Bookstores Now, More than Ever

February 9th, 2011 · 20 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

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 deliver.

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.

File Under: The Business of Publishing

20 responses so far ↓

  • Tweets that mention Bookstores Now, More than Ever | Booksquare -- Topsy.com // Feb 9, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Suzanne Norman and EMB Flip, Literaturas. Literaturas said: Bookstores Now, More than Ever: At next week’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, I am moderating a pane… http://bit.ly/f8hu7j [...]

  • Moriah Jovan // Feb 10, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Ah, but then you have rants like the one in this twitterstream that make it very clear that authors are incidental to the whole process.

    And I’m shocked–SHOCKED I TELL YOU–you didn’t mention my perfect bookstore. *sniffle* I see how you are.

    Seriously, the only two people who are considered ancillary to publishing today are the author and the reader.

  • Mark Schneyer // Feb 10, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Interesting to read your post in conjunction with a video posted this morning at Futurebook in the UK. (http://bit.ly/eaqCRE). In that video a B&N exec gives advice to Waterstone’s: “it’s important to understand what your customer wants, how they want it and make sure you’re delivering it to them–otherwise you’re going to find yourself without a customer.”

    It can be hard for big corporate retailers to walk and chew gum and have clean bathrooms at the same time, and your experience at the physical B&N illustrates the difficulty for B&N of following their own advice in multiple channels at the same time. This can also be difficult for indies in reverse, as illustrated by indie websites that are full of heart but difficult to navigate and buy books from.

  • Topping Off at the Ebook Station : Near Earth Object // Feb 10, 2011 at 9:19 am

    [...] Booksquare’s Kassia Krozser is on to something. In a larger post on the necessity of physical booksellers, she adds in a parenthetical: . . . I would not mind the ability to purchase Kindle-compatible ebooks from my indie booksellers. . . . 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. [...]

  • willem // Feb 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Talk about community is all very well but does it pay the rent? People come for the social interaction, the speeches, the wine…and then buy online at Amazon because of price. With ebooks this will get much worse because everything points to price being at the top of the list for online buyers.

    This brings us to the great unmentioned namely agency pricing. Without agency pricing the independents-whether bricks and mortar or online only-will simply be priced out of the market. The Indie partnership with Google would be dead without it – see http://wynkendeworde.blogspot.com/2010/12/exploring-google-ebook-pricing.html for how far apart prices are versus the big guys.

    Do I even need to point out how unpopular agency pricing is with readers?

    I assume it is quite possible for bookshops to sell to Kindle owners via Amazon’s affiliate program, that is if any are stupid enough to do so. The entire Kindle ecosystem is designed to benefit Amazon and no-one else.

  • Jussi Keinonen // Feb 10, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Although the Finnish market is slightly different, my conclusions have been for a long time:

    1) Traditional book publishers are the ones needing physical bookstores. Others and self-publishers multiply the competition on the e-side. I would be surprised if traditional publishers didn’t see this one day and do something more to support the bookstores.

    2) In the ever-expanding internet universe, people still only have limited time. Our attention is continuously drawn by all the other goodies out there. Marketing books in the web is hard and will only get harder! So soon, relatively speaking, the traditional “enclosed” bookstore will become more and more attractive as a marketing tool for publishers.

    The challenge is: will the bigger publishers understand this soon enough, because most of their thinking now focuses on e?

  • Sheridan Swinson // Feb 11, 2011 at 5:46 am

    So independent bookstores are needed to furnish bathrooms and look for unfindable titles ( unknown author, title etc ). I can definitely see an economic future based on these business keystones. As for participating in ebook programmes …. Aaargh !
    The only way forward for indi booksellers is to go guerilla. Give up the certainty of buying books you can return, and look for higher margin firm sale deals. Mix this with non-book product, a good second-hand and rare department and a radical events programme and maybe you have a sustainable business. But the fact that you have cultural value will not pay the rent.
    Sheridan Swinson MD
    Aardvark Books, Herefordshire

  • Sterling Editing » Written on the internet // Feb 11, 2011 at 6:27 am

    [...] And we leave you with a long and thoughtful post from Kassia Krozser at Booksquare about the future of booksellers and bookstores. [...]

  • Robin Mizell // Feb 11, 2011 at 8:49 am

    How nice that you’re quoted in today’s edition of Shelf Awareness, Kassia.

  • Clive Warner // Feb 11, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I agree with Sheridan. Bookstores only exist because of their awful ‘consignment’ system where publishers take all the risk. This needs to stop. If bookstores cannot survive without free product, then they do not deserve to exist.

  • Theresa M. Moore // Feb 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Your experience with the B&N is among the reasons why I don’t frequent the chain stores anymore. As an independent publisher and bookseller, I can only say that it is very nice to know there are physical bookstores out there, but until they start carrying my books their decline is not of importance to me. I have approached independent stores before and been turned away because they “only use our distributor” or won’t pay up front for the deliveries, despite the fact that I have to pay up front to produce the books. I have even caught them sneering about “self-published books” as if they are infected with the plague. With this attitude it is no wonder more books are being sold online. When booksellers remember that they are in the business of selling books and stop passing judgment on the book suppliers, they will do better.
    In my recent experience, the big internet retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble have not done me any favors, either. I sell my books in a variety of formats direct from my own site, but when I promote them on other sites, the first question put to me is usually, “yeah, but are they available on Amazon?” even though I sell my books for exactly the same price. I even offer free shipping, which is something Amazon does not do unless the sale is over a minimum amount. And lately, Amazon has taken some pretty anti-promotional measures like removing reviews and cross-promotion features from book listings. The catch-22 here is that a book does not get sold without customer reviews, and one cannot get a customer review until the book is sold. This is why I sell independently from all major online retailers and have even removed the Amazon buy links from my site. If that does not encourage anyone visiting to buy from me, then I might as well stop trying.
    I am squeezed by both worlds, and the friction is getting me real mad.

  • willem // Feb 12, 2011 at 2:25 am

    While I’m at it let me punt a brilliant 5 part series on rethinking bookstores by Matt Blind. He ends it at http://www.rocketbomber.com/2011/01/31/rethinking-the-box-the-unique-experience-case-study-5-of-5

    The wealth of links at the bottom of that piece alone leads to a plethora of ideas on the past, present and possible future of bookstores and bookselling. A must read!

  • Sean Cranbury // Feb 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Hi Kassia

    Great piece. A few thoughts:

    1) Predictions are futile, you’re right.

    But… The future of bookselling is going to be a guerilla operation the shape of which we can barely imagine right now. It may be heavily localized with small run POD, hand-pressed and e-sales augmented by traditional mass market and trade. The traditional sales channels that produce the big profits will likely be the Costcos/WalMarts of the world.

    The level of dedication and quality work being done by an increasing number of independent publishers reassures me that regardless of statements made by the denizens of the professional lecture circuit – ahem, Negroponte et al – we’ll have very good books for a long time to come.

    2) Publishers cannot think/act as one. If they didn’t lift a finger to ‘save’ independent booksellers in the late 90′s why would they suddenly act now? It’s nice to think this could happen but there’s no evidence to support it in reality.

    3) The pricing system will change, the practice of indicating prices on the covers of books will disappear for the independents – tho traditionals will still do it. Pricing will be more flexible, esp as POD gets more economical.

    Thanks for writing this, Kassia. I’m speaking on this with John Maxwell’s Masters of Publishing class at SFU next month.

  • Il futuro delle librerie (se le librerie hanno un futuro) | Certi racconti sono un tiro mancino // Feb 14, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    [...] articolo (in inglese), sul futuro delle librerie (via la newsletter di Simplicissimus). Moriranno le [...]

  • Shelley // Feb 18, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Book-buyers should be the most intelligent people on the planet, and if there’s a way to tweak the system so it doesn’t become more mega-corporate, we ought to be able to figure it out, pass it on, and act on it.

  • *sigh* // Feb 22, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Actually, Jeff Bezos once said he wanted to see the end of paper books in favor of e-ones.

  • Socializing in the Age of Social Networking | For the love of bookshops // Mar 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    [...] Kassia Krozser had a funny store highlighting the differences between Barnes & Noble and her local bookstores when it came to [...]

  • Wine to go // May 16, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Personally, I spend all day online and I can tell you there is nothing better than curling up with a bricks and mortar (simile) book that you can hold up to the light and lose yourself in whilst your tea goes cold. There should never be a reason not to have book shops there for the perusing.

  • Digital publishing | Pearltrees // Mar 1, 2012 at 4:48 am

    [...] Bookstores Now, More than Ever | Booksquare 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. [...]

  • Samantha Wood // Mar 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Ever since online or e-books have started, I’ve been a full supporter of holding real paper in my hand. As much as the bookstore industry may dwindle, I know there will always be supporters that will keep it going.