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.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

24 responses to “8 Predictions for the 
Future of Bookselling”

  1. Jeff Crook says:

    For #6 to work, said authors will have to work on their performance reading abilities. This is already something I’ve been practicing, in preparation for that day, because I’ve been to far far too many readings that were conducted in the dreadful monotone of a tweedy professor. Either that, or its overwrought authors chewing their phrases, trying to suck every drop of non-existant prose poetry from that dry turnip of a paragraph.

  2. Bob Mayer says:

    I remember when there was one B&N on 18th. Used to take the train down there on Sundays from the Bronx and it was a really cool place.
    I think the biggest problem in publishing and for bookstores is something few people are talking about: treating authors like interchangeable parts. If you’re not a Brand Author, then NY and most bookstores treat you like you’re not important. Indies are notorious for sneering down their nose at genre authors, particularly romance writers, who just happen to sell 56% of fiction. I’ve had more than one indie owner tell me: “We don’t do your type of book.” And where were my tears six months later as there is an article in the paper where the owner is wailing about having to close and not getting community support. I have never seen a single article about an author who did not get their contract renewed.
    I made suggestions about what bookstores could do for the future at Write It Forward. They should adapt the strategy Starbucks is using to re-energize its chain of coffee shops: go local.
    http://writeitforward.wordpress.com/category/the-publishing-borg/page/8/
    Interestingly, not a single bookstore person apparently had the time to check out that information. I constantly see agents, editors, publishing gurus, etc. have advice to for authors, but rarely do they take advice from authors. What we’re seeing now is simple: authors produce the product, readers consume the product. Everyone in between is either helping or not. Our motto at Who Dares Wins Publishing comes my time in the Infantry: Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.
    Last year at DBW10, publishing experts on panels were sneering at eBooks. 3% of our gross was the refrain. Some of those people are now looking for jobs. I still find the gap between what publishers are willing to admit regarding ebook sales and what the true number is, a sign of fear.
    Publishers are still focused on selling to retailers instead of selling to readers. Therein lies the fatal flaw.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Sounds like you know as well as I (possibly better), Bob, that there’s often been a kind of siege mentality around book publishing. Some people (not all) don’t want to hear from authors because they’re afraid the author might ask them to DO something. Lots of times, to be honest, that something is not worth doing — it’s climbing Mt. Everest to make a nickel. So that sets the whole relationship and it becomes one of skepticism, if not cynicism. Then, when the author actually does have a good idea, the insiders are so in the habit of saying “no” that they won’t budge.

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  5. Uche Ogbuji says:

    These articles fascinate me because they’re so outside my ken. I’m an ignoramus of the books business. But basic sense like this definitely resonates: “The sooner all bookstores become gathering places for intellectual and literary discourse, the closer they will be to their own redemption.” I’d go even further. Why not allow more crossover between media? How about having themed nights with a film, a local band, and related book readings? Maybe it’s because I live in Boulder but it seems to me that the literate public is interested in eclectic entertainment events, and if the in-store marketing is well enough done, it should greatly multiply the book-buying impulses for such events, to augment the gate fees.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Interesting, Uche. Maybe Garrison Keillor showed the way. Variety hour at the bookstore!

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Unless you live in NYC, Rio or Ibiza, no one goes to the clubs Monday and Tuesday, and usually not Sunday, so might as well give people something that can compete with a 4 day hangover, without making them have to focus too much with one sensory organ at a time.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    Always interesting to get your take on things.

    I hope you’re right — I want someone to pay me to show up, like I’m K-Fed at a club.

  7. Paul Clayton says:

    Good one, J.E. I heartily agree with numbers 5, 6 and 7. I love readings and signings (as a reader) and would be willing to pay admission. And I could see retailers selling books at such events—if said books were the price of admission.
    But I think this modern town hall of literary ideas will only save the most celebrated and brilliant among us and will amount to what happened to the music business—bands having to tour to make money because they can no longer earn money selling CDs.

    I would go to a reading by Tom Wolfe or Tobias Wolff and have them sign a copy for me. And I would take it home and place it proudly on my bookshelf. But the latest Clive Cussler or Stephenie Meyer — I don’t think so. Now before Clive or Stephenie rush to the phone to rip me a new one, let me say to them that I would certainly be interested in buying their newest, but not in hardback. I would buy it as an ebook on my Kindle. The Kindle ebook is the new paperback. Accept it. It’s a fact. And let’s face it, we don’t collect paperbacks and bring them to signings. We read them and give them to friends, or donate them to Goodwill, or throw them out with the Sunday paper in the recycle bin. And this is the whole problem (for Big Publishing) in a nutshell.

    Amazon, and other e-tailers to a lesser extent, are the threat– waging jihad against Big Publishing. They are winning the war and the only way they’ll be stopped is if the whole world wide web crashes and burns. All it would take would be one nuclear explosion at just the right altitude over Kansas, and every microprocessor in the U.S. would be fried. Your car wouldn’t run, nor would your TV or our home heater and, most importantly to the perpetrator, nor would your Kindle or Nook.

    Perhaps at the very moment, on the other side of the globe, in the remotest valley in Awfulstan, a nervous representative of Big Six Publishing is hunkered down at a campfire across from Ahkmed and Boris, to begin price negotiations on the device which sits not far away in the bed of an ancient Mercedes truck—a Balkonove IV, Medium Range Nuclear tipped missile.

  8. J.E. Fishman says:

    You need to see someone about your wolf obsession, Paul. Seriously, for every fan of anyone there are ten fans for someone else. No doubt many people would pay to see Stephanie Meyer.

    You are spot-on about the e-book being an analog to the mass market paperback and that Amazon, to some extent, is waging war against Big Publishing. But I don’t see a Big Six representative finding his or her way to Awfulstan. They generally only go where the No. 1 train or MetroNorth takes them.

  9. jonathan evison says:

    . . . astute, as always mr. fishman . . . as you pointed out, the smart indies are already on the ball . . . successful university book stores now generate much of their income from spirit gear– shirts, sweatshirts, hats, bags emblazoned with the school colors . . . proactive indie stores are way into community outreach, clubs, activities, classrooms, and also selling toys and accoutrements, and now, google books . . . those who can manage to survive the next few years stand a good chance of thriving when the box stores bite the dust . . . a lot of publishers aren’t even shipping to borders anymore, because borders isn’t paying their bills . . . i envision price indexing undergoing an overhaul, as well . . . the book as object will remain a great niche market, if nothing else . . . publishers like mcsweeneys and algonquin who are willing to go out of their way to produce uniquely packaged perfect bound books stand to do okay, i think . . .

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I’m always interested in what Evison envisions, if only for the alliteration. In this case, too, I agree with all your observations, Jonathan.

  10. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I would love to see publishers opening stores again, it could help readers identify a brand and offer the chance for publishers to get involved in that experience you talk about. As far as I can see, it would only strengthen their brand and their visibility and attract more readers. Until then, the chain bookstores will exist only to cater to the Best Buy spillover crowd.

    I always learn a lot from your posts on the industry, thanks again for this one.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      It’s worth noting that the publisher-run bookstores carried titles from all (or, at least, many) publishers, not just their own houses. This makes sense for market research and when you’re trying to run the thing as a stand-alone business. Today, I think publishers need their own online stores to stay in touch with the marketplace, but they’ll need to find innovative ways to drive people there.

  11. I’m constantly talking to people about how to make the author reading experience more dynamic (and therefore more profitable for everyone, from bookseller to author to attendee). The monotone reading/tentative Q&A/signing model seems like a dead end for most writers. Suggestions usually come down to the addition of alcohol, multiple authors, screenings, and music. Essentially, more distractions and greater interaction. Which I entirely agree with, but the set up of which is usually too onerous and takes too much convincing unless everyone agrees on the wisdom of additional content. As you say above, talking publishers into doing anything slightly different from the way they have always done so, even now, is a mystifying obstacle.

  12. Really interesting read. What if publishers and retailers actually got together to host print on demand book events. I enjoyed reading what Bob Mayer had to say, too. Publishers need to do more than curate content for a cloud. They need to develop their own direct to consumer platforms and teach their authors to do the same. Otherwise, why take a mediocre advance as a writer when you have developed all the relationships with your audience via your own social media strategy? I still see gatekeeper thinking all over social media from publishers, agents and editors. Arranging chairs on the Titanic…

  13. […] in order for this to happen they will have to go into the experience business (see my last post on “8 Predictions for the Future of Bookselling”), offering paid appearances by authors and intellectuals, live shows, classes, etc. Any store not […]

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