Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a Sunday MGC post. I want to start off by thanking Brad for switching with me. Real life has been tossing me not just curve balls but has been beaning me on the head consistently. But that’s not what this post is about. Life happens and I’m moving on. The publishing industry, not so much.
One of the first stories to catch my eye this week was one from Publishers Weekly. First off, I do recognize the source and know that it is one which is firmly in the pocket of traditional publishing. Even so, the story had me shaking my head. It seems that there was a Digital Book World panel titled “Will Bars Save Bookstores?”. Now, take a moment to consider the implication of that. According to PW, American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher basically said this is a euphemism for all the new and innovative things bookstores are doing to get customers in the door. Among the “new” things mentioned during the panel were bookstores running summer camps, offering dance classes, hosting travel events and more. These so-called disruption events were meant to interrupt the flow of money and attention to e-books and bring bodies into the stores.
The problem I foresee with all this is multi-fold. To start with, locally owned bookstores, and even chain bookstores until a few years ago when corporate took away much of the power local managers had to plan events, held summer reading camps. They brought in other local businesses to help support one another. They had signings and travel-related events. None of this is new. To act as if it is is to do what the traditional publishing industry and the big box booksellers have done for years, ignore the facts. These events do get people in — in you publicize them, if you have employees who are trained and knowledgeable in the topic of the event, if you properly prepare your store for them and if you make those attending feel welcome. Sticking the special event in the back of the store in a poorly lit area where they are interfering with the flow of traffic is not welcoming to the person conducting the event, the people attending it or to those customers who simply stopped in to buy a book. And, unfortunately, the last several events I attended at a big name bookstore did just that. It was as though the staff could not be bothered with the event so they put is as far from not only the front of the store but where the author’s books were stocked as possible.
Now, selling beer and wine in a bookstore. Sure, a lot of bookstores now have coffee shops. But let’s be realistic here. How many of those people stopping in for a cup of coffee actually stay to buy a book? I would wager that most do not. Okay, the bookstore gains income from the sales made in the coffee shop but does that really pay for the loss of shelf space?
Let’s take that one step further to adding wine and beer into the mix. Now, I’m like a lot of folks. I enjoy a drink now and then. However, I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of my local bookstore becoming the local pub. No, it isn’t for the reasons you might be thinking. The legalities of what the bookstore owner and employees face are daunting. There is the process of being granted a liquor license and the expense of it. There is the responsibility of making sure only those old enough to drink are served alcohol. They will have to make sure those buying alcohol don’t take it out into the store — or off premises. They will have to make sure no one is over-served. There is the potential legal responsibility the owners and employees will face if someone has a beer or glass of wine there and then leaves the store and causes harm to another.
The list of potential legal issues is much longer than I have said.
Then there is the impact such a cafe/bar will have on the patrons. How many parents are going to feel comfortable letting their children roam a bookstore where alcohol is served? Bookstores used to be one of the few places a parent could let their children have some freed while Mom and Dad looked for books they wanted to read. If you take that away, you risk losing an important section of your customer base.
What it all really comes down to is this: what is more important — is it more important to get people into the store or is it more important to sell books? Getting bodies inside the store is great but not if it doesn’t translate into sales. A bookstore that relies on selling alcohol — or coffee or anything else — instead of books needs to look at what is happening and why. Is the store too large? In many cases, the answer to that is yes. It is my belief that the day of the large big box bookstores is over. Companies can’t afford the overhead of these stores that are often in the 100,000 sq ft size range or higher. That is why they keep looking for these new money-maker schemes to help them.
Is it time to look at your inventory and make some hard decisions? Absolutely. Bookstores need to be responsive to their clientele. That means the local managers need to be given more control over inventory. What sells in Brownsville, TX is not going to be the same thing that sells in Lancaster, CA or New York City. Sure, the best sellers will be popular but local tastes do vary as do local interests. Let the local managers have more shelf space to promote local authors, even indie and small press authors. Right now, the big box stores don’t seem to be doing that.
Before Borders went out of business, I had a long talk with one of the local managers. Her complaint, and it was one I have heard echoed by B&N managers, was that she could no longer order large quantities of books she knew the local schools had on required reading lists. Oh, she could order them but they had to be paid for in advance by the teacher, etc. Before, a teacher could call her and say she needed approximately X-number of a book and the manager could order it. Now, all she could do was special order the book as students or their parents came in. Then it would be a week, at least, before the book would be there for the student to pick up. Parents and teachers gave up and went to Amazon. Why? Because there was no waiting for the book to be in stock and, if they had Prime membership, they got it in two days.
I’ve run into this with other big box bookstores around the country. Some bean counter in the corporate office decided doing away with the goodwill of their customers was more important than maybe having a book sit on the shelf for a couple of weeks before it was bought.
Yep, that’s the way to win over customers.
So, instead of mending fences with the local reading community, they’re going to try all these “new” and “innovative” ideas. Riiiiiight.
But, lest you think it’s only booksellers turning a blind eye to what needs to be done, Author Earnings has posted its Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the Numbers presentation. There is some very interesting information in the presentation. What struck me, and what made sense, is how print sales increased in 2016 approximately 3%. Why did those sales increase? Because the agency pricing was no longer in effect for e-books. That meant e-book prices went up (even though publishers kept telling us the end of agency pricing meant they would decrease). To counter that, some retailers — Amazon — discounted the price of print books more. That meant a number of readers bought print who had been buying digital.
However, if you continue scrolling through the presentation, you will see that the trend to by print over digital is on the decline once again. Why? Because retailers are no longer discounting print books as deeply as they had. That once again makes e-books a better buy in a number of readers’ eyes.
Did we hear any of this from the traditional publishing sector? Nope. We heard them crowing about how their print numbers increased and digital sales decreased and e-books were no longer the hot item. Ergo, e-books were dying. Riiiight.
When an industry based on people reading ignores the fact that the current generation and a large part of the generation before it is a digital generation and is glued to their tech devices, that industry is circling the drain toward doom.
I don’t think this is the end of traditional publishing or of bookstores. What I do think is we are seeing a shift toward something different. Indie bookstores are once more starting the thrive in a number of areas and I welcome it. Those stores have learned they need to cater to local customers and their tastes. They know they can’t afford the huge real estate footprint the big box stores still insist upon. They know they can’t have a huge inventory. They also know they have to excel at customer service and know their stock. Most of all, they have to make their customers feel important. Those are lessons the bigger stores would do well to take to heart.
As for traditional publishing, it will continue to totter on. Some publishers will manage to find a way to survive. Others will go out of business and still others will find themselves merging. A few years ago, we had the Big Six. Now it is the Big Five. I have no doubt we will one day see the Big Four and then Three. Unless and until corporate understands that they have to adapt their business model and listen to their customers, I don’t see any way this is going to change.