At next week’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, I am moderating a panel on the future of bookstores (Tuesday, 2/15, 1:40 pm, be there!). I proposed this topic because, despite today’s challenges, booksellers are critical to the publishing food chain. The loss of booksellers — traditional and innovative — is a huge blow to book discovery.
My panel features Jenn Northrington of WORD Brooklyn, Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore, Lori James of All Romance eBooks, Kevin Smokler of Booktour.com, and Malle Vallik of Harlequin. I’m excited about moderating this panel, particularly because it contains a mix of innovative and enthusiastic booksellers, forward-thinking publishers (yes, Kevin, you are a publisher), and, most importantly, readers who truly love reading.
Nothing I say here reflects their thoughts and opinions. They may, in fact, disagree with what I say. You’ll have to attend our panel to find out!
Predictions about the future are difficult, mostly because it hasn’t happened yet. Darn future! There is no doubt that the bookselling landscape will change. Some, most notably Mike Shatzkin, are wondering what the physical bookselling landscape will look like in five years. I agree with Mike that it will be vastly different.
But do I think (physical) bookstores will go the way of dinosaurs? Absolutely not. We are human. We are social animals. We need someone to wait patiently while we painstakingly describe the book we want, finding it for us despite the fact we a) got the author wrong, b) described the cover art wrong, and c) described the entire plot wrong. We want someone to talk to us about books and guide us.
My philosophy is for some books, online is awesome. For other books, I need a human, in-front-of-me professional to challenge me. I am going to be an either/and shopper for a long time. Heck, I’ve made peace with the fact that I need both Zappos and Macys in my life. Same for bookstores.
Obviously, I have a vested interest in making sure the publishing ecosystem remains vibrant. If readers are, ultimately, the most critical part of publishing, then booksellers, the people with the intimate, personal relationships with consumers, are publishers’ best friends. In preparing for this panel, I was struck, at various times, by statements from various publishers about the importance of booksellers. Most recently, Carolyn Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster said:
“My No. 1 concern is the survival of the physical bookstore,” said Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need that physical environment, because it’s still the place of discovery. People need to see books that they didn’t know they wanted.
Her comment gave me pause for a few reasons. First, of course, I wondered what publishers were doing to ensure the survival of the physical bookstore. Setting aside the problems faced by the Borders chain, the truth is that most independent booksellers cannot compete on price, a key component of the shopping equation. Co-op dollars can be challenging to acquire. Even processing incoming shipments can be overhead-intensive due to less-than-robust packing slip and invoicing processes.
I truly wonder what publishers are doing for the booksellers they understand are their best marketing asset. I cannot stop thinking about this, particularly in light of what is happening with Borders. I keep questioning whether the past few decades have created an environment where independent booksellers have a seat at the grown-ups table…a seat where they are heard in a serious manner.
Then I thought about the fact that the bookseller of tomorrow — nay, today! — is not necessarily located in a physical location. In theory, we have an ecosystem that allows anyone to become a bookseller (my panel will address this notion, and they do have great thoughts on this topic). But not every bookseller occupies a bricks-and-mortar, or, heck, concrete and wood, space. That does not mean the bookseller cannot fulfill, beautifully, the same functions someone in a bricks-and-mortar store does. It’s a matter of using the medium, store or website, to serve customers best.
So, for me, the question becomes one of helping independent bookstores thrive. In the mega-store, if you like, category we have Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders (yeah, but until that TKO happens), Costco, Target, Apple (in theory), and Google. Two of the above offer a highly curated, limited selection. One hasn’t demonstrated a serious interest in selling books. The others dominate the marketplace, but don’t always meet the needs of today’s consumers.
The lessons of Borders, and to some extent Barnes & Noble, are not that people don’t buy and read books. Evidence suggests book sales are strong, especially when you consider the economy. And print book sales remain strong, but only a fool would underestimate rising digital sales. Any bookseller that cannot serve the digital reader is a bookseller playing catch-up.
The lessons of megastores are more complex. High rents, lack of responsiveness to the community, economic blahs. The middle one, I believe, is the biggest issue. As more of our lives move online, we crave the intimacy of local business, the warmth of personal service. It seems like a paradox, but, as I talk to friend and family, makes perfect sense. We are human.
I have a story. It’s personal. Recently, I received a very lovely cookbook from a friend. Gorgeous, but not a style I like to cook. So I trekked to my local Barnes & Noble to exchange it for a cookbook that better reflected my passions. I appreciated the gift receipt. Not everyone loves Italian food.
I know, I know.
So, time passes. I let the husband roam the geek book section while I wonder when all cookbooks settled on the $35 price point. I pondered. I compared. I thought. Then — and this is where it gets into the too much information realm — I realized I needed to take what team-building leaders call a “bio-break”. This particular store used to have public restrooms, but, alas, changed their policy. Who knew?
What Barnes & Noble wanted me to do was, I do not kid, leave the store, walk a block and a half away…then, nature satisfied, return to do my shopping. Trust me when I say that once I left the store, there was no way in hell I would have come back.
Still, I wanted to accomplish my exchange and head out to lunch. I pleaded an emergency (one must tell social lies for the greater good). I was grudgingly allowed access to the restroom. When I emerged, an employee was hovering in a way that made it clear I was being watched. ‘Cause I might want to lift some merchandise. Seriously, if the dude only knew how many books I get in the mail…I am not trying to add more stuff to my household.
Still, I didn’t appreciate being treated like a potential criminal (be more subtle, dude!). I didn’t love the idea that a customer, someone who might browse for an hour or more, was being forced to leave the store. And I realized how much I love Vromans, my local independent. In fact, the husband and I agreed we had no need to return to that particular B&N again. When we want print books, it’s Vromans or the comic book store. We always feel welcome there.
Barnes & Noble didn’t care about my business. When I went to the counter, an employee, who was on the phone, looked at me and said, “I’m not working.” It took a few minutes to find an actual employee. The results have been recounted above. The cashier pushed me too hard on joining the loyalty program. Seriously, when I say “no thank you”, I mean it the first time. Pushing me doesn’t change my mind. It pisses me off.
What I believe about independents is the ones who survive and thrive — I am not naive, and I realize many indie booksellers will not be able to weather the digital transition (and that’s what we are facing) — are the booksellers who understand customer service, customer experience, customer needs.
Or, put another way, booksellers who understand the community they serve.
As big box stores, Costco probably excluded, shrink in book market share, indies have the opportunity to fill the space. The competition becomes Apple, Amazon, and Google, and the challenge becomes competing with these technological giants. Giants who sell books, but do not consider books a primary business (though I remain convinced that books are very important to Jeff Bezos personally).
This means independents like WORD, Greenlight, and All Romance need to compete with these giants. Price is difficult, but not impossible. Format lock-in due to DRM ties customers to larger retailers. Consumer confusion abounds.
What gives indies leverage? Customer service. Community. When it comes to a physical store, I go there because I want a certain level of interaction. I want human contact. I want tactile. I want readings. Events. Original content. Something unique that I can’t get anywhere else. I want to be seduced by a cover with a striking image, and, honestly, I think booksellers have a better idea of what attracts readers than publishers (especially those publishers who don’t leave New York very often). Extra points if there’s a clever shelf talker. I am a sucker for a good shelf talker.
When I shop digital, I want data. I want details about the book. I want ratings, reviews, suggestions. I want to interact with like-minded readers. I want to know what they bought. I want curation. Oh, I wouldn’t mind shelf talkers. A personal review from someone who loves a book is like potato chips for me. Sincerity, authenticity, passion, these are the enemies of my credit card.
(Oh, I would not mind the ability to purchase Kindle-compatible ebooks from my indie booksellers. I can already do this for some of the publishers All Romance sells, but it would be lovely if all the Kindle owners out there — the ones who, you know, don’t have a friggin’ clue about formats and DRM and compatibility — could shop at your store. Seriously, you want to focus on a problem? Focus. On. This. Now. Please. Thank. You. Especially if you believe these booksellers are all that and more.)
As I wrote this, I learned that Powell’s, a major Portland bookseller, is laying off 31 employees. They cite ebooks, the economy, rising healthcare costs as reasons. It’s a mix of retail personnel and web personnel. It’s hard to parse how these elements contributed to the decision (Powell’s has been an ebook leader, though, frankly not competitive with today’s marketplace), but they didn’t close stores. That probably doesn’t offer the employees let go much comfort.
Yet, despite this, and other similar news, I remain optimistic about independent booksellers, far more than I do about major chains. The latter are too big, too encumbered, too corporate (this can change, but please do not put me on the change management team. Been there, done that, realized I would prefer a root canal!). The former are able to see the market, understand the market, adapt to the market. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Result: beautiful sales.
People are reading. People are buying books. They are buying books in the format that best suits their needs. They are buying from the locations (physical and virtual) that best suit their lifestyles. The booksellers who will thrive — competing with Apple, Amazon, and Google — are the booksellers who get this about their customers.
And hey, if you’re at TOC, please grab me and say hello. I’m the short one talking a mile a minute with everyone I can find. Also, if the situation should arise, politely decline to have me on your bowling team. I rarely bowl over my height in inches.