Choppy waters ahead

I’m going to start out by saying I’m sleep-deprived and cranky (well, crankier than usual) as I sit dow to write this. I’m in the final push to finish everything necessary to get Nocturnal Revelations ready for publication. I’m in the middle of preparing a new entry in the Honor & Duty series. I have a stack of files that is literally a foot tall sitting on my desk for other projects in the pipeline. So I have little patience for some of the crap I’ve been seeing lately on blogs I follow, in social media and in the media in general. Consider this your fair warning. I’m swinging for the fences and getting some stuff off my chest.

Let’s start with the recurring (damn but it is ever-recurring) cry by a certain group of people that Amazon is to blame for the closure of bookstores. I love the selective memory these folks have because it is so simple to blame Amazon. They forget the locally owned bookstores they so loved fell victim, not to Amazon but to the big box chains that came in before Amazon arrived on the scene. Oh, the stores might not have closed right away, but the damage was done. The Barnes & Nobles, the Borders, the Books-A-Million could all buy in larger quantities and at lower prices, allowing them to sell for lower prices than the mom and pop stores could. At the same time, landlords were raising rents, cutting even further into the store’s profit margin. By the time Amazon because a viable alternative for book buying, the damage had already been done and many of those small stores had closed.

But it’s Amazon’s fault.

No, it’s not.

Now, I’ll admit Amazon does play a part in what is happening now to the big box stores that are struggling. Amazon does offer books at a lower price often. It presents the convenience factor. But there is more at play. If I am looking for a book, I know I can find it on Amazon almost every time. There have been a very few exceptions over the years. I don’t have that guarantee with a bookstore. In fact, even if the store’s website says they have something in stock, I’ve often times gotten there only to discover they don’t have it. Sure, they can order it for me, but I’d have to wait longer to get it than I have to wait with my Prime membership.

And let’s not forget about the fact bookstores like B&N are more about gadgets and toys and other things than they are about books these days.

But it all really comes down to economics. The Passive Voice has a link to an article about why New York bookstores are disappearing.

But the biggest culprit, at least in New York, is the same seemingly unstoppable force shuttering small businesses across the city: rising rent. Rent is a particular concern for bookstores because they operate on low margins but require large storage space.

That’s not just in New York. Most bookstores, especially locally owned stores, don’t own their own building. That leaves them at the mercy of their landlords. Sure, they negotiate–or try to–favorable lease agreements but they don’t hold the cards. The landlords do. As The Passive Voice notes:

Since the beginning of 2010, Barnes & Noble has been profitable in 9 calendar quarters and reported a net loss in 27 calendar quarters.

PG did a little online research that disclosed the average net profit margin for an independent bookseller is 2-2.5% percent. On an annual revenue of $1 million, that represents $20,000-$25,000. According to The Washington Post, Politics and Prose, a highly-successful independent store in Washington, D.C., generated $6.8 million in revenue in 2009, with $173,000 in profit that was split between the store’s two co-owners.

TPV puts it in easier terms, if you were to buy $10 worth of books from an indie bookseller, their profit would be 20 cents. Hand them a $10 bill and it is the equivalent of buying $500 worth of books.

But it’s Amazon’s fault they are closing their doors.

To which I say bullshit (sorry, Dave. I warned everyone I was cranky)

Next up on the hit list are all the writers (and I use that term loosely) who try to write in a genre they have never read, never plan to read and who won’t do the research necessary to know what the expected tropes, rules and requirements are. The excuses vary as to why they believe they can short cut their way to the top but it all boils down to this: they are too lazy to do their homework.

If you want to write historical fiction, you need to have at least a passing knowledge not only of the historical events that took place at the time, but the way folks lived, what they wore, how they dressed and spoke. You need to know the cultural expectations and taboos. Then you need to know what is selling now and figure out why. What makes Courtney Milan or Kristen Hannah best sellers(besides publisher push)? What do readers expect when they pick up a book in that genre or sub-genre?

In other words, you have to do your homework.

No, thinking you will “taint” your wonderful idea by reading someone else’s book isn’t an excuse. Let’s face it, there are not new ideas out there, only new ways to deal with the idea. The “it” that makes it your own. Simply writing Jane Eyre and putting her on Mars doesn’t make it a science fiction novel, much less hard science fiction. Try claiming that it does and you will be laughed at or worse.

So do your homework. Learn what is involved in your genre and sub-genre of choice. Learn the rules and the tropes. Read in your genre. (Admission time. I read extensively, even when I’m writing. However, I don’t tend to read the genre or sub-genre I’m writing at the time. Like now, when I’m writing and urban fantasy/police procedural, I don’t read UF. I will rarely read procedurals. What I will read is a lot of non-fiction and science fiction. But, once this book is put to bed, I’ll catch up on the UF and procedurals I missed.)

Finally, as a blogger, there is little that sets me off quicker than someone coming in, dismissing everything one of us has said (or that our regular commenters have said) and then demanding we prove our point. That’s especially true when we are either speaking from personal experience or have given more than enough information for a simple web search to find all the proof you might need. that happened in the comments yesterday when someone actually accused us of “getting in a tizzy” over Sad Puppies. I guess it wasn’t enough to have our livelihoods threatened because we dared rock the boat where the Hugos were concerned. It wasn’t enough for some of us to still be the target of attacks by others in the industry because we actually believe reading should be fun. Our words about having messages in writing have been twisted and turned into nothing that resembles what we’ve said. Some of us have had smear campaigns waged against us. It got so bad Brad was accused of marrying his wife to hide the fact he’s a racist pig. But we’re the ones getting our panties in a twist.

So here’s the deal. MGC has always been a place where we’ve welcomed writers and reader alike. We’ve had few rules, mainly we’ve asked that your not promote your own work without first asking us if it’s okay. We’ve never gone in and edited comments on the blog (like certain folks on the anti-puppy side). And I can count on one hand the number of people we’ve banned fro the blog in our more than 10 years of existence. Even then, we’ve given notice before banning, giving the person involved a chance to avoid the ban hammer. That is a great deal more than many blogs do.

However, we’re human. We sometimes make mistakes. When we do and we become aware of them, we admit it (again, more than a lot of others do). We allow dissenting opinion the blog, even when it irks us. But we have not and will not allow commenters to come in and insult us and our readers. So here’s the warning from the cranky writer. If you come in and do what is nothing but a drive-by trolling, you will be warned once. Do it again and you will be banned. If we see a pattern of someone coming in, stirring up trouble and then running away, that person will be warned and then banned. If you are a butthead, you will be warned and then banned. Banning will come only if there is a repeat performance.

Gee, maybe I’m not as cranky as I thought because we are still giving everyone a second chance–again, more than a lot of blogs do.

Anyway, it is time for the cranky writer to get to work and find more coffee. Here ends the rant.

Featured Image via Max Pixel and licensed under Creative Commons Zero.

32 thoughts on “Choppy waters ahead

  1. The thoughts of opening a bookstore crossed my mind a couple of times. Reading that post by The Passive Guy though opened my eyes. A lot of work, for little profit. May still think about it if I have better options. Yet…. 2% if you are doing well.

    1. My dream is having my own bookstore. But I like to know I can pay my bills. The thought of such a small profit margin, and that is if you’re lucky, scares the hell out of me. All it would take is someone with deeper pockets to come in and put me out of business, or a breakdown in the supply chain, disaster, etc. Nope, as much as I’d love to have such a store, it isn’t going to happen.

      1. Ditto. If only bookstores didn’t have such a wonderful ambiance. But then I wouldn’t have the time to write, so I’ll have to remain an increasingly rare visitor.

    2. It would be better to set fire to your money than to open a retail -anything- in Ontario right now. If you burn it, at least you get a little heat in the fireplace and it is a lot less work.

      A book store, there’s not a single retail landlord who would rent you space. No way. You’d have to buy the building.

      1. One of the other items closing down small bookstores is the insistence by some cities (like San Francisco) to push for higher and higher minimum wages. There is this mentality that it is a businesses’ duty to provide a living wage regardless of the skill level involved or the ability of the store to earn enough profit to keep the doors open. So, another small business closes, putting people out of work so some politician can pat themselves on the back and claim they are fighting for the little guy.

        1. The $15/hr minimum wage is going to be giving us the $20 Big Mac very shortly. Here in Dumbtario we’re calling it the Robot Employment Act.

          Regardless of anything else that happens, retail will be going Full Robot. Stores will become vending machines.

        2. These days, the Left is starting to move away from wanting to give people jobs, and into ‘guaranteed basic income’, aka, ‘free money!’.
          A high minimum wage still means actually having to show up and (shudder) work (how horrible!).

          1. I have *told* some new hires that as long as they 1. Show up and 2. Do not commit criminal acts they are all but guaranteed continued employment.

            And some are … well, ox could get ego, feeling so much smarter.

  2. Years ago, there was an excellent SF&F bookstore in the Chicago area (IIRC called The Stars Our Destination).

    The last I heard, paying the rent is what killed it.

    1. I wouldn’t doubt it. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that if your storefront is in a shopping center, you often have to pay as part of your rent a percentage of your sales. Add that to the basic rent, the upkeep fees, employment costs, etc., and it’s no wonder the profit margin is so small.

      1. And if the foot traffic is good, the landlord will keep raising the rent. If the foot traffic isn’t good, your store won’t sell enough books. Brick-and-mortar retail is tough these days!

  3. “However, we’re human. We sometimes make mistakes.”

    Haven’t seen many, Amanda. Certainly haven’t seen any bannings that weren’t richly deserved.

    The other thing, we’ve been talking about bookstores over at Cedar’s. The Big Boxes used to be fun, and now they’re not. That’s pretty much the size of it. I just finished saying that the Chapters in my town had a million-dollar facelift last year. 75% merch, coffee and Children’s Corner, the other 25% at the back is books.

    Your stats on independent booksellers shows why. Nobody keeps a retail store open for 2.5% return. You can get that on a bank term deposit. Retail requires a 50% return on investment or it isn’t worth doing. Which no one is getting these days.

    This is part of the general carnage in retail that’s been happening. I recall a recent statistic that 4700 retail stores closed last year in the USA. In other reading I’ve been hearing that 1/3 of the retail space in NYC is sitting empty.

    Stores that have been passed through generations, that survived the Great Depression, are closing.

    I can tell you first hand that downtown Toronto, the super shopping destination of Yonge and Bloor, is deadsville compared to how it used to be. I don’t know what the young and hip are doing in Hogtown these days, but I do know they’re not doing it downtown.

    Some of that is Amazon, for sure. A lot more of it is due to off-shoring all our manufacturing. If Holt Renfrew is selling the same blouse downtown that Walmart is selling at some random mall in the ‘burbs, and they are, then Holt’s is going under. (This is why I only buy Under Armor anymore. I’m old, I don’t care, and there’s nothing in the stores that fits me anyway. If my choices are tailor-made or t-shirt, I’m going t-shirt.)

    Some of it is probably that people are generally just flat-out poor. No one has had a true rise in wages since the 1980s. That’s a long damn time.

    That’s why there are no book stores anymore.

    Now then, the haterz. We, meaning the Sad Puppies of yore, KICKED THEIR ASSES. Y’all, the Mad Geniuses, will live rent-free in their heads forever more. Because the Sad Puppy Alignment did something that no one else has ever been able to do: you made them walk their talk. And they -didn’t-. They did what commies always do, closed ranks, moved the goalposts and changed all the rules. Exactly like Larry Correia said they would. For four years in a row, and every year since we couldn’t be bothered with them anymore.

    So every time one of those assholes starts raging about the Racist/Bigot/Homophobe Sad Puppies, Mad Genius authors get a bump in sales. China Mike and Fieldsy the flopping camel are salesmen for us. Just consider for a moment how bad that’s got to grind their little plastic gears.

    The schadenfreude is delicious with a nice hot coffee. Mmmm, yummy.

    1. We HATES the puppies, yes we DO. Nasty little mongrels. Vicious little mongrels. Eating our lunches, they are. Invading our minds, they are. We HATES them….

      1. A question arises. What is The Precious to an SJW? I’m coming up empty, I can’t think of a single thing.

    2. Some of that loss of foot traffic is the cranky oldsters (me, for example) who don’t like to get jostled by the unruly teens, risk losing a purse or worse to a snatch and grab, who resent the vulgar lyrics shouted at the top of their voices.
      Not to mention the lack of customer service, poor selection of clothing choices in my size, the ridiculous amount of time spent walking from one end of the mall to another.
      i seldom shop in actual stores. Only around Christmas, and only when my husband drags me there.

      1. Malls actually set off my PTSD. I get agitated in malls, something about the lighting and the echoes makes the back of my neck tighten right up. I’d blame age, but its been happening since I was 30.

      2. Being a person with breathing problems related to a great many airborne molecules (scents and chemicals), I regard malls as a horrorshow that I ought to take a heavy-duty antihistamine if I have to enter, and clutch my inhaler tight. Random perfumes, incense, air fresheners assault you from storefronts and carts in the middle of the aisle (so you can’t even cross the aisle to avoid them), and clumps of packed people so you can’t walk quickly out of the cloud of allergens…At least Renfaires are outdoors, and any wind removes the miasma.

        That’s before we get into the way certain people think they should douse themselves in perfume or aftershave until you can smell nothing else at 20 paces… or teenager who’ve fallen for marketing from Axe Body Spray (shudder).

        Yeah, no. No malls for me.

    3. Ages ago, BN was a neat place to visit and *worth* the one (or two!) hour one-way trip. It was perhaps 4 years ago now that I visited a BN and wondered where the books (the ones worth looking at, that is) had gone. That their website said “we have it” and the location could order it – for a fee.. well, Amazon isn’t killing BN. BN is committing suicide (much like others have before… gee, someone minimally observant might figure that out.) – but.. oy.

  4. It really blows my mind that lease rates for businesses keep going up, when there are half-empty strip malls all over the place. (And malls themselves aren’t doing so hot, either.)
    There is an obvious glut of retail space. Simple supply and demand should push rents not only lower, but much lower until an equilibrium is reached between the number of retail units, and the number of retail shops.

    I think the major issue is that the speculators that own the retail spaces tried to borrow their way to wealth. They’re on the hook for adjustable rate mortgages that keep going up. And while getting something is better than getting nothing, they have a fiduciary duty to their lender that the bank *will* enforce. After they’re bankrupt, the bank owns the property outright. Due to the S&L scandal a few decades back, bad things are legally enforced against a financial institution that depreciates its assets. (OK, mainly I’m aware of how those laws screw farmers as a side-effect*. I wish I could say with confidence that it’s an unintended side effect, but big donors to politicians have made an absolute killing on it. Anyway, the law is much worse for the directly affected than those caught in the splash damage.) So the bank can’t really auction off the properties in any meaningful way without triggering a federal investigation. And if they were inclined to take that step, they would be actively driving down the value of local real estate. Which would bankrupt more speculators, leave them undercapitalized, etc. in a vicious cycle they very badly want to avoid.

    *Nutshell version: the net worth of your business suddenly had to increase at least one out of every three years or any outstanding business loans would instantly come due. Farmland doesn’t appreciate much. Ag equipment is expensive, lasts a long time, but depreciates quickly. Farms are worth a good bit, but very little of that capital is liquid and arrives as little as once a year, so standard business practice (actively encouraged by the federal government) was for farms to take out business loans for operating expenses and use farmland as collateral. Loans during that period had high interest rates. You see the potential problems, and how a bad year or decision would quickly spiral. The family farm as an institution was largely wiped out in the aftermath. There were other pressures, but they totaled a fraction of Leviathan dropping the hammer.

    1. No, that’s absolutely how it works in real estate, retail, and other businesses.

      “I have X properties worth $10M per year. If 50% of my customers go away, I simply double my rates so I still make $10M. And if I don’t make $10M, it’s because of Amazon | the internet | this economy | George W. Bush | not my fault.

    2. hell, there are still empty circuit city locations, and people are still building stores nearby with the same square footage…

  5. We have two! used bookstores locally: Circle K and The Walrus and the Carpenter. The former does Westerns and Romances. The latter does everything, but seems to mostly specializes in the hunt for the weird thing that only had two-hundred copies printed fifty years ago. Both own their own buildings, and as I found out a few years ago when W&C was for sale (without building), total net profit of the bookstore under $20,000 a year, but net rent on the building significantly more-the building holds other businessess. It is, in fact, a retirement business, and the guy who bought it is retired. Circle K has been up for sale, building and all, intermittently, but doesn’t sell. I assume a similar net problem.

    Both are in competition with the local thrift stores for the used book market. At the point at which no one needs a retirement hobby bookstore, I expect they’ll close.

    1. Amarillo now has a used bookstore again – the Dusty Owl from Canyon (college town to the south) took over the used place near RedQuarters and is working through that place’s stock plus their own. Your frequent buyer card is good at either one. I got a collection of Kipling short stories, _Skylark_ by E. E. “Doc” Smith, and a folk-tale collection (arranged a la Child’s classification system for ballads) for $12.

  6. Y’a know, one of the oddities of living in Japan is that I sometimes notice where the English language books are coming from when I order from (Amazon Japan!). Slow delivery? AH, it’s some weird outfit in America shipping through Amazon. Okay… Frankly, I keep expecting to hear that indie bookstores have gone that route, setting up their warehouse out in el cheapo rental space and basically selling all those great used books through Amazon. Now, how to handle advertising and giving me that “browsing the stacks” experience that I love in used bookstores… Good question. Still, I suspect the small bookstore can get a boost in their business by joining with Amazon.

    1. Good question. Still, I suspect the small bookstore can get a boost in their business by joining with Amazon.

      90% of my kids’ used books are Amazon Library surplus books via used book stores; the other 10% are in person Goodwill buys. (Goodwill DOES sell on Amazon, at least some of them.)

      They get like $3 a book, I get a $15 book for less than five.

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