What Should Be Done?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I spend time each day checking out various discussion boards relating to e-books.  I’ve been doing this for a long time, far longer than NRP has been in existence.  One reason is I’ve been an advocate of e-books from the first time I was introduced to them via Webscriptions.  The second reason is that, not matter how contentious the boards get at times, they are populated by readers.  These are people who are passionate not only about the technology behind e-books and e-book readers but are passionate about the books as well.

One of the topics that comes up from time to time is how e-books and online retailers have impacted bookstore sales and why.  It’s not a new discussion by any means.  It started with the first online order from Amazon and has never really gone away.   There have been different permutations of it, including the possible cannibalization of hard cover purchases by e-book sales. It’s too early in the morning to kick my ulcer into full gear by going into the agency model.  We’ll do that later.  Today, a few thoughts on bookstores.

The U. S. Census Department released the September figures for bookstore sales.  New book sales were down from September 2009 by 7.1%.  August figures were down 6.5%.  For the year, sales are down 2.6%.  To translate that into dollars, year-to-date sales for new books from bookstores is $12.3 billion.

According to John Marmaduke, CEO of Hastings, their sales for stores open at least a year fell 6.2%.  That includes a 9.3% drop in new book sales.  However, they experienced an increase of 7.8% in sales of used and “value” books.  Marmaduke claims that e-book readers are impacting the sale of new books but noted that they are countering this by offering used and value books at “price points that resonate well with our customers.”

That last phrase is the key, in my opinion.  Books are not, to most people, a necessity.  Especially not in this day and age of the internet.  You can go online and find something to read, no matter what your taste.  Be it fanfic or your local newspaper, it’s there.  If you don’t mind breaking a few laws, you can find the newest best seller for free.  (And I am not advocating this!)

There’s also the local library.  Most of us can go a few miles from home and take advantage of free library services.  Not only can we check out books, but there’s music and video as well.

But let’s take those out of the equation right now and just look at why bookstore sales are down.  I’ll start by saying this is my opinion, based solely on my own experience as a customer and my discussion with booksellers in my area.

To me, the problem began with the influx of big box bookstores.  Before they came in and took over the market, we had small, often specialty stores.  The national stores were in the malls — where there was lots of foot traffic so they got a great deal of people just stopping in to browse.  That turned into sales.

Even though space was limited in these stores, the selection was broader than it is now.  New authors were highlighted.  Mid-listers had shelf space.  At least once a month there was some sort of activity going on, be it a signing or a release party or what, to bring in more customers.  Most of those working in the stores knew their product.  If you asked where a title was, they could take you right to it.  And they knew your name.  In short, there was good customer service.

There was a difference in the quality of the books, too.  I don’t mean they were better written — although, on the whole, I think a lot of them were.  What I mean is they were copy edited and proofread more closely.  Sure, you might find a couple of errors in a book — not a couple per page which seems to be happening more and more often now.

In short, when you walked into one of these smaller stores, be they a national chain or your local independent bookseller, you could be sure they had what you wanted or would get it for you.  In a lot of cases, you felt welcome and valued as a customer.

Then came the big box stores.  Oh, I welcomed them along with so many others because of the lower prices.  I didn’t think about the impact they’d have on the local independent sellers.  Living in the DFW area, I was lucky.  A number of our independents held out far longer than they did in other parts of the country.  Still, almost all of them eventually closed their doors, leaving only the big, often cold, box stores.

Prices creeped up and the smaller national chain stores located in the malls closed.  The once free “memberships” either became for purchase memberships or the requirements for the “free” benefits doubled or trebled.   To bring in more people, coffeeshops were added to the stores.  More big box stores were built, increasing competition but not lowering prices.

Basically, they flooded the market with locations at a time when the economy had to take a downswing — nothing keeps growing without hitting a bump somewhere along the line.  So costs were cut by hiring more and more part-time help that often didn’t read, much less know the product.  Books by new authors and mid-listers were taken from the shelves.  If they manage to get there now, it’s only for a very short period of time.  Instead, the “guaranteed” best sellers are stocked ad nauseum.  This hurts everyone, the reader and the writer AND the bookstore.

As book sales slipped, non-book items started slipping into the stores:  stuffed animals, board games, etc.  You walk into some of these stores now and they bear little resemblance to the bookstore they’re supposed to be.

Are bookstores doomed?  Absolutely not.  But, as with publishing as a whole, they need to retool their business plans and development plans to meet changing demands.  I think the days of the free standing mega bookstore are numbered.  Stores need to relocate to malls and other areas where they will get the walk-in traffic.  Getting people in the door is the first, and greatest, challenge.  The second is figuring out how to handle those who want e-books.  Follow the Barnes & Noble example and have you e-bookstore available in the physical store.  Offer discounts on coffee or something if the customer shows the Nook or that stores reader application on a smart phone or laptop.

People still want to go to bookstores, even if they also use online retailers like Amazon, or even Barnes & Noble or Borders online.  There is still something about seeing row after row of books and being able to take you time browsing through the titles, flipping pages and reading back covers.  If you don’t believe me, look at the outcry when the closure of a bookstore is announced.

It’s more than just a few people saying how they wished the store was staying open.  There are campaigns to find new owners or new locations for the store in question.  Don’t believe me, check out the facebook page for the Davis-Kidd Bookstores in Nashville.  Or look at what happened in Fort Worth when Barnes & Noble announced it was closing one of its stores because they hadn’t been able to negotiate a new lease.  There was so much public pressure put on not only B&N but the landlord of the shopping center where the store’s located that favorable lease terms were finally agreed upon and the store was saved.

This is a trickle down effect.  The bookstores can’t solve the problem by themselves.  It has to include the publishers and the customers.  If you want to keep your favorite bookstore open, visit it.  BUY something there.  Sign up for their email newsletters so you know when there’s a sale or they have a discount coupon available.  Don’t rely on someone else to do it for you.

There is room in this world for both physical and digital books.  The day of the big bookstore may be over soon.  I don’t know.  But there is a place for bookstores.  Let’s not forget that.

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