No, this isn’t an April’s Fools Day post although I had to read he basis for it twice before realizing that the person was being absolutely serious. It was yet another post bemoaning and bewailing all the “harm” Amazon has done to booksellers. This particular person is partner in an online bookstore that was begun some years ago for two purposes — to create a niche market for a very small and very specific type of book and to then create “serious competition” for Amazon. But, as with most plans, nothing turned out as planned.
The biggest stumbling block, the owners found out, came when the publishers would not work with them. Seems they didn’t want anything to do with this new upstart. Some unnamed person in some unnamed publisher’s digital content department supposedly told them off the record that the reason the publisher wouldn’t work with them was because they couldn’t put DRM on that publisher’s books — just like Amazon did. So, see, suddenly the enemy is Amazon again, not the publisher, because 1) Amazon could attach proprietary DRM based on the Kindle, 2) Amazon could sell books for less and 3) Amazon is evil. Okay, I added that last one.
Now, I can see the publisher’s agent, especially if this was one of the major legacy publishers, saying they wanted DRM added. The fact that these publishers still believe that sans DRM their books will be pirated left and right is no secret. However, this points up an issue with the niche seller. They weren’t prepared for this demand. The first problem is that they didn’t anticipate the problem and that, to me, means they hadn’t done their research. The second is that they weren’t sufficiently capitalized to invest in the software that would allow for the addition of DRM.
Now, while I can go on with what I saw and have issues with in the article but I won’t. The reason why is that the post triggered something that finally resulted in a finger snap or aha moment. Yes, there are still a lot of people in the publishing industry who blame Amazon for the decline in the number of bookstores in the country. There always will be, no matter what we say. However, in the post referenced above, one of the things the author said was how Amazon allows for lower prices, unlimited stock and one-click shopping so you never have to leave your home. Two of those things lead to the aha moment and the third followed shortly.
Why have we seen a decline in bookstores? There are a number of reasons and we’ve discussed them here before. Basically, there are two or three main reasons. The first was the influx of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Until these stores came in, the only regional or national bookstores were almost always located inside a mall. They were small stores and usually had the feel of the locally owned bookstore in the area. Stock was limited and you had to want to fight the crowd at the mall to go to that particular store. With the influx of the big box national chain bookstores, you no longer had to fight the mall and you had much more stock and — gasp — coffee and pastries – to choose from.
With these big box stores came lower prices because they could buy in bulk, something the locally owned stores couldn’t do. Then there were the membership cards, free at first and later for fee, that offered an even larger discount than the already offered discounts on the New York Times best sellers. Those discounts, especially on the best sellers that were getting push from the publishers, are what brought customers into the store and, once there, usually led to impulse buying.
The problem started arising as these big box stores pushed the independent bookstores out of the market. Most of the mom and pop stores simply couldn’t compete. They couldn’t buy the wide range of stock that the larger stores could. Nor could they sell their books at the discount the larger big box bookstores could. Many tried innovative ways but they couldn’t. Then there was the fact that the big box stores were hiring away their staff with promises of bigger salaries, benefits, etc.
Suddenly, cities discovered that the only bookstores they had within driving range were the big box stores. The mom and pop stores we all loved and took for granted were gone. No one knew what happened. But we still had those pretty, well stocked big stores. So all was wonderful.
Until we started realizing that the stores carried the same stock. The exact same stock. Oh, one store might have a copy of a book that the other had but only because the stock hadn’t sold out there. Why was this? After a few years, corporate decided to go from store ordering to regional ordering. After that, it went to national ordering. Our wonderfully diverse bookstores were now the Walmart-version. But we kept on going because they were the only game in town.
Besides, they rewarded us. They built more stores, bigger stores, and they started giving us music and videos and stuff for our kids. Cool! It was a superstore!
And the prices kept going up.
Not just for us but for them as well.
Suddenly, we realized that all was not well in bookstore-land. Those wonderful employees we used to enjoy seeing whenever we went in were no longer there. Gone were they smiling faces and knowledge of the store’s stock. Worse, gone was their love for books. Replacing them were part-time employees, some good but more and more simply people needing a job who didn’t read or didn’t read much. If you asked for a book by an author who wrote like Chekhov or Dostoyevski, you were met with blank stares or — worse — a diatribe about how they hated reading those books in school. If you asked about who published a certain book, if the publisher wasn’t right there, front and center on the cover, the employee had no idea.
And then we realized what the problem was — the locally owned bookstore had created a culture and atmosphere we enjoyed and wanted to be a part of. The generic big box stores didn’t have that. Oh, they’d sucked us in with bright lights and a lot of books, but we hung around long enough to look behind the curtain. When we did, we didn’t find the Wizard. We didn’t even find a little old man who meant well and who was terrified of being found out. No, we found a bunch of men in suits, sitting in their ivory towers in Manhattan who spent their time counting beans. Men who saw only the short-term results of their efforts and never considered the long term.
What they did is play the biggest April’s Fools Day joke ever — they made us believe they could be just as good, if not better, than the locally owned bookstores we’d come to love and they weren’t. Under the corporate culture that they operated under, it was impossible for them to. They killed the bookstores we wanted to go to, the bookstores we had a connection to. Then, once that was accomplished, corporate greed began slowly killing off the killers. Yes, Amazon sped the process but only because we were already looking for alternatives. If these stores want to survive now, they need to go ahead and jump out, yell “April Fools” and then start building a relationship with their clients.
Oh, I can already hear them saying that it won’t work. Amazon sells for so much less than they can. After all, look at what happened to the small bookstores. The problem with this argument is that these corporations have the financial resources that the locally owned bookstores didn’t. It won’t be easy and they very well might have to close even more stores than they have already. But it can be done — but only if they change the corporate culture. You have to give us a reason to come back to the stores and price isn’t the only way to do it. Give us employees who know and love books. Give us a bookstore. Sure, offer music and videos if you want — you can, gasp, sell digital downloads. Go to smaller storefronts to cut costs. Become what the indie bookstores once were — local bookstores that cater to the wants and needs of the local community. Don’t be the Walmart of bookstores. Remember, people will pay more for a product if they think they are getting their money’s worth — and that includes customer service.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Shrug.