Thursday, June 14, 2007

Whither Bookstores?

A member of one of the writers' loops I belong to responded with concern to the news that bookstore sales are flagging. I decided the subject made for a good second (or is it third?) post for today.

First, it's a mistake to tie the figures I reported for bookstore sales this year to the future of the print book. As Shelf Awareness reminds people every month, "under Census Bureau definitions, bookstore sales are of new books and do not include 'electronic home shopping, mail-order, or direct sale' or used book sales." And, of course, the numbers do not include e-book sales either.

In fact, the publishing industry is gradually becoming about more options for readers rather than less (please note the emphasis on "for readers"). Print books aren't going away. I do suspect that, over time, the gap in price between print and ebook will grow. You'll have to pay more percentage-wise for your choice to buy that print copy. The ebook costs much less to print and distribute so it will be the more affordable model.

Even if the ebook is cheaper, the print book will survive because--for the foreseeable future--there are people who will prefer reading a print version.

However, the survival of the print book does not necessarily guarantee the survival of the bookstore. We all know that we can purchase print books without visiting a bookstore.

Unfortunately, bookstores have two huge limiting factors that are almost impossible to overcome: geography and bookshelf space.

I love bookstores, but unless it is a VERY special bookstore like Larry McMurtry's Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, I won't travel more than fifteen miles to visit one. Many readers feel the same way, which is why the small specialty stores like the mystery bookstores have moved online. Unless they are in a major metropolitan area, most simply do not have enough fans in their immediate vicinity to sustain themselves. However, on the Internet, they can establish a niche for a virtual bookstore catering to fans from around the world. Geography is not the limiting factor online that it is in the real world.

Bookshelf space is the other limiting factor for bookstores. They have to keep turning the stock over because they don't have enough room for everything. Many customers find it easier to go on the Internet to order a book because the Web has essentially unlimited shelf space, and it's easier to order online than to go to the bookstore and find that a specific book is not available. As the cost of gasoline goes up, shipping costs seem less burdensome when coupled with convenience.

As bookstores become less profitable, the inevitable happens. First, the corporate parent chooses to close the most unprofitable stores, which means that customers have to travel even farther to find a bookstore. Some will; some won't. The loss of the ones who don't will lead to the remaining stores becoming less profitable, leading to yet more closures. You can see where this vicious circle is headed.

To survive, bookstores are going to have to adapt and find a way to make themselves relevant to consumers in a digital age. How they adapt remains to be seen.

Perhaps they will become twenty-first century versions of the French salon. See Wikipedia here for a description.

For the salon model to be viable, the bookstores would have to create rooms conducive to private meetings of reader or writers' groups. This means giving up more valuable shelf space for what would be essentially be empty rooms. Of course, they could charge a fee for the room and/or sell food and drink for clients to cover the cost.

Perhaps bookstores will begin to appeal to self-published writers as a place where they can get help in being edited and printed. There's some indication that Borders is considering this option.

Perhaps they will expand their "clubs," now represented by a discount card to include other valuable member perks. What if you could attend quarterly talks by the most popular authors? Would you be willing to pay for a membership that gave you a seat to an event that was closed to the general public?

The need to adapt or die is a hallmark of evolution. We'll have front row seats to see whether bookstores can reinvent themselves or gradually wither away.

Read on . . . this is a three-post day.


B.E. Sanderson said...

Timely post for me today, Maya. Yesterday was my quarterly trip out of town, and I found out one of the two new-book bookstores in the area is closing its doors. Unfortunately, I hardly ever went in there because they never seemed to carry what I wanted. The remaining store, on the other hand, usually has what I want without having order in, and that one is smaller. *shrug* With any business, you have to adapt to the needs of your customers or die. The first bookstore didn't and now it's going away. I guess if I need a book I can't find at the remaining store, I'll have to drive an extra hour, or order online.

Maya Reynolds said...

B.E.: I know you understand that all industries face these kind of shakeouts.

Kids today probably don't realize that doctors once routinely made housecalls. The number of full-service gas stations have shrunk dramatically while Jiffy Lube sorts of operations sprang up to take on some of their tasks. The milkmen of yore lost their jobs when supermarkets and convenience stores came along.

I'm also guessing that the bookstores that survive will begin offering both new and used books and probably sell e-reading devices, too.

The times, they are a-changin'.

Marie Tuhart said...

What I love about the bookstore is being able to browse. I can't do that on-line. But at a regular bookstore, I can wander around and find books I didn't know existed. I do shop on-line, but I still enjoy browsing the shelves.