Bookstores: the Truer, Brighter Picture

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September 2013
by John Mutter
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In the rush to be part of the digital revolution in publishing, it’s easy to forget that what some dismissively call traditional publishing is still a force to be reckoned with. As several observers have pointed out, even if e-books account for more than 20 percent of books published or sold—the general estimate of e-books’ share of the market—that means that printed books still account for almost four out of every five books sold.

Although a large percentage of those printed books are sold online by Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and others, many are still sold the old-fashioned way: in bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

Of course, you’ve all heard the doom and gloom about bookstores. The general media narrative, along with the view of quite a few people in the book business, focuses on the Borders collapse two years ago; on fears of something similar happening to Barnes & Noble; and on predictions that digital books and Amazon will take over the book world, that e-books will replace printed books completely, and that indies will continue a long slide that began in the ’90s and inevitably die out.

But this isn’t the way a lot of people who deal with bookstores daily see things. The doom-and-gloom narrative is stuck on several things that either are not the whole story or are out of date. There is a lot of good news about indies.

Signs of Growth and Health

After a long period of decline, membership in the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores in the United States, has increased during the last several years, and sometime this year it should break through the 2,000 level. The ABA itself has proven to be resilient and a strong advocate for the interests of indie booksellers, both in the industry and in the country at large.

Many indie bookstores had their best year ever in 2012, according to anecdotal evidence and ABA research. Unit sales of books at reporting ABA independent bookstores rose 8 percent last year and rose again in the first part of 2013.

It’s looking as if e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will be an additional book format, particularly popular for titles in genres such as fiction, especially romance, but not particularly popular for other kinds of books, as, for example, illustrated titles and serious nonfiction.

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that many people are reading both printed and e-books, choosing one format over the other depending on many variables, including whether reading will be done while traveling or commuting, the type of book, and so on.

Some readers have tried digital reading but gone back to print. Some readers vow never to go digital. Traditional printed books remain highly popular for gift giving—more satisfying and heartfelt than e-book gift cards (e-books themselves, of course, can’t be wrapped up and handed to someone).

Today’s Trends

According to Association of American Publishers figures, the rate of sales growth for e-books in the most popular categories is leveling off from the stratospheric levels of a year or two ago.

At the same time, many independent bookstores are now selling e-books and other products through the ABA’s new partnership with Kobo, which allows indies to be competitive in the digital arena. Kobo is not as well known in the United States as other major booksellers since its original partner here was the late Borders Group, but it is one of the largest e-book players in the world, and the largest e-book retailer in France and Canada. The company, whose origins are north of the border, is now owned by Japan’s Rakuten, a multibillion-dollar e-commerce and Internet concern.

Sales tax fairness—that is, requiring large Internet retailers to collect local and state sales taxes, as all bricks-and-mortar stores must do—may soon become federal law. A bill addressing the issue has passed the Senate and is now before the House; President Obama has said that he will sign it. Meanwhile, some states have already enacted laws requiring Internet retailers to collect sales tax, removing what has been, in many cases, a 7 to 10 percent price disadvantage for bricks-and-mortar retailers. The ABA and its members have been among the groups and businesses promoting such measures on the state and federal levels.

“Buy local” efforts promoting the benefits of patronizing locally owned retail businesses have also begun to strengthen bookstores as they influence consumers. The ABA has led and promoted such campaigns and has worked with indie retail groups in other industries, sponsoring efforts involving a range of local stores.

The campaigns have done well in spreading the message that locally owned businesses usually contribute more to their communities than distant corporations, in taxes and in salaries and wages as well as in time, energy, and monetary contributions to local organizations and charities—all making for healthier communities and downtowns.

Although some independent bookstores are closing, as some always have, many more are opening, usually run by people who are coming into bookselling with excellent preparation and clear eyes. In addition, in the last several years, more and more indies have been opening branches, another sign of health in the business.

Every week at Shelf Awareness, we have stories like these: Changing Hands, the venerable Tucson, AZ, bookstore, is in the process of opening a second store, in Phoenix. WORD, the trendy Brooklyn, NY, store, will soon open its second store, in Jersey City, NJ. Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT, is setting up its second location, in Saratoga Springs, NY. In early July, Diesel: A Bookstore, opened its fourth store, in Larkspur, CA.

A related indie bookstore phenomenon involves former Borders and Walden staff members opening and working in new stores. Two of the most recent examples—Literati and Bookbound—are, appropriately, in Ann Arbor, MI, longtime headquarters of the late chain.

In many of these cases, communities, governments, and developers petitioned booksellers to open new stores, because they believe bookstores are a key part of a healthy, vibrant community. Their lively events programs; their hosting of book clubs, reading groups, and local organizations; and their function as places where people can meet and talk about books are being valued more and more in the digital age.

The Persistent In-Person Plus

The resurgence of indie bookstores is especially important because bookstores continue to be among the best places for readers to discover books, and much more effective for discovery than online book retailers, whose algorithms and customer suggestions are no match for a live human being handselling a book or for books displayed in inviting ways for readers to browse through.

Even though online retailers are great if you know exactly what you want to buy, they can’t provide the browsing experience or create the sense of community that bricks-and-mortar stores offer.

Larger publishers, aware of the effectiveness of bricks-and-mortar stores in helping readers discover books and prodded by the ABA, have begun a variety of programs to help bookstores, improving rapid replenishment, simplifying coop, and improving margins. Indie publishers, who may have even more to gain from healthy bookstores, might try the same thing.


IBPA board member John Mutter is editor-in-chief and cofounder of Shelf Awareness, which publishes two email newsletters: the daily Shelf Awareness for the book trade and the twice-weekly Shelf Awareness for Readers geared to consumers. To learn more: shelf-awareness.com.

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