Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Sorry State of the Book Business

It’s tough to keep smiling when you’re a bookseller. You see the articles every week:

1) “Book Business in Decline”
2) “People Reading Less”
3) “Young People Prefer Electronic Gadgets to Books”
4) “It’s All Going Digital” (Gutenberg, make way for Steve Jobs)

Etc. Scary stuff! Now, in my opinion, each one of these dire pronouncements is overstated (numbers two and three) or ultimately false (numbers one and four, and you can quote me—or quote Steve Riggio).

But it is certainly true that the book business is tough, and getting tougher. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Wal-Mart and Costco use books as loss leaders, so you’ll think everything in their store is cheap. Supermarkets and gas stations sell Harry Potter. The distinction between new and used is becoming blurred on the Internet. All your favorite blogs link to Amazon to get those kickbacks.

What’s to become of the traditional bookstore? There’s more and more pressure on a bookstore’s traffic, its margins, and its sales, and it has to be more nimble than ever to survive.

By now many you have seen the news that Borders is having financial difficulties. They’ve been losing money, they have too much debt, and they’re facing a cash crunch—all of which the stock market has punished them for severely. They’ve been forced to explore a sale of the company, and they’ll have to trim inventory and stores significantly to get healthy again.

How does this involve you, the casual reader? The committed reader? Well, you just have to choose where you’re going to shop, and let natural selection do the rest. It’s a jungle out there, and not everyone will survive. It’s up to you. Every dollar you spend is a vote for who will make it, especially as the country teeters on the brink of recession.

You can sit at home and click your mouse, and wonder why so many storefronts in your city are empty and why your taxes are so much higher. (Short answer: because you sent all your money out of state.) You can buy the latest Grisham at Target, and wonder later why bookstores aren’t around to host that fundraising book fair your group is planning. You can run out to Wal-Mart and get Eat Pray Love, but miss the opportunity to see six other great travel memoirs that aren't bestsellers. You can click your mouse and have a book on global warming shipped to you in a little package—making your own carbon footprint a lot worse.

Or you can think about where you have a real relationship with a real bookseller, and reward those companies accordingly. Did someone at Borders help put the right kind of manga in your teenager’s hands? Did someone at Gibson’s turn you on to a new novelist? The publishing industry is a marvelous, complex universe, and traditional bookstores are its representatives in your town--do you want real life, or a virtual life? Real bookstores, or just "places where books are sold"?

With all the loyalty programs and sales events we traditional bookstores have, we’re competitive on price, and we’re better at what makes a bookstore a real bookstore—not just its stock, but its people.

I’m biased, so of course I would argue that you should support our independent bookstore. That argument is for another day. My point today is, support real bookstores. Or some dire predictions may come true.


a rose in NH said...

Well said.

Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony said...

Let's try this again: My thoughts are here:

G_H said...

Just read an article in the NYT that might interest you.
Another reason to shop locally is that I hate it when big corps throw their weight around like this.
(the url is enormous so I'm going to use tiny url).

Small Publishers Feel Power of Amazon’s ‘Buy’ Button

Glad you're still here. I can remember when you and Apple Tree were the only game in town.