Bookstores: The Bigger Picture

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September 2011
by John Mutter

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Bookstores are dying. Indie bookstores are dying. Chain bookstores are dying. If you needed any reminder of this dreary take on book retailing, you got it when Borders Group finally gave up the ghost and announced it was shutting down for good. Through the end of September, the last 399 Borders and Walden bookstores—two-thirds of them superstores—will close, and 10,700 booksellers will lose their jobs.

And, of course, we all know the details of the rest of the negative litany. There are thousands fewer independents than 20 years ago. Barnes & Noble has stopped opening stores, and as I write, it looks as if it may be sold to a media baron most interested in its online and e-book operations. Earlier this year B&N laid off the core of its book-buying staff, including the people most responsible for independent press titles. Even used-book stores are feeling the heat—and closing in high numbers or shifting most of their business online.

The causes are purportedly simple and inexorable: e-books and online book retailing. Both are dominated by Amazon. The company is the worldwide leader in selling books online, and its Kindle has about 70 percent of the e-book market share in the United States. It’s a juggernaut.

Still. Or, as my brother and I used to say to our father when we were on the losing end of a disagreement, “Yes, but.”

Good News

Yes, but many positive developments are occurring in the bookstore world that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. For example:

Bookstore membership in the American Booksellers Association has stabilized after almost two decades of decline and has risen in the past two years to 1,825.

Independent bookstores continue to open. Many of the new owners are veteran booksellers or people who have had careers in other fields and either bought or opened stores—but only after attending bookselling schools and working with established booksellers to learn the business fundamentals. Unlike new booksellers several decades ago, they aren’t jumping into book retailing simply because they “love reading.”

Indies continue to be the part of the book world where so many books are “made”; and perhaps even more so than in the past, because booksellers’ enthusiasm for various books can be communicated so quickly on the Internet.

More stores are finding “guardian angels,” both people and organizations interested in supporting bookstores. For example, Ann Patchett (whose new novel is State of Wonder) teamed up with a Random House rep to open an independent bookstore in her hometown, Nashville, which no longer had a general bookstore of any kind. And four years ago, billionaire Sam Wyly bought Explore Booksellers in Vail, CO, a store he had enjoyed as a customer, when its longtime owner died and her family put it up for sale. (Typically for these kinds of owners, he lets experienced booksellers manage the store.)

An increasing number of colleges and universities are opening branches of their stores or moving their stores off campus into downtown areas to serve the local community as well as students and faculty. In July, for instance, the UConn Co-op in Storrs, CT, announced that it will open a downtown branch in a new shopping development. In these kinds of stores, general books are once again an important part of the retail mix.

Through the ABA’s e-commerce platform IndieBound, independent booksellers have joined with Google eBooks and begun selling e-books that are compatible with all e-readers except Amazon’s Kindle. Because of the agency-model plans adopted by all the large publishers, Amazon and others cannot undersell indies (or any other sellers, for that matter) on e-books from major publishers. While indies’ e-book sales are still tiny compared to sales by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, indies finally have a way to compete in this growing field—and are now learning the e-ropes.

Many independent booksellers are focusing on making their stores into community centers and on emphasizing ties with local groups of all kinds. An important part of this activity is dealing with local authors and local publishers. Carrying their titles helps distinguish the indies from both their bricks-and-mortar competition and their online competition. I don’t know of any indie whose bestsellers don’t include at least several titles from local authors and local indie presses.

Support for a Productive Partnership

It’s great when indie booksellers and publishers can meet and talk about working together in mutually beneficial ways. I saw an example of that at Publishing University this year when I moderated a panel called Navigating the Changing Retail Landscape.

Two of the three panelists were independent booksellers–Margot Sage-EL, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ, and Stephanie Anderson, manager of WORD in Brooklyn, NY. Both stores are located in areas whose residents have sophisticated reading tastes, and both stores work regularly with independent presses. The third panelist, Eric Burger, vendor manager at Barnes & Noble, reiterated that despite the changes at B&N and the loss of some familiar small-press buyers, the company wants and needs to stock and sell titles from independent publishers.

I had wondered if our panel would attract many publishers. But we had a good crowd. Then I wondered if we would get our message across, and if the booksellers and publishers would connect. After the panelists talked a bit about their own stores, how they work with independent presses, and what helps that working relationship, the questions started flowing from attendees. They ranged from the general—“What are you guys doing about e-books?”—to the specific—“What’s the best way to get in touch with you about our list?”

The panel went well over the allotted time—and, best of all, many in the audience came up to the dais afterwards to continue the discussion of how indie presses and indie booksellers can keep working together.

The panel’s most important message, we had agreed beforehand, was that independent publishers need to remember that many traditional booksellers remain healthy and offer important opportunities for selling books of all kinds. Happily, we seemed to get the message across there. I hope it gets across here too.

John Mutter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Shelf Awareness, the daily email newsletter for booksellers and librarians that started six years ago. In June the company launched Shelf Awareness for Readers, a twice-weekly email newsletter for consumers about books and authors. He worked at Publishers Weekly for more than 20 years.

 

 

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