Adaptation

Earlier this week, a story appeared in one of the local papers about a husband and wife who opened and indie bookstore ten years or so ago. Owning a bookstore had been the husband’s dream and, when he retired, he decided it was time to finally live his dream. So he and his wife found a building in the downtown area of one of the small towns outlying the DFW area and were set to buy it and do the renovations necessary to open up. Of course, as is the way of most things, it didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. The city told the couple that the renovations necessary before opening the bookstore surpassed a certain level of the worth of the building. So the building would have to be razed and a new building erected.

That would have been the end of the dream for a lot of people. Instead, the couple looked at their options and amended their plans. Instead of opening a new bookstore, stocking the NYT best sellers, etc., they opened a store that stocks books their local customers are interested in, including used books, as well as books about local history and sites that the tourists coming through town would be interested in. They put in a coffee shop and, in an attempt to keep their profit margins healthy, have started stocking some non-book items that will bring the locals in as well.

In other words, they looked at what the market would bear, and what their customer base wanted, and adapted to it. They knew they couldn’t go into direct competition with the big chain bookstores — or the discount big boxes like Walmart. They didn’t want to use such faux-marketing plans like membership cards for discounts. In other words, they wanted to be what bookstores used to be: responsive to their local market and customers.

And, for ten years or so, it has worked.

As I read the story, it reminded me of the problems that have faced the chain bookstores as well as publishing. The writing has been on the wall for a long time that the industry is changing and for bookstores and publishers to survive, they needed to adapt. We’ve seen one major book seller go out of business. The other two are closing stores at a rate, iirc, higher than they are opening new stores. Publishers have cut entire lines and merged with one another. And still the spiral continues as the gatekeepers fight to maintain their relevancy.

Yet, both parts of the industry have failed to really take into account what their ultimate customers — the readers — want. We see that in the centralized ordering system for bookstores. Someone sitting in an office in NYC (or some other big city) decides what books will be sold in Alice Acres, TX. They have no idea what the citizens there want. Instead, they use some magical mathematical formula to decide on what books go where. So that means you walk into a big box store in Dallas and it will have basically the same stock as one in Boston or LA and, let’s face it, folks in those three cities aren’t the same and don’t necessarily want to read the same books.

Publishers don’t question this. Why should they when they don’t question (read this as being complicit in what is at best a negligent form of theft from authors) the use of Bookscan numbers to report sales and figure royalty payments for authors?

And yet the gatekeepers for both the publishing side and the sales side of the industry are in a panic trying to figure out what’s going wrong with their business model.

Frankly, for me, I love seeing the indie bookstores returning to the market. Yes, we’ve seen some in the DFW area come in, make a splash and then disappear with barely a whimper. There are usually some very fundamental reasons why: they tried to be too big too quickly, they opened up without enough capital in the bank to cover the start up period, they chose really bad locations, etc. But those with a solid business plan, a passion for books, the capital to last out a year while sales build and who also have a passion for books and customer service, they tend to make it. They identify their market and don’t go too small or too large. They adapt as necessary, always listening to what their customers want.

This is a lesson we, as authors, can apply to our own careers. We need to educate ourselves on what the market is looking for. We need to understand that what we read from agents and editors about what they are looking for might not be what readers are looking for. So you have to first decide if you are going to go the traditional route or if you are going to go indie. Then you have to figure out how long it will take to get your product into the hands of your customers, the readers. Once you have that figured out, you have to figure out when to start doing your promotions — and how you are going to do it. And, yes, Virginia, you have to promote even if you go the traditional route.

And you have to adapt. If that novel you’ve been shopping around to agents or editors for a year or more without success is one you really believe in, consider bringing it out indie. Look at what is selling on Amazon or iTunes or KOBO and ask yourself if your novel is something similar. If it is, then why not make the commitment to putting it out on your own? (With the understanding that it will need editing/copy edits/proofing, conversion and a good cover)

Basically, adapt to the times. Adapt to the market. And write and publish. The path you take is yours but don’t close down one path simply because it’s not something you’ve considered before. Educate yourself to the requirements and commitment the path will need and then make an informed decision. After all, no one will ever read your work if it continues to sit in your desk drawer or under your bed.

7 comments

  1. Adapting to any situation is a good idea. I’m working on wrapping my head around writing shorts, which I really don’t enjoy reading or writing anywhere near as much as novels, for practice as well as publication. It’s something I’m think I need to do and an idea I’m going to have to adapt to. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I generally despise the term “cultural evolution” but it may come close to what were seeing here. In the vacuum of failing mega book chains and imploding publishers we can already see a burst of new store, new publishers, and new writing. Now we’ll see what survives the competition and becomes the new stable environment for writers and readers alike.

    1. How does adaptation strike you? A couple of times recently I have been reminded of the book “Who Moved my Cheese?” which was written for workers who had tried to climb the ladder to success, only to find out the rungs were moving on them. We’re doing that now as writers/publishers, the cheese keeps moving and the maze shifts every time we go around a corner, so we can’t even try the same thing twice and know it will work again. It’s a challenge. I’m wondering if it will ever settle out, in my lifetime.

      1. In the non-writing world it is happening as well. Employees are _expensive_. It’s just so much simpler to just have a list of freelance consultants that can be hired for a project. They take care of their own social security, withholding, medical insurance and so forth. No paper work, just an invoice every month, to pay next month.

        My husband was laid off three years ago, and was working full time as a consultant in less than a week. Making big bucks . . . except for the expenses that are now all ours to deal with. And the stress when the end of a project approaches, and a new job hunt is about to begin.

        I think, without miraculous governmental reform, this is going to become even more common.

        It’s a bit scary, it’s a bit liberating. Just like going Indie, for writers.

        For book stores, I can see single, small stores with few or no employees, just owners. Ditto distributors. And that I’ll really like; they can bend their offerings to local tastes.

        And all we can do is sit back and see what survives in the new jungle.

  3. It may have been here, but there was an interesting discussion some months ago about a hybrid trad book, e-book, and POD shop, perhaps with a specialty in regional books, or old books. A customer would be able to walk in, order and e-book and download it, or order a POD and have it bound and printed right there (tradeback style binding), or buy a dead-tree book. Perhaps there would also be an option to buy an e-audio book and have it burned onto CD while you wait, for people who prefer that medium. Someone suggested that niche printing, say of an out-of-print Civil War account on archival paper in acid-free covers, might be another service of interest in certain locations.

    1. This is an interesting idea to me. As technology shrinks the processes and this becomes more viable… Fascinating possibilities!

      And the ability to cater as specifically as necessary to each customer! In fact, that ability might be essential to the viable business plan.

      Fun and exciting!

    2. Sort of a Kinko’s with books. I’m pretty sure there are on-line places to get POD, but lots of people print their own Christmas Family Cookbooks, memoirs, and other things. So (I’m supposing) you go to Kinko’s if you want to actually talk to a person, and I think that a lot of times people really do want to walk into a storefront. I don’t think that’s going to change too much. Particularly for those people who are likely to only get a Family History printed up once, or a Family Cook Book once, or one Memoir of great-grandpa’s time in WW2. Perhaps multiple copies for bunches of family members, but it’s a pretty big learning curve if a person isn’t going to go through the process multiple times. So, an excellent opportunity for “value added” customer service focused on making it as easy as possible for a layperson to print out a children’s book for the grandkids.

      Add the availability of books in general to the store, POD and downloads (though there’s not a lot of reason to go into a store to load a book onto a device) and browsable traditional paper books.

      My issue with Kinko’s is this… I have the vague notion that they will print a book, but they do seem to sort of expect that the customer is able to explain to them what they want, and customers (me) don’t always have the language or familiarity to do so. I had asked about printing coloring books (something cheap and fun to sell at sci-fi cons or on e-bay) and it was clearly not the right place to go. Yet, going to an actual printer is even more intimidating.

      I can definitely see a “book store/printer” market niche.

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