRL, CITY AND THE CITY, ZOO CITY, DERVISH HOUSE, etc.). Unfortunately that means it’s time for Amazon or the library if it’s something I really want to read. Meanwhile, the SF section is loaded down with so many series, there’s no room for anything legitimate. Sigh …

  27. Wow. Just wow.

    I’ve been feeling the same way about B&Ns and other stores I’ve gone into lately. My book-buying is now almost exclusively online.


    TK Kenyon

  28. Kris, one question about one minor note:

    Would you be more likely to read short fiction on a Kindle if there was a word count in the TOC for each story, or even at the end of the blurb on the title page of each story?


    1. Camille, I read individual stories a lot on my Kindle, so the problem isn’t the story itself. I can gauge the length on an individual story. The problem is with anthologies and collections. And yes, I think a word count would help me, but I don’t know if it would help others. I just want to know if I’m committing to a novella or a novelette or a short short before I start. (And I do like thumbing through. I don’t know why.)

  29. As a dentist, I see tons of patients bring in their own “something to read”, and I’m seeing a smattering of e-readers, so far all Kindles and Nooks. Among colleagues, I see or hear that many of them have an e-reader, and often two different ones. I don’t know any writers on a personal level. I think as the price comes down, people who are readers but not collectors will grab these things as the economic advantages of buying and reading on an e-reader become more apparent. Just my two cents as a reader (and collector)(and Kindle owner).

    1. Thanks for the check, Scott. Also, a lot of people have “hidden” e-readers–their smart phones. Many people won’t read on their smart phone, but even more do. I do in a pinch. It’s not that hard to get used to the screen. So we may have more e-readers than we think.

  30. There’s definitely an opportunity here, because book discovery is one thing that the online stores do very, very poorly. I used to go to my neighborhood BN about once a week, to see the new releases, and if I’d missed a few weeks, or I was looking to stock up before a vacation, I’d do an A-Z scan of the SF shelves, followed by one on the mystery shelves, etc.

    As best I can tell, there’s really no way to do that ‘browse everything in alpha order by author’ search. Instead everything’s publication date, or popularity, or some order I don’t care about, because if it’s new and popular, I know where it is. So instead I’m left with blog recommendations, where I usually these days go check out the link and go, ‘maybe when the publisher gets a pricing clue’.

    1. I agree, Skip. Online book browsing is hard. I’m relying more on reviews and blogs and ads and release dates than ever before.

  31. Interesting post! It made me look at my own buying habits. I’m the opposite of you when it comes to nonfiction. I almost always buy kindle versions for research, simply because I can never remember where I read anything. Being able to mark things and search for them later has been a huge time saver (and space saver since I always over-buy on a research topic).

    I’ve also noticed that I used to go to chains when I just wanted to go in and buy a specific book. The indies (all 2 in my state) simply didn’t have the kind of selection that would ensure I’d find the book I wanted. but over the last 5 years, I’ve found myself doing the opposite. I’d go to B&N or Borders for book shelves or nifty file folders or pencil holders, but when I was looking for instant book gratification, I’d go to my indie — which just moved to a bigger space (yay!).

  32. I am a life-long avid reader. (In high school, my classmates’ prediction for me was that I would finish reading all the books in the Library of Congress.)

    I buy most of my books used (which is a necessity when you read almost 5-6 books a week). But once-a-month or so I’ll splurge and visit the local B&N (30 minutes away).

    A couple of months ago, I was surprised to find the layout completely different. The children’s section had spilled out of its usual area and taken over approximately 1/6th of the selling floor. Lining the main aisle was a row of bookcases (12′ long, 5′ high) with a big sign above (‘YA Paranormal Romance’, i.e. ‘Twilight’ clones). I wandered around but never did find the writing section.

    I had a list of eleven books to look for. Couldn’t find any of them. Went to the help desk. They didn’t have the first four. The fifth also showed as zero copies in store but the lady thought she had seen one so we went looking (but never found it). At that point, I gave up.

    I love bookstores. I love wandering around, finding things I didn’t even know existed, etc. etc. But they just don’t seem to be working for me anymore.

    I ended up walking out with one solitary magazine. One!! That’s never happened before.

    1. Nice to know I’m not alone, Barbara. Or maybe, not nice exactly, but comforting. This is unsettling to us book browsers. I’m really beginning to understand nostalgia. And Cindie, you’re right. This will drive me to Powell’s more and more, plus if I am going to special order from a store, I’ll special order from our local indies, not from the megachain.

  33. The Barnes & Noble in Manhattan has taken this to another level… not only do they have space devoted to the Nook, they have a guy demonstrating how it works and a bunch of Nooks on a table that people can play with.

    As for print being dead? Well, I recently ran a poll on my blog (which has 10,000 visitors per month, mostly young journalists) and gave people three choices: Do you own an e-reader, do you want one, or do you prefer print books?

    Not one single person owned an e-reader. Zero. Other than writers, I personally don’t know anyone who owns one. I don’t, I don’t want one, and I have no desire to read a book that way. That’s just me. Electronic screens give me a headache.

    If you’re not offering your work in all formats, you’re basically losing a huge part of your potential audience.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been in stores running demonstrations as well, Randy. And the Nooks are available to be played with.

      I know a lot of nonwriters with e-readers. I know many more people of all ages who swear they’ll never read an electronic book. So I agree: all formats for every type of reader.

  34. I’d noticed this, but I didn’t think it was that serious. Most of the books I want to buy aren’t bestsellers, or aren’t anymore, so I’m only vaguely disappointed when I don’t find them. But I remember the horrified search that went on when the next-to-last Steven Brust came out, and I swore I’d order him online since then, because I didn’t want to risk the delay.

    The last book I bought in a chain bookstore was Drood, in February, because I had a coupon. We have several excellent new/used mixed bookstores in town; I go to one or the other of them about once a week.

    I’m getting ready to finish a cooking cozy, and I don’t know if I want to bother sending it to NY. I’ll probably POD publish and use Dean’s method of sending the book. I know I can get the book into several of the local new/used stores as I’ve already asked.

    1. Thanks, DeAnna. Good luck with the cooking cozy. I’ve been talking to indie stores too and they’re happy to get books. Things are a’changing.

  35. I notice the same trends here in the metro NYC area. Very few books that I want available in the chains (mostly big bestsellers in their first month on the shelves), almost no salespeople (unless you’re looking at the cafe, and the nook booth at the B & N) — *except* for the local indy bookstore, which is as interesting to browse as ever.

    Perhaps this will end up being the salvation of the independent bookstores — they have learned to compete and survive in a very tough market for years now, and you can still get a real book store experience at a great indy. Unfortunately, the chains are becoming upscale versions of pharmacies and stationery stores.

    1. I’m thinking the same thing, Michele, that this will save the independent bookstores. Book people want books. I live in a town with no real new bookstores, but we’re the used bookstore capital of the Oregon coast, and those stores are full every weekend. They’re busy. And they’re still bookstores. I think that says something.

  36. Thanks for articulating the things I’ve only been peripherally noticing in my local chain stores. LOTS more face-out titles, seriously reduced selection, and flat-out empty spaces, not only on the shelves, but on the “new release” spinners (where publishers pay coop to get titles placed, and yet, seem now to be paying for empty spaces while the book ordering lags…)

    Even Powells (I share the love!) has reported a decline in sales – but I think the new/used model will keep them afloat – and hopefully robust. My local indie has that same type of mix, and they seem to be doing all right so far. (Fingers crossed.)

    I know some traditionally published authors with new releases (mm format) who are having abysmal sell-through. The market has shifted so much already from when their print-runs were determined, and it’s really pulling them down. It’s scary for them, and for the publishing industry. It seems to me that mass market format is going down, fast and hard.

    Thanks, Kris, for another great post~

    1. Thanks, Anthea. This change is pulling all of us traditionally published authors down on our numbers. But the good news is that numbers matter less and less. We can do our backlist and our other titles ourselves. Still as a reader, I really missed my usual bookstore experience. And it sounds like I’ll keep missing it.

  37. This is an excellent article. I live in Arlington, TX, and I own a nook, so most of what I purchase is off the website and for e-books. But last week, I went to Target to purchase an item and was told that it is only available on the website. The same with Wal-Mart. In this economic downturn, and in response to having to lay people off at the store level, many items are being sent to the “website only” section. They offer it for less, but by the time you add in tax and shipping, you have paid the same amount as at the store. A sale is made, and a store clerk was not needed. Plus it keeps inventory at an all-time low, with less overhead. So very sorry for your frustration. I’m certain that you are not alone.

    1. I noticed that about the other stores last night, Kathie. Our television literally blew up yesterday afternoon–sparks, smoke, you name it–so we looked online to see where the best prices were. And they were…online. Or we could order one and have it delivered to the local store for free. I’d have to pay $200 in shipping to get it, but if I drove to the store, nothing. Yep. Inventory reduction. How fun (not).

  38. Kristine,

    As a bookseller in a B&N location I can assure you that the very things you point out here are well noted by the booksellers themselves, and they have been cause for much consternation and dread amongst us all. There’s no real problem with the attention afforded to the nook. I have no problems at all with embracing technology to enhance writing and reading markets.

    As you stated, bookfloor space has been swallowed up by nook displays, and quite frankly, the mandate from on high by the money-counters in NY is nook nook nook. Talk about it, demo it, sell it. Report your numbers. Failure to sell gets you serious face time with management and can lead to termination. Not kidding. It is a militant-style drumbeat.

    The face out overexposure is beyond ridiculous and, as you pointed out, devours shelfspace for books. Not only does it also kill space that could be devoted to more content, it also looks like complete and utter trash. The mass market books in particular fold up and fall over and generally within a week are almost unsellable because their condition has deteriorated.

    More and more prevalent now is the utterance of this phrase: “We don’t have that in stock at this location but I can check another store or we can order it for you.” I almost sigh every time someone asks me for a book because 8 times out of 10 we won’t have it anymore. And if we DO have it, our wiser customers come in armed with online pricing printouts and can see the sometimes $10-15$ difference in price and walk out with the reply “I’ll just order it from Amazon.”

    Add to that this intense interest in games and toys and the floorspace it now occupies and you no longer find yourself in a bookstore. I had joked with our receiving manager that it wouldn’t be long before they no longer referred to the store as Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Lo and behold, the shipping boxes no longer state “Booksellers” on them. The entire corporate push is to digital, and to lure somebody with toys and games. They say the games and toys are huge sellers but all I see is a receiving room flooded with overstock toys and games and bookshelves crying for stock.

    And, if your B&N experience were held to the standard demanded by the home office, you would have also been deluged at checkout for:

    1 – Have you tried the nook?
    2 – Can I have your email address?
    3 – Do you have our member card which will save you XXX dollars today?
    4 – Have you heard about our new Kids Club Program?
    5 – Will you be needing any gift cards today?

    (And don’t even get me started on the change to the membership program which requires a credit card to enroll AND you can no longer waive the automatic re-enrollment…unless you take the time after to sign up to call customer service in New York and specifically request that you be opted out.)

    It’s been a disappointing shift. Customer service used to be the big priority. Put the book in the customer’s hand, they said. Now, we aren’t given the tools to properly do that.

    Thank you for writing up your experience. It validates the whispered concerns of booksellers.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your post, Steve H. I knew this had to be coming from corporate. And I knew it was a problem. And yes, I did get those questions plus an extra statement, “Did you know there’s a Nook app for iPhone?” I didn’t, so I did download that app in the store. Mostly because I try to have all the book apps on my iPhone so I can keep up with the changes.

      I hadn’t thought about how hard this would be for the actual employees. It would be much more frustrating for you than my little hour-long experience. How sad this is. I like change and I love technology, but I also love book stores. (shakes head)

      Thanks again for confirming all of this.

  39. All of which supports what I’ve been arguing for the last six months or more: print is dead.

    Oh, it’s not quite dead if you’re in the top 0.1% of print authors, but even for them it’s in critical condition. As bookstores continue to close and those remaining shrink their SKUs, the midlist has almost disappeared. If your books aren’t popular enough to be regularly stocked at Costco and Walmart, you’re not going to make any real money in print. And it’s just going to continue to get worse, and quickly.

    That’s why I can’t figure out why you and Dean encourage self-pubbed authors to put their books into paper form. They’re not going to sell many copies. They’re not going to get the authors any significant exposure to new readers. So why spend the time, effort, and money necessary to produce and offer a paper version of your book, when you could instead devote those resources to cranking out another ebook to add to your stable?

    1. Sigh, Robert. Print is not dead. The statistics bear me out. 75% or more want their books in paper. Those of us buying books electronically want paper. Hell, Amanda Hocking went to a traditional publisher because her fans wanted her book in paper. Paper is the permanent form. If you want to keep a book, you buy it in paper–probably after you read the e-book. But still. That’s the form we know will last. We don’t know if the e-book you buy on Kindle today will be readable on REally Kool Device in 2016. So we buy the paper. Paper is important, and paper is not dead. And I know I won’t convince you, but for everyone else: Paper is still a way that people consume books. So put your books in e-book and paper if you chose to do it yourself.

  40. I am more of a reader than a writer but I have noticed the same thing. I worked my way through acupuncture school at B. Dalton (owned by Barnes and Noble) I started in 1996. That year at the holidays we had struggled to get all the overstock on the shelves until about December at which point we struggled to get books on the shelves. Faceouts were non existent in October and rows of faceouts only happened in December. By 1998 this had completely changed.

    Part of the reason was that the stock holders didn’t want to spend the money on inventory and preferred the money on the books (so I heard). Another reason was that Amazon had become more familiar to the world and more and more people were ordering books there.

    Unfortunately, rather than cater to the crowd they would keep, those of us who love to browse books and just enjoy finding new and unknown authors to read, the bookstores decided to cut back on their inventory. This means there is little reason to go into one.

    This year I purchased a Kindle, but prior to that, while I mostly read books from the library, I’d have a book shopping spree for traveling. In the last year I’ve had a harder and harder time finding anything I want to read and even paperbacks seem ridiculous on price–some going as high at $9.95. If I want to pay that, I’ll opt for the trade.

    As a reader and sometimes writer who adores books, this is a sad state we have come to. Yes, I now read more on the Kindle and read more indie published work. Yes, I now order more from Amazon when I really want something non electronic. It’s not the same as wandering through the aisles of a real bookstore with real books and just looking.

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. Ordering on line is not the same as browsing, is it? Browsing makes you come across that weird colored little book with the awful title. Then you pick it up and realize, “Hey, this sounds interesting!” and you buy it. Online you’d never do that. Although I am buying and sampling a lot on my Kindle, and buying more books than ever. I just miss that browsing experience. Thank heavens Powells is still close by. I can browse there.

  41. I think I’m most disturbed when I see authors who have 5 or 6 or 10 books out, their latest release is there in hardcover, doing well, and there are NO backlist titles available in the store. Who makes THOSE ordering decisions? Particularly when it is a series for mystery fiction…I want to read them in order. If #3 is in hardcover, and looks to be doing well, I want #1 and #2 first. Or simultaneously. And if it’s not there, I don’t buy the hardcover.

    I’m in Canada, and everybody railed against Chapters when it arrived, as “death to the book and magazine industry”. It didn’t kill the book industry, but it did decimate WHO was selling (less independents) and shock ‘n ‘awed the magazine industry as the big stores carried Cosmo, Time, and TV guide but almost no fiction mags except the half-sized ones.

    We too have moved to the face-side out shelving, Kobo sales area, and limited current release areas. However, our children’s area and young adult sections are enclosed in rooms, and relatively protected!

    Find new touchstones — the future is bright, and ya gotta wear shades!


    1. Thanks, Paul. The future is bright, but it is different. And I will miss having a wide choice in a bookstore. (Independents! Now’s your chance!) I really agree about series. It’s very hard to find earlier books in a series. Even the Ian Rankins I was looking at only had one Rebus (his detective) and weirdly, it wasn’t his latest. It looks to me like no one is thinking through the chain ordering decisions. Or is trying to survive and order as best as possible while trying to follow a screwy mandate from on high.

  42. I’ve been watching this trend for years now. My local B&N now has large sections devoted to music, calendars, toys, puzzles, gifts and “crash space”–that’s extra space in the back for couches and tables, with outlets for laptops, and that’s in addition to the cafe in the front with all its tables.

    Less than half the store now is devoted to books. Of that half, a big chunk of it is children’s picture books, which has been a sluggish sell electronically for obvious reasons.

    I remember when I was a kid, the local bookstore was nothing but shelves of books. There were no gifts, no puzzles, no toys. The only non-book items were bookmarks and sometimes greeting cards, and all those were clustered at the register.

    These days we don’t have bookstores. We have recreational department stores. Books are only a small part of that recreation, as far as the chains are concerned.

    1. Thanks, Robin. MCA, yeah, the trend has been there for several years and has gotten worse. I love your phrase, “recreational department stores.” Good one.

  43. Thank you for another illuminating post. I’ve been following you for awhile now, (by way of The Passive Guy) and I appreciate your honesty in what you’re finding in the publishing world these days. Which is why, after years of writing and rejections, the self-publishing market is the way I’m going. I used to want to have an agent and perhaps the chance at one of the Big 6 backing me, but now, with all that I’ve been reading, I’m not going to take the chance.

    Desperation calls for desperate measures and it seems to me the publishing world is becoming more and more desperate in finding ways to make money by screwing over authors to get said cash.

    Thanks to you, my eyes are wide open and New York is not really some place I want to be any longer.

    1. Thanks, Anne. I’m trying to give people an idea of what’s going on so that they can make informed choices. What that choice is should be an individual matter–some going traditional, some indie, some both–but it should be based on knowledge. So this is a long way of saying thank you for letting me know that this method is working. 🙂 Good luck with the indie books.

  44. I’m sorry for the frustration you experienced. I’ve been in a B&N close to the Memorial Day weekend, but I’m not as observant as you. I remember a kiosk area for information on the new nook, but the thing I noticed most though was where are all the employees? I remember thinking, Is it because they think no one will appear because of the Memorial Day weekend? Or are economic times just that bad that they can only afford one employee to cover both the front and back banks of checkout areas?

    That aside, I too prefer nonfiction in print, especially if it is about history. Business nonfiction I can read on my nook, however. But I don’t like to buy something if it is too expensive. Money is a little tight. So, I sometimes look for used versions.

    I’m also like you with the bookstores. The main bookstore I go to is 60 miles. Although, I have found a used one about 30-40 miles away. But either way, I don’t get to the bookstores often. Back when it was just the B&N, 60 miles away, I went about 3-4 times a year. Now with the used, about every couple months. When I’m in one, I like to spend time looking. Sometimes I go to a store with an idea for a certain book I want; mostly, I’m a browser and go seeking something new. I like to spend hours.

    But I’ve been reading less and less fantasy fiction because I can’t find what I want. My tastes have grown more narrow over the years, so most time I walk away with nothing from the fantasy shelves or I don’t even look anymore. Which is why I want to write what I like, and I hope to self-publish it, because if I don’t see it on the shelves, it can’t be popular enough for the big guys to take on. But if I want it, surely others do too, so some people will buy it.

    Anyway, I do believe things are changing in the stores. The scariest that I saw, and I hope it was just because of the holiday, was the lack of employees. There were a few at the help desk and one by the DVD section and one nook lady, but to have these two banks of cash registers and only have one person man both areas? I don’t care if it that specific day is slow, that sends a bad message.


    1. I noticed that too, Jodi, on the employees, but that’s been a trend for a while. Employees cost money. (sigh) As for reading habits narrowing, actually, I think because of the economy of scale, the reading choices from traditional publishers narrowed. Books have to earn back the investment in them (and the average midlist book costs its publisher about $250,000 to produce counting all costs). That return needs to come in the first six months. With the changes and with the consolidiation, traditional publishers are taking fewer risks on books so any type that sells slowly and earns its investment back in, say, 12 months is (to them) no longer worth publishing. So we readers can’t find books we like. The e-book revolution & indie publishing is fixing that. It’s why I believe there are so many surprise indie bestsellers. They’re in a subgenre traditional publishing had given up on.

  45. We’re seeing the same thing in Canada. There are relatively few independent bookstores, and most of them are a bit hole-in-the-wall and tend to have an idiosyncratic selection(either themed, or catch-as-catch-can). That can be a lot of fun to browse, of course, but it’s not great for shopping with a list.

    But the big-box stores – all owned by the same conglomerate – are really not a great deal better in that respect. Here too, they’ve been ‘diversifying’, which is a nice way of saying that Chapters seems to have fused with Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’m not sure who goes to a bookstore to buy towels or soap dispensers, but apparently the number isn’t zero.

    Finding a book that’s more than a few months old often requires one to order a copy into the store. If I’m to end up doing that, why wouldn’t I simply click around Amazon and save myself the gas money?

    1. Bed, Bath & Beyond? Seriously? Okay…. What you say about ordering, Marcin. Exactly. If I wanted to special order the book, I would have done so when I heard about it. Online. At home.

  46. I used to buy almost exclusively from the “New Books” section of my local SFF speciality store and mystery speciality store – occasionally visiting chain stores for specific big-selling books.

    Now I buy 80% ebook, and the rest I order from The Book Depository. Almost all the ebooks I buy are sample-first. My book-buying habit has increased, but book stores have been almost completely cut out of the picture. This is in part because Australia has ridiculous book prices, but also due to lack of selection. Even with the very good specialty stores I have available to me, they cannot possibly match the selection the internet hands me.

    Discovering a new author has changed completely for me (a mix of recommendations, Goodreads, and book blogger discussion). Previously my selections were guided almost exclusively by whatever was on those new releases shelves.

    The playing field isn’t quite level (particularly for those of us who are unknown and self-published and discovering all those “do not accept self-published books policies), but it’s a very very different world.

    1. Good analysis, Andrea. That’s how I’m buying too. And I’m discovering lots of new writers. I don’t care who publishes them. I just want a good story. I think most readers are that way as well.

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