Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: New York City
I don’t think it’s news to anyone that the brick and mortar bookstore is in trouble. We’ve seen the writing on the wall for several years as we identified the parallels between the publishing industry and the music industry. How many years ago did we watch the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail, that dealt with the challenge independent bookstores faced going up against the big box stores?
Lance, in one of our blog comments earlier this week said, “I am sad, however, because I’m a traditionalist. I love the printed word, and I love brick and mortar bookstores.” I’m guessing if we took a poll, we’d find most of us lined up behind Lance. I have such wonderful memories of the independent bookstores I’ve loved. And I not only love the physical book, I’ve been a book collector for years– always searching for that one special edition. If it were not for my independent antiquarian booksellers, I wouldn’t have half the library I have.
But nothing is static. Independent retailers of all kinds have been trying to stay afloat in a perfect storm. In a time when buyers are more concerned with finding bargains and having a vast array of choices than with loyalty and a sense of neighborhood, you add the internet with unlimited opportunities to shop night or day and the ability to price shop at the touch of a finger.
The worry for authors is that the independent bookstore has historically been the arbiter of taste. The indie bookseller is the one who guided us to try new authors and read outside our comfort zone. I’d hate to think how many of my favorite authors I may have missed had not my bookseller placed the book in my hands. Yes, the big bookstores try to do this but the passion level is different. Who will champion the amazing new authors?
Another concern happens when the big guys get too big. When I was in the toy industry we saw this with Toys R Us. Their purchase orders were so big that if they started ordering from a small manufacturer, that company would have to ramp up– hiring employees, buying supplies, securing bigger spaces– to meet the orders. Most would have to borrow capital in order to do it. If Toys R Us decided not to order for the next season it ofter meant bankruptcy to the small business. With huge buying capacity comes power. Do you know that if one of the buyers at the big box stores does not like the cover on your book, chances are it will be changed. Borders even had a brief foray into publishing their own branded books.
The bigger stores have a bottom line profit they need to make off every foot of shelf space. They know exactly how many turns they need for that space every year. (A turn is how many times a product is sold and replaced.) This is why there is such an emphasis on big authors, sure-thing authors. If you are a buyer who has to answer for your bottom line how comfortable are you going to be with risk? And new authors are risky.
Online booksellers have changed the face of book buying. Remember when Amazon first came on the scene? Did we even get what they were trying to do? And now, they are the most seamless way to buy books. One click, for goodness sake. And we’re not even addressing e-books and Kindle until tomorrow.
So do we have any solutions? I’ve long ago decided I can’t be the fix-it fairy for retail. My tendency is to want to save all the stores I love. I’ve found that my loyalty is not enough to affect the bottom line. The reality is that the innovative stores– the iconic stores– will survive this perfect storm. One of my favorite toy stores, Toy Village in Lansing Michigan, used to laugh about the doomsayers who predicted their demise when Toys R Us moved into town. As the owner, Betty Gillison later said, “Toys R Us opened and ended up closing and we are still here.” She celebrated her fiftieth anniversary in the same location last year.
I’m not ready to write the obituary for the independent bookstore just yet.
Coming back to the industrial revolution, people predicted that the age of handcrafting was over forever. Nope. We still treasure fine handcrafted things. I’m thinking that the bookstore may become the same kind of treasure– a gathering place of shared ideas with physical books becoming fine collectibles. Who knows?
Your turn: This week you’ve had some wonderful input. How about a brainstorm session? What aspects of the broken bookselling system worries you the most? Any futurists out there? How do you imagine the future? What might it mean for writers?