Saturday, September 17, 2005

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Thursday's Publishers Lunch had an item on the tough situation faced by independent booksellers in today's market. This was prompted by two events: the closing of Kepler's in Menlo Park, California; and the efforts to shore up the shaky financial status of Washington D.C.'s Chapters Bookstore.

Reporter David Morrill, in an article in "Inside Bay Area" says that, "in the last 10 years, membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped from about 3,000 members to about 1,800, with the majority of those being independent bookstores."

Several recent articles have bemoaned the state of the independent bookseller, citing competition from both the big national chains such as Barnes & Noble and from While these are huge contributing factors, they are by no means the entire story. The larger story would include the following:

1) Deep discounting by chains such as Walmart, Target and Costco which is putting as much pressure on B&N as it is on the independents. Sarah Weinman cited statistics in a recent blog indicating that, during a three-week period in which WaldenBooks sold 4,888 copies of a best-selling thriller, Borders and B&N each sold about 4,000 copies. During that same period, Wal-Mart sold 47,671 copies. That's right, I said 47,671 copies. Target and CostCo each sold about 16,000 of the same book during that time.

The discount chains are skimming the cream off the top by carrying a limited number of very popular books and pricing them at very deep discounts. All other bookstores--national chains and independents alike--are forced to match those discounts. This squeezes the booksellers' profit margins something fierce.

2) A large shift in the retailing dynamic--involving used books--has also occurred, so seamlessly that people rarely comment upon it.

For years, readers had three choices when it came to purchasing a new release: (1) They could buy the hardback book at full retail cost when it came out; (2) They could wait six months and buy the book more cheaply when it came out in paperback. (3) They could check used bookstores looking for a copy. This was made somewhat difficult by the fact that used booksellers generally did not keep track of what titles they had on their shelves. They organized by genre and left it up to the buyer. More than once over the years, I drove from used bookstore to used bookstore, trying to find a book that was now out of print.

Then the personal computer and the Internet arrived. Suddenly used booksellers had databases that they listed on the Internet. Amazon got into the used book business. With a few clicks of a mouse, consumers can locate used copies anywhere in the world. The old retailing dynamic had changed. Now readers can: (1) Buy that new hardback at a deeply discounted price; (2) Wait a few weeks and buy the used hardback online even more cheaply; (3) Wait six months and buy the new paperback or (4) Wait even longer to buy the used paperback.

You, as a writer, should not underestimate the importance of this shift in retailing. You get a royalty check the first time a book is sold, whether it is in hardback or paper. If cost-conscious readers choose to buy a USED book online instead of a discounted NEW hardback or a NEW paperback, you've just missed out on a sale. You AND the bookstore--whether it be an independent or a part of a national chain.

It's a beautiful Saturday morning. My garden is calling. At the risk of waxing poetic, I'll just remind you of John Donne's Meditation XVII: Never send to know for whom the bell tolls.

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