If you’re older than thirty you probably recall a time when neighborhood bookstores ran thick throughout the land. Every town with an educated populace had one or two and every university town of any size had three or four. In cities like New York, there was a bookstore every ten or fifteen blocks, often adding to the unique character of surrounding streets. One of those, in fact, was a Barnes & Noble on 18th Street and Fifth Avenue.
But times change. That Barnes & Noble still sits on the corner of 18th Street, but as everyone knows many independent stores have closed — something like eighty percent of them, in fact, from their peak.
Now comes news that Borders Book Group has not paid its vendors (or its rent) for two months. It’s a dead chain walking, but who besides authors will cry a tear for it? Borders has fallen victim to a process that it encouraged: the commodification of bookselling.
Sheerly from a business perspective, the rise of superstores seemed like a brilliant idea when they began. They offered more selection than most (though not all) other bookstores had, often by a factor of ten, and they were designed as places where it was fun to linger, making it more likely that customers would eventually buy. Furthermore, as discounted bestsellers accounted for fewer units on the floor, full-priced books could pick up some of the slack.
Alas, the supersize bookstore really put the hurt on independents because it offered one-stop shopping, usually instant gratification and lower prices. Most superstores were also located among the strip malls where affluent Americans increasingly chose to shop, eschewing small downtowns where independents were better entrenched. Many nice little businesses closed because they didn’t offer enough of a draw to detour customers from new shopping patterns.
Then — alas for brick and mortar — the Internet came along. Shoppers now accustomed to minimal human contact at the superstores learned that they may as well trade in soft bookstore reading chairs for the ability to shop in their underwear at home, especially when selection was infinite and the books all discounted.
Now — alas yet again for the neighborhood retailer! — with a Nook or a Kindle customers don’t even have to wait for the UPS truck to show up anymore. You think; you buy; you’re reading two minutes later.
Whither the old-fashioned bookstore? I don’t know, but I’m willing to hazard a few guesses. To wit:
8 Predictions for the Future of Bookselling
1. Superstores will shrink in number.
All right, this isn’t the boldest prediction. How could they not shrink? Something like half of Borders’ stores sit within a few miles of a Barnes & Noble. The nation became over-retailed during the housing bubble, and all those locations are fighting the secular trend: an Internet and e-readers as close as the nearest radio wave.
Small niche bookstores, on the other hand, may grow. Why? See No. 6.
2. Non-book merchandise will consume half the bookstore.
My wife and I once owned retail stores (not bookstores, although we did have book sections) and I also once worked as a journalist covering the retail business (supermarkets — don’t ask). From these endeavors I’ve learned that retailers live and die on turnover. Margins don’t mean jack if you can’t move the merchandise.
But consider: the amount of space that product information takes up on a web server is miniscule — nearly zero in relation to that server’s capacity. In a brick-and-mortar store, on the other hand, every inch costs money and therefore logic dictates that every piece of merchandise must earn its keep. In an effort to appear comprehensive, the superstore ignored these imperatives for a while. But those days are over. A comprehensive university library can scarcely compete with the staggering volume of information on the Internet; a business aiming to earn a profit on those terms doesn’t stand a chance.
For stores with rent to pay, books that turn more than three times a year will replace those that don’t. And if the store buyer finds an ashtray that will sell better, that book had better watch its back.
3. More independents will die.
This is so for the reasons stated in No. 1 but also because of a dirty little secret: even after a massive shakeout in their industry, some independent stores remain poorly run. They haven’t innovated and their merchandising hasn’t kept up with modern standards.
We’ve all enabled these stores, averting our eyes from the peeling paint, the worn carpet and the faded poster in the window, telling ourselves that it’s only the books on the shelves that matter. Bullshit. Competition won’t get any easier for these poor folks. Those that refuse to adapt to the modern consumer (or can’t adapt — many are undercapitalized) won’t get to the end of this decade as going concerns.
4. Google eBooks will not save independents.
The ebook train has already left the station, and it’s not even clear that Google — for all its brilliance — got an aisle seat.
In any case, a big part of the electronic book proposition is convenience, and consumers have proved time and again that they will choose convenience (not to mention price) over loyalty when deciding where to shop. If people can buy a book from the device in their lap it seems like wishful thinking to expect them to go to an independent bookstore’s website instead, even if they really like the folks who are running that store.
Optimists will say that customers trust the reading recommendations they get from independents, which is all well and good. But reading recommendations are an increasingly competitive game, already dominated by the fragmented blogosphere. Besides, it’s hard to see a future where a bookseller spends fifteen minutes coddling Mrs. Jones for the margin on a $9.99 (or less) ebook. Dedication to hand selling tends to wane when the hand seller is facing starvation.
No, at best Google eBooks will provide incremental business for independents, not enough to make or break them. And yet, independent bookstores will survive — and some will even thrive — in the new environment. Here’s how…
5. Independents will succeed by going into the experience business.
The only way for independent booksellers to escape the B&N/Amazon commodity trap is to offer something unique. In the past, that something was an understanding of their customers’ tastes, but let’s face it: search engines get better at that all the time.
Yet there remains a place for bookstores as cultural centers where humans connect to one another the old-fashioned way — by standing in the same room. No amount of web chat will replace that yearning to look an author in the eye, for example. The sooner all bookstores become gathering places for intellectual and literary discourse, the closer they will be to their own redemption.
Imagine a bookstore with not only the coffee shop or the space carved out in the middle for reading, but with conference rooms and meeting rooms and stages where the ideas in books take on lives of their own, where authors meet readers, teach them, inspire them.
The greatest independent bookstores are already living this future. That’s why they’re thriving despite all the economic pressures. Going forward, more stores will follow this path, and the ones that are good at it will get even better.
6. Booksellers will charge admission and split the fee with visiting authors.
The free author book signing may recede into history along with those days when people could purchase a book at discount from the chain bookstore across the street and show up at the independent’s author event to get it signed. (That phenomenon should have taught independents about the loyalty of most customers right there.) The independent operators got wise, of course, and now you need to show a store receipt before getting in line. Good for them, but now it’s time to go further.
The idea that bookstores, publishers and authors should spend thousands of dollars to arrange speaking engagements for the mere price of a few books sold may one day go the way of Betamax. I say: good riddance to those times, friends. It’s a service economy, and people delivering a service (speaking and signing), not just a product (books), should be paid for their services. Not because they want the money or need the money, mind you, but because — properly marketed and presented — they’re worth every penny of it.
7. Booksellers will go forth, projecting their expertise into the community.
It is common practice for authors — out of kindness or (more often) based upon a desire to stuff channels and make bestseller lists — to invite a bookstore to sell books at the back of the room during readings or presentations. Most bookstore managers will concede their mixed feeling about this practice, whereby they purchase cases of books, schlep them to the venue and tie up an employee or two — all at the risk of selling a handful of units.
In the future, perhaps booksellers will start driving this bus themselves, turning themselves into impresarios of the literati, organizing events not just in the store but throughout the community, all with a mind toward moving product and, yes, collecting admission.
8. Publishers will open “bookstores” again. When I was an editor at Doubleday in the Eighties, we had offices at 666 Fifth Avenue (no devil jokes, please), on the corner of 53rd Street. From there, in those days, you could walk easily to four bookstores: Scribner, Doubleday, The Travel Bookstore and Barnes & Noble. Now that neighborhood’s down to one bookstore — guess who.
In an earlier post I mentioned that one of the big mistakes publishers have made is losing touch with their end customers. They often know everything about their channels of distribution and little to nothing about the person who bought the book at retail. Thus I was struck by a recent essay from Matt Shatz, Head of Strategic Content Relations for Nokia, in which he predicted that online retailers will “squeeze out publishers in the book business.” The reason, he wrote, is that the digital platform “lessens the value of [publishers’] deep relationships with brick-and-mortar retail buyers” while leading online retailers have “over 100 million billing and messaging relationships with consumers.” Yikes.
I wouldn’t count out publishers just yet, however. As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” If publishers have any sense, they’re planning to pile back into the bookselling fray in a last-ditch effort to retain their customers. If they did so, it would benefit authors, readers and book lovers — and may save some publishers’ from hanging in the bargain.