Business Musings: Bookstores and Libraries (Planning for 2019 Part 3)

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If you’re a writer and, more specifically, if you’re an indie writer, there’s a lot of opportunity in the bookstore and library markets. Yes, indeedy, I’m talking brick-and-mortar stuff.

First, a reminder: I’m doing a short series reviewing 2018 with an eye toward 2019. If you have not read the first post in this series, please do so. I will be referring to it throughout the series.  In fact, I’d recommend that you read the entire series in order, simply because I’ll be referring to things in one post that I mentioned in a previous post. Otherwise, I’d be repeating myself ad infinitum.

You can read each post in the series as I finish it if you become a $5 patron on Patreon.  (I finished all the posts before January 1, because I wanted to move onto other things.) Otherwise, you’ll be seeing these posts here on this website into early February.


If you only saw my post on Barnes & Noble back in October, you’d think that all bookstores were in deep trouble. Barnes & Noble is in trouble. Despite the happy sunny much-too-upbeat headlines about B&N in December, the trouble remains.

The headlines are great, like this one from which says “Barnes & Noble Plans to Open 15 New Stores in 2019.” Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Thriving businesses expand, right?

But you need to actually read past the headline. Barnes & Noble is actually cutting back retail space, and probably cutting back on expensive leases. They’re going from stores that are at least 17,000 square feet to stores that are 14,000 square feet or less. And they’re moving those smaller stores to “entertainment districts or cultural centers.”

Um, you know, like independent bookstores. Only Barnes & Noble will have a self-serve kiosk and a “book theater” (whatever the hell that is) and “plenty of comfortable community seating areas.”

So, less space for books and less interaction with employees, but also lower rents (most likely) and less money invested in inventory.

In my opinion as a long-time retailer, this is about ten years too late for B&N, and I doubt it will fool their investors.

My analysis from October remains the same. If you’re a writer who wants to be traditionally published so that you have high visibility, you are making a bad choice. With B&N reducing shelf space and putting the final nail in the coffin of what once made their brand unique (having so many books on the shelves that readers could find almost anything), most traditionally published books will not be on the shelves in a brick-and-mortar B&N.

All of us who do print books, indie or traditional, can be on the virtual shelves of B&N and Amazon and any other book retailer who puts their inventory online. (Most independent stores work with the American Booksellers Association to set up a website that sells physical books as well as ebooks.) There are a variety of ways that indie writers can get their books into the paper distribution system, from going direct to producing books through Ingram Spark and using the services they provide.

(Before you ask, I’m not going to explain that, because that’s not the point of this post. Research it yourself, and do so with the library stuff below as well.)

The other cloud hovering over the horizon, at least for traditionally published writers, is the possible merger between the two remaining large distributors in the United States. On December 4, Shelf Awareness reported  that the Federal Trade Commission is doing a “preliminary nonpublic investigation” of a merger between Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two big distributors to see if such a merger would violate antitrust law.

If this merger goes through, the United States would be down to one major book distributor for the entire country. Shelf Awareness opined in its article that the single distributor would have a role that would “be all the more significant because of the closure of most regional book wholesalers over the past quarter century.”

Shelf Awareness also wonders if the changes at Barnes & Noble, and the possible sale of Baker & Taylor by its parent company Follett are related. Shelf Awareness believes that Follett is one of the possible buyers of Barnes & Noble, saying:

Follett may want to sell B&T if it aspires to buy B&N, an approach that would lessen FTC concerns and avoid B&T’s non-B&N retail customers objecting and possibly taking their business elsewhere.

For traditionally published writers, the merger could be a serious problem. If, for example, a writer’s traditional publisher gets into a pissing contest with the merged distributor (Ingram Baker Taylor?) the way that the Big 5 got into a pissing contest with Amazon a few years back (a contest that continues on a small level even today), then many books won’t get into the major print distribution channel, and the very reason the writer went to a traditional publisher disappears.

I tell writers not to go to traditional publishers for novels any longer because of the copyrights grabs, which basically mean that the writer gives up control of their entire copyright for the life of the copyright. I will deal with this in a future blog post in this series.

More likely, however, for traditionally published writers in this scenario is that their book is the fourth or fifth on the list published that month by an imprint. Publishers invest a lot of money in the top of the list, but rarely invest in the books farther down. Some of those books don’t even make it into the current distribution system, and might be shut out entirely of a single distributor who might mandate that they only take three books per imprint from a publisher. (These things happen all the time.)

If a writer is going to lose control of her copyright for the life of that copyright by going to a traditional publisher, then the writer needs guarantees that the book will visit all the possible store shelves, and get enough visibility to make such a loss worthwhile. But that kind of guarantee is getting harder and harder, and the physical store shelves have gotten smaller and smaller.

The reason that I say this is a dark cloud for traditionally published writers, but I’m not willing to commit to the color of the cloud for indie writers is threefold: First, it’s already becoming clear that the handful of remaining regional distributors might step up to compete with the new behemoth;  second, Amazon (our biggest book retailer in the States) no longer uses the big distributors the way it used to; and third, a lot of booksellers have returned to direct ordering.

Shelf Awareness notes that the big distributors are most important for “fast delivery of special orders, stock for events and hot titles,” services that apply to big bestsellers and not to the books that grow slowly.

The consolidation of the distributors will harm the sales of the blockbusters more than it will harm the smaller titles, further causing problems for the big traditional publishers. And you can already see some cracks in that blockbuster façade. For example, when Simon & Schuster released its year-end letter to stockholders, there was no discussion at all of increased sales of the front list (new) titles. Instead, CEO Carolyn Reidy’s claim that 2018 was S&S’s most successful year appears to be based on the growing audiobook division and a new attention to backlist sales. (And the audiobook division news will be part of the copyright discussions we will have later in this series.)

S&S is developing its own distribution line, which, in turn, will have a benefit for smaller publishers and indie writers. The more the big guns run their own distribution systems, the more they train booksellers to order direct from the publisher, cutting out the middleman.

Which means that small publishers and indie writer/publishers will benefit from the willingness of booksellers to order direct.

There are a lot more booksellers to train. The bright spot in 2018 (and 2017 as well) is the growth of the independent bookstore. Independent bookstores took a big hit in the first decade of this century, but have rebounded slowly ever since.

Membership in the American Booksellers Association has grown this past year. In fact, this continues a trend that the ABA has seen since 2011. Not every bookstore owner joins the ABA. So the organization also reports this: the actual number of store locations has grown to nearly 2500 across the country. And according to the ABA, sales from reporting indie bookstores have grown more than 5% in the first four months of 2018 as compared with the same period in 2017.

Retailing is changing. The experience is becoming king. Besides, readers have discovered (remembered?) that it’s fun to go into a bookstore to find a book they didn’t even know existed. It’s easier to browse a brick and mortar store. And it’s not just about buying the book.

According to Washington D.C. economic development planner Ryan Hand (quoted in MarketWatch):

Shopping for a book is an emotional experience. The future of bookstores are small and mixed concept stores. [They will be] social spaces where you develop that emotional connection by books that are curated by literature nerds.

I had just such an emotional experience as I was researching this post. I stumbled upon an article in The Wisconsin State Journal about A Room Of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. Even though I culled my book collection way down on our move, I still have several books I purchased at A Room Of One’s Own decades ago, and I have very fond memories of the store.

It was delightful to learn that A Room Of One’s Own not only has survived, but thrived. Since its founding in 1975, A Room Of One’s Own grew from 1,000 books (all face out on the shelves) to 405,000 books, with annual sales topping $1 million. The reason for the article was that the bookstore finally has new owners. The original owners have wanted to retire since 2016. They sold the bookstore to a partnership formed between two current employees and fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss.

Just a side point, folks: people don’t invest in industries that have no future.

A few blocks from my new home here in Las Vegas, a new building is in the last stages of construction. In the next few months, the Writer’s Block Bookstore will relocate there. If you subscribe to Shelf Awareness, you will see articles on new bookstores printed almost monthly.

In many ways, these trends in bookselling mean that each bookstore will have its own unique inventory. A Room Of One’s Own in Madison won’t have the same books on its shelf as Writer’s Block here in Las Vegas. Some small booksellers will be amenable to carrying print titles from local authors; other small booksellers will not. Some, like a rabid anti-Amazon bookseller that I know in Oregon, refuse to take a book from any writer who publishes through Amazon. As one of those writers, I stopped recommending that bookstore.

The bookstores will develop personalities again, so that when readers travel, they’ll want to stop in the local bookstore—not to pick up the latest bestseller, but to see what kinds of offers that they might have missed in their own hometowns.

Savvy indie writers will figure out how to get their books into bookstores through some of the remaining regional distributors or through whatever IngramBakerTaylor hybrid emerges. Those details, though, belong in another blog.

Suffice to say that the good news here is that indie bookstores here in the States are healthy and growing.

I am not certain about the overseas market. When I planned this series, some of my Patreon supporters reported great sales through local shops in countries like Australia, but others, in the U.K mostly, reported that local booksellers want nothing to do with indie writers right now. I haven’t verified either of those things, but would love it if some of you can explore what’s going on in your countries in the comments below.


As ebooks disrupted traditional publishing, traditional publishers have not figured out how to deal with libraries. When a traditional publisher sells a hardcover book to a library, that book gets only so many check-outs before it literally disintegrates and the library has to replace the book. Traditional publishers, faced with unlimited downloads of an ebook sold to a library, had no clue how to price the damn things.

And so began a quiet little war between traditional publishers and libraries that hit its zenith last summer when McMillan decided to “embargo” Tor science fiction and fantasy titles from libraries for four months after release.

Or, to put it in clearer terms, McMillan believed (based on no evidence at all) that library users would spend those four months buying the books they couldn’t get at the library. No journalist asked why they chose to make this move with their Tor book line only.

I suspect the reason was twofold: Tor’s sales have never been all that great, so they’re probably on an internal bubble (about to be chopped off if they don’t become profitable by a specific date) and some stupid logic that all businesses seem to have about science fiction and fantasy—that their consumers are cutting edge because those consumers read about the future.

Traditional publishers have long seen libraries as their enemy. This is because traditional publishers are a B2B (business to business) entity not a B2C (business to consumer) entity. In other words, publishers believe they sell their books to bookstores and retail outlets, not to readers. The bookstore is the B2C business, not the publisher.

If these publishers actually understood the retail side of their business (and they don’t), they would understand that libraries enable readers to discover writers (and by extension, those writers’ publishers). Libraries are a gateway drug to a particular reading experience.

According to OverDrive founder and CEO Steve Potash:

(Traditional publishers) don’t realize the lift for discovery and brand development that public libraries contribute to 24 hours a day through their online catalogs and through the 1.5 billion visits into their branches—and I’m just referring to the U.S.

Let’s look at some information, shall we? This is from the U.S. based Institute of Museum and Library Services, for fiscal year 2016 (the last time these statistics were available):

(The IMLS annual Public Library Survey) shows that public libraries continue to evolve to meet changing community needs. More than 171 million registered users, representing over half of the nearly 311 million Americans who lived within a public library service area, visited public libraries over 1.35 billion times in 2016. Public libraries offered half a million more programs in 2016 than in 2015; 113 million people attended 5.2 million programs in 2016. In addition, the number of electronic materials continued to grow, with public libraries offering over 391 million e-books to their patrons in the United States.

The Library Journal reports that 25% of the collection materials in public libraries are ebooks. Potash told LJ that the publishing industry’s B2B problem means that it has no idea how many (paper) books libraries ordered because the orders were fulfilled by paper distributors.

Potash said,

prior to ebooks, even the publishers never knew which libraries bought their books or how many copies, because [library orders] were being fulfilled by the traditional wholesale distributors…. Authors and agents aren’t appreciating that libraries are spending hundreds of millions of dollars…in print and digital, which is contributing to their earnings.

That shows up in the behavior of traditional publishers. They continue to treat libraries like a problem rather than an important part of the book ecosystem.

Unfortunately, that means that indie writers (who often absorb traditional publishing attitudes) often treat libraries that way as well. That’s a mistake. Indie writers have a huge opportunity here. They can access all of those library patrons with a few clicks of a button.

According to their own website, Overdrive is the leading digital reading platform for libraries and schools worldwide. They’re owned by Rakuten, which also owns Kobo. So if you upload your books to Kobo and put them live on Overdrive as well, you’ll find your work in 40,000 libraries and schools in 70 countries.

D2D provides access to bibliotheca and other library services (and, nicely, has a clear chart explaining library pricing). Again, these programs get indie writers into libraries worldwide.

That’s the other problem big traditional publishers have: most of their publishing licenses with authors are limited by territory, so even if you sell your big, big, big book to a traditional publisher, you’ll end up in fewer venues (both retail and library) than if you published the book yourself.

Ironic, I know. That trend had started around 2014 or so, and has only grown.

Libraries are one of the largest areas where indie publishing and traditional publishing diverge. If you want your readers to get books immediately upon release at a library, then go indie, not traditional.

As traditional publishing unit sales continue to decline, I see these library issues to get worse not better.

The libraries themselves mark the biggest opportunity for indie writers to expand their readership worldwide. This is one of the biggest bright spots of the year for indies, as far as I can see.


I have long espoused in these blogs that going wide is the only way to build a writing career. Going wide doesn’t just mean going wide with ebooks in all of the eretailers, but also going wide in other formats, from print to audiobooks. Some of the wide venues are easier to access than others. Indie writers will have to work hard to get their books into the print side of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But the path to libraries is easy and one every indie should do.

On libraries alone, I feel sorry for traditionally published writers. They’re at the mercy of their publishers. For the past four years, it has become increasingly clear to me that there is no benefit to traditionally publishing a novel, from the contracts to the loss of copyright to the lack of distribution.

Doing the research for things like this reminds me, every single time, how fortunate we are to have the ability to publish our own work and to keep our books in our control.

And that always makes me feel upbeat.


Each time I dig on a topic for this series, I find a dozen other topics that I could discuss. I don’t have time to examine all of them in this series, but you’ll see many of them in 2019.

Thanks to my Patreon supporters for assisting me this year on these posts. And thanks to the rest of you for reading, sharing, and commenting. I couldn’t do it without you all!

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page. I am currently blogging about my experiences at the Consumer Electronics Show this week for those who are at the $5 and above tier. I’m revamping the Patreon page to include more content like that, which will happen slowly throughout January.
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“Business Musings: Bookstores and Libraries (Planning for 2019 Part 3),” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.

23 thoughts on “Business Musings: Bookstores and Libraries (Planning for 2019 Part 3)

  1. As well as being an independent author, I’m a school librarian living in mainland China. I have quite a bit of experience using OverDrive to purchase (license) books for my libraries. I’ve launched OverDrive in two schools and purchased thousands of ebooks and audiobooks for our digital libraries.

    To clarify, we have to buy (license) each and every individual title for our digital collection in the same way we would buy a physical copy of a book for our shelves. My students only have access to the titles that we have bought for our collection.

    I should highlight that OverDrive is the ONLY way we purchase audiobooks for our library collection.

    I fully agree that indie authors, especially those writing Middle Grade or Young Adult, should distribute through OverDrive if they want to reach an international audience. Censorship of independently-published books means they will not be available to the mainland China market specifically, but there are so many other countries where digital is the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to get access to English books, and this applies to the school library market as well.

    The only issue for indies based on my experience is that discoverability on OverDrive Marketplace is nonexistent. It’s not an easy storefront for browsing in the way that Amazon is. So at this stage I would say a librarian is unlikely to stumble upon an indie book through OverDrive; they would need to be searching for it specifically. I say this based on the OverDrive Marketplace interface I have used, the one made available to the international school library market.

    School librarians tend to rely on traditional editorial reviews from School Library Journal etc but we do read book review blogs and social media… that’s the best bet for exposure from my point of view.

  2. Anecdote about indies in foreign to Kris brick and mortar: Here in Victoria BC, one of the two large indie bookstores suddenly sprouted large posters this summer at the end of every aisle. These posters had bulleted lists of all the moral imperatives for shopping local and supporting jobs and industry in the local community.
    I noted to myself that this store refuses to stock local indie-published authors. Someone else must have mentioned it to them. The posters vanished within a month and there is now a 2′ x 6′ bookcase in a low-traffic corner of the store with 1 to 3 face out copies of a dozen of so titles by “Local Authors”.

  3. I’m starting to see a trickle of library ebook sales. I don’t currently have print books and I definitely can’t afford my own IBSNs. I can buy those or I can publish two new books. To say I publish on a shoestring budget is being generous. I’m eagerly waiting to see what D2D has cooked up for print distribution. I refuse to play the KDP Print game. I don’t have time or the mental energy to deal with their bullshit.

    I’ve long thought the recommended pricing guidelines for library ebooks are stupid, so I refuse to abide by them. I use D2D and have all my books enrolled in ALL the library channels there. I’m making sales in the pay per checkout distributors, and I’m confident the only reason for that is my books are some of the lowest priced.

    I’m a huge library reader who belongs to a system with a small budget. The ebook selection in my system isn’t even good enough to be terrible. And it’s because of the high prices. I view it as they’re being robbed. And since in my state it’s my tax dollars that support the library, I don’t like being robbed by greedy trad publishers. So I chose to forego potential large profits in exchange for a potentially greater reach.

    I don’t regret my decision in the least.

  4. Kris – question – I have about 6 books that I’ve only done as ebooks because they are about 30-40k length. I didn’t think the paper was worth it at that length. Should I be doing print versions of them too? I know I have a novella series one 3 and one 4 that combined would be about 70k and 90k respectively, or do I hurt myself doing that?

    1. It doesn’t cost anything to do a print version through Amazon. Give your readers that at least. I have many stories of that length in print. We’ll end up doing them in hardcover as well, but that’s a personal business decision. What do you want to do? How much can you spend? There’s also no hurry. You can do one per month, and just have them available. You won’t know what kind of business you’re losing until you actually venture into the market.

    2. I have very short books in print, short stories and novella length 4500-13000 words (like a short Valentine’s day romance up) and they are appreciated. I publish mostly thin books for now, collections coming later.

  5. I interviewed my local librarian last fall. There were a few things she mentioned that are very important if you want your book in a library. One is the metadata. Libraries operate on author, title, subject. Otherwise they don’t know how to categorize you. (This is the 1. 2. 3. entries you see near the bottom of the copyright page in traditionally pubbed books.) Librarians are sometimes leery about indie authors. She showed me a cabinet full of donated books, none of which would end up on the shelves. This is mostly because they haven’t been edited. The covers and editing were not done professionally. Definitely you need your own ISBN. The other thing I learned about the way libraries often order ebooks, is they are packaged in groups by distributors into tier levels. Bundles if you will. And many libraries order whatever bundle seems most likely to be of interest to their patrons. They might order one individual indie book (yours) if given enough reason. Patrons simply requesting it is not enough. Her best advice was go talk to your local librarian. They are there to help you and that’s what they like to do. Also, reviews by legit, professional reviewers are very important. Library Journal review is tops, but others also acceptable. Librarians can’t read every book, but they do talk to each other, they are on social media, and they do rely on reviews.

  6. Hugh Howey imagined the most wonderful bookstore: “Bella’s Bookshop would start with the kids. A vibrant and fun children’s section with bean bags, reading and writing stations,” and a perfect, well-stocked writing room with a lively community, run by well-read, full-time staff, integrating indie books and Amazon: My family and I would basically live there.

    Author Ann Patchett co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, which seems to be flourishing.

    And I’m a lifelong library fan.

    I plan to spend more time writing, marketing, and publishing in 2019, as well as seeing you at the romance workshop. Thanks!

  7. Wonderful post! But as a new convert to the Overdrive app, I wanted to mention that your ebooks are mostly NOT in the library, and I wish they were. There are a limit on how many I can request in a given time period, but I do hope to see your books migrate there.

      1. Kris, as someone who managed a library’s Overdrive collection in a previous job, I thought I could offer some information. Getting the books into Overdrive only gets them into the backend portal that librarians use to license the ebooks for the use of their library. Once the ebook is licensed to a particular library, it is made available through a website for that library’s Overdrive collection. So what a library patron sees on their Overdrive app is only what is available from their own library. So if Liana’s library hasn’t licensed any of your ebooks, she won’t see them in the app. Maybe you already know that, I’m not sure based on your response, but I thought I’d mention for anyone not familiar with Overdrive.

        Liana, I don’t know how it works in the app, since they’ve made significant changes since I worked with it, but if you go to your library’s website and go to their Overdrive collection, you can search for Kris’s books and find the link to view additional results. This will expand to titles your library doesn’t have, and you can send a recommendation, from the title listing, that they purchase the titles you want. Then the library will be notified about your recommendation and if they purchase it then it will be placed on hold for you. Most librarians who work with purchasing are really excited to get recommendations from a patron, so you have a pretty high chance of getting at least some of the ones you want.

  8. I have questions about the returns requirement for selling books through Ingram to bookstores. (I’ve heard it’s required, at any rate.) I lost money via Ingram last year, thanks to some conference bookseller ordering a bunch of my books and then returning most of them. I had my titles set to Return: Yes, Destroy, so who knows where those volumes actually went. it wasn’t much money, but it still annoyed me. So my questions are: (1) Do you see that policy changing with the new winds sweeping through the bookstore universe? That is, if bookstores order directly from publishers, will they be better able to fine-tune their orders and stop needing returns? (2) Am I fussing about nothing; to wit, that little loss would disappear if my overall bookstore sales were higher and returns are integral part of the bookstore economic model?
    Thanks for a very informative series of posts!!

    1. Don’t set your returns to destroy. That’s what’s costing you money. If you have them do full copy returns, then they will put those books in a warehouse and resell. (Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.) Try that, and see if it helps. Returns are a cost of doing business, but technically, you shouldn’t see much along that way—unless there’s a huge order and most of it gets returned. (Which happened to you.)

  9. Was talking to a friend of mine that’s got a few published books through a small publisher. Non-fiction and interesting bits of research on the Irish and British isles history. Pulled up his books listed in Amazon and Kobo and we both discovered that the pricings were really out of whack. One book costing more than another, different price points between Amazon and Kobo for the same title. Only one book was available through Overdrive. I hope I opened his eyes. He did say that he was going to be making some phone calls about things.
    I like informing him about little details to help him with his business.

  10. You mentioned Ingram’s, so: I just got into IngramSpark in 2018, with a handful of titles. I should have done it three or four years ago, with everything except short stories.

    If KDP Print shows you have routine sales through Expanded Distribution (or whatever they’re calling it this week), it’s time to get your own ISBNs and get your books in IngramSpark. You’re leaving buckets of money on the table otherwise. In my case, the income doubled over Expanded Distribution.

    Every new full-sized book I put out is going through both KDP Print and IngramSpark, in both paperback and hardcover.

    I should probably write a blog post on deciding when to go with IS, dang it.

    1. Would you? I have multiple full length novels that I’ve avoided expanded distro because I had to set the paper price so high. I can’t figure out if the $40 layout for Ingram is worth it and if it would make it more viable in the long run. I’d like to get some actual experience and numbers to look at. Thanks!

  11. With all the potential changes in (and the importance of) distributors, how important is it for indie authors to buy their own ISBNs today?

  12. Great post. I had not thought much about libraries. I appreciate your insights about the indie bookstores, we have quite a few in Portland, with Powell’s on top of the heap. Just this week I learned of a new one opening in a nearby town.

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