Modernizing the Cultural Elite: A Viable Future for Independent Bookstores Sarah Rettger (sarahrettger@gmail.
com) What makes a great independent bookstore? In his ode to some of the great booksellers of the past half-century, Peter Osnos attempts to explain: In the best of times, bookselling in the "indie" tradition is a business that requires an especially resilient spirit, given how complex it is to remain viable in an economy dominated by national chains, consolidation, and technology behemoths. These booksellers all have excelled in the relationship aspects of what they do, shaping a loyal customer base by making their stores essential in the way people feel about their communities. Independent booksellers will have to overcome the convenience and advantages of online and on-demand bookselling by continuing to give premium service and supporting cultural activities around books.1 Independent bookstores face a growing number of challenges, from online sales and e-books to a shift in the cultural value of books and the commercial nature of the book industry. These challenges are not insurmountable, however, and the efforts of creative and energetic booksellers can ensure that the industry has a viable future ahead of it. I come to this topic with biases drawn from personal experience. I have been an independent bookseller for the past five years, working at two different bookstores, and I have worked for the American Booksellers Association, the bookstores' national trade association. Many of my friends are independent booksellers. I obviously have a financial interest in seeing the bookselling industry remain viable, but the survival of bookstores is also important to me as a reader and writer, and as someone who participates in American culture. Amazon Paradoxically, it is impossible to talk about the state of independent bookstores in 2012 without beginning with their primary competitor. Since the Internet retailer began operations in 1995, independent booksellers (and often chain booksellers as well) have seen Amazon as the enemy. That sentiment has become more widespread over the past five years, as Amazon's Kindle became the first broadly adopted e-book platform, and as Amazon expanded its publishing operations. Amazon's growing dominance of book retail is not just a matter of booksellers' perception. A recent analysis by the finance website Seeking Alpha projects an actual majority of market share: “The big story is that in just three years Amazon has positioned itself to triple its overall share of the U.S. book
Osnos, Peter. “Booksellers: A Great Generation.” The Atlantic. June 22, 2010. [http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/06/booksellers-a-great-generation/58507/]
business for all formats. Before the end of 2012, Amazon could own more than half of the U.S. book business across all formats.”2 Booksellers resent Amazon's dominance, particularly because they feel it has achieved its position unethically. As one Barnes & Noble staffer writes: Amazon is a parasite. Sure, they prosper while the whole organism [Books, publishing, book retail, and impassioned handselling] prospers, but they provide nothing to enable the organism to grow. Amazon does everything I can do, but better — but also, only in a derivative, [dare I say, stolen] second-hand way. When both Borders and Barnes & Noble are gone — will Amazon really be able to fill the void?3 For instance, surveys have shown that a plurality of transactions completed on Amazon begin in a physical store. From those retailers' perspective, Amazon has made it possible for consumers to take advantage of the resources of physical stores without being part of stores' financial operations. Think about it: Almost 40 percent of Amazon’s customers, according to this poll, have added a complicated step (the time-consuming and not-withoutexpense process of going to a bookstore) to the simplicity of Amazon’s buying process.... And indeed, according to this poll 40 percent of Amazon’s business thus relies on brick-and-mortar bookstores.4 In November 2011, Amazon made that relationship explicit by offering its customers a refund of up to $5 per item for taking a picture of an item in a physical store, reporting the store's posted price, and buying the item from Amazon. Although books were not among the products eligible for this promotion, booksellers were quick to voice their displeasure. One of the key reasons for Amazon's success is its ability to offer consumers actual or perceived lower prices than those of its competitors. This is compatible with the modern “image of the smart consumer as someone (usually female) who helps her family achieve a better standard of living by acquiring more products for her dollar. Considerations such as loyalty or the maintenance of a personal relationship have little place in this image, and those few retailers who ask consumers to put sentiment over savings are routinely scolded for holding unrealistic expectations.”5 Amazon's prices tend to be lower than those of independent bookstores for three primary reasons:
“Amazon Positioned for 50% Overall Market Share by End of 2012.” Seeking Alpha. February 3, 2011. [http://seekingalpha.com/article/250507-amazon-positioned-for-50-overall-market-share-by-end-of-2012] Blind, Matt. “The Age of Industrial Bookselling, 1931-2011.” Rocket Bomber. September 26, 2011. [http://www.rocketbomber.com/2011/09/26/the-age-of-industrial-bookselling-1931-2011] Johnson, Dennis. “Trending Toward the Truth: Poll Shows Internet Booksales Rely Heavily on Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores.” MobyLives. December 6, 2011. [http://mhpbooks.com/44965/trending-toward-the-truth-poll-showsinternet-retail-relies-on-brick-and-mortar-bookstores/] Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. University of Chicago Press, 2006, 156.
In most states, Amazon is not required to collect and remit sales tax. “Buy a book at Book Passage, a lively bookstore in the town of Corte Madera in northern California, and the clerk by law must charge you 7.75 percent in state and local sales tax. Purchase the same book at Amazon.com and, although technically you still owe the tax, Amazon is not required to collect it from you.”6 In recent years several states and the federal government have begun to consider legislation that would require Internet retailers to collect the sales tax their customers owe, and booksellers have been among those lobbying for the change.
Lower cost of goods sold. The company benefits from volume discounts publishers offer for large orders. It also uses its market power to compel deeper discounts from its vendors.7
Broad product base. Although Amazon is best known as a bookstore, its retail operations extend far beyond books, and it has other lines of business, from websites to data management. As a result, it can afford to use popular books as loss leaders.
That was most evident in the fall of 2009, when Amazon sold ten of the top new releases, including Stephen King's Under the Dome and Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, for $8.99 each. The books' retail prices were between $20 and $30.8 Amazon's move led other online retailers, including Walmart.com and Target.com, to lower their own prices, leading many to describe the events as a price war. Book Pricing Amazon aside, the book industry handles pricing differently from most other forms of retail. In other consumer goods industries, the retailer buys an item from a producer or distributor at a fixed price, then marks up the item to an appropriate sale price, choosing a price generates enough sales to cover the retailer's operating expenses and provide a profit. Books, however, come with their sale prices printed on the cover. Retailers buy books from publishers and wholesalers at a discount – usually between forty and fifty percent – off the cover price. “What this works out to a radical absence of flexibility in pricing,” notes bookseller Josh Cook.9
Mitchell, Stacy. Big Box Swindle. Beacon, 2006, 176. Martinez, Amy. “Amazon.com Trying to Wring Deep Discounts from Publishers.” Seattle Times. April 1, 2012. [http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2017889877_amazonpublisher02.html] Rich, Motoko. “Price War Over Books Worries Industry.” New York Times. October 16, 2009. [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/books/17price.html] Cook, Josh. “My Entirely Too Long, Incredibly Wonkish Book Industry Post: Extravaganza!” In Order of Importance. March 15, 2012. [http://inorderofimportance.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-entirely-too-long-incrediblywonkish.html]
The printed price establishes a ceiling, and bookstores must find their operating expenses and profits within the discount margin. Consumers are generally both unaware of and uninterested in the nuances of book pricing, no matter how often booksellers repeat that selling a book at the full cover price does not constitute a markup. This is not to say that customers are at fault. No one can be expected to understand how every business works. “Most consumers are not well-enough informed to be paying for 'values,' particularly in the face of advertising by [profit maximizers] intent on convincing consumers that they too have values.”10 While booksellers may find some success educating consumers about the quirks of the book business, they are more likely to benefit from acknowledging that the average consumer is unlikely to care about the intricacies of a single industry's pricing practices, and reframing their expectations accordingly. It may be aggravating to hear people describe a book's cover price as a markup, but frustration levels will only grow if booksellers expect such assumptions to change. A Short History of Bookselling Booksellers' attitudes toward book pricing have their roots in the class history of the book trade. As “merchants of culture,” a phrase John Thompson chose for his history of bookselling in the United States, booksellers were able to maintain a level of gentility unavailable to those who sold more lowbrow goods. But in order to achieve genteel status, members of the book industry needed to draw a distinction between their cultural activities and more typical commerce. As Laura Miller, in another history of bookselling, writes, This divide between commercial and nonprofit undertakings presented some problems to those book professionals who wished to count themselves among the cultural elite. Such members of the book business became involved in an elaborate exercise of explaining how their obviously commercial enterprises were not really commercial.11 The tension between the commercial and cultural sides of the book trade pervade bookstore operations. “Booksellers readily agree that as businesspeople, their selection decisions have to correspond to what will sell. But because the items being sold are books, carriers of ideas and embodiments of culture, there is more than just economics at stake.”12
Morton, Fiona M. Scott, and Joel M. Podolny. “Love or Money? The Effects of Owner Motivation in the California Wine Industry.” Journal of Industrial Economics. December 2002, Vol. 50, Issue 4, 454. Miller, 28. Miller, 84.
Some observers see this as one of the industry's defining features: “The notion that books belong at a significant remove from the realm of economic necessity is one of the most entrenched myths of contemporary book culture.”13 That myth is not only entrenched, but also foundational: The idea that books are a noble cause and, as a result, deserve to exist outside the usual economic realities, is at the heart of many booksellers' perceptions of their industry. Even today, with the lower-class aspects of trade losing some of their potency, booksellers tend to draw distinctions between themselves and other retailers: “Booksellers have a special affection for the items they sell. Hardware-store owners may rave over a favorite screwdriver and kitchen-store owners may fall in love with a set of pottery, but there's nothing to match the love that a bookseller feels for a well-written book.”14 Although those who refer to such statements are certainly justified in calling them snobbery, the idea that “there's nothing to match” the relationship between booksellers and the books they sell is, on one level, essential to booksellers' ability to maintain a logic-driven worldview: The only way a group of highly-educated people can justify their commitment to a low-wage job (one friend recently noted that one night's earnings from her side job as a waitress were equivalent to more than a week's bookstore pay) is by believing that they are doing something special. To varying extents, this sense that books are special high-status objects that require “consumers to recognize a collective interest in opposing the usual workings of the free market”15 has led to what many perceive as a sense of entitlement on the part of independent bookstores. Longtime publishing executive Don Linn calls this the “tin-cup strategy”: Even before Amazon's spectacular rise, many (not all) indie booksellers have taken what can only be described as a whiny approach in appealing to customers. We hear pitches like, 'We're special so we deserve your support'; 'The competition is undercutting our prices'; and 'Communities need independent bookstores'. As much as I love you, you don't deserve or have a right to anything; you're not the only business facing price competition; and communities only need you if you make yourselves indispensable to your community.16 The sense of collective obligation is, of course, not universally held. A number of booksellers
Striphas, Ted. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. Columbia University Press, 2009, 6. Petrocelli, William. “Words and E-Words: Electronic Books at the Community Bookstore. Huffington Post. December 28, 2010. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-petrocelli/words-and-ewordselectron_b_800018.html] Miller, 12. Linn, Don. “The Tin-Cup Strategy: A Rant.” Bait 'n' Beer. April 11, 2010. [http://www.baitnbeer.com/content/tincup-strategy-rant]
have spoken out against it, as the New York Times notes: “Vivien Jennings, the founder and president of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., said that booksellers had to realize that they were no longer the 'protected industry' that they used to be, when it was easier to stay in business. 'Now, whether we like it or not, bookselling is hard-core retailing,' she said. 'You have to be extra, extra good.'”17 The other consequence of the treatment of the book industry as a genteel trade has been a sense that booksellers should not be focused on money: “If all you want to do is sell something for a profit, then the book business is one of the last places you should be working. But if what you want to do is promote a love for reading and the books you love to read, then you can begin transforming your store into a valuable resource for other people who share your passion.”18 As a result, booksellers who approach the business from a more commercial perspective often find themselves on the defensive. This adds to the challenges faced by those attempting to increase bookstore revenue and maintain a viable operation. When the New York Times allowed former Harvard Book Store marketing manager Heather Gain to explain why the store charges $5 for a ticket to some of its events (“'We’re a business,' Ms. Gain said. 'We’re not just an Amazon showroom.'”), the article also included objects to the practice from both customers and other booksellers: “'We are retailers, we are selling a product, for sure, but, at the same time, we’re a cultural center,' said Neal Sofman, co-owner of Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco, but he would not rule out charging in the future. 'You can never say never anymore.'”19 E-Books Study after study shows that e-books are steadily growing in popularity – and in sales volume. It is essential that independent bookstores come up with methods for responding to consumer demand and compensating for a decline in hardcover and paperback sales. This paper offers no suggestions for how to do so. Independent bookstores were effectively shut out of the e-book market when the Kindle made its debut. Amazon's system does not leave room for other players: Kindle books are sold only through Amazon. The device and its associated apps are not compatible with the digital rights managementprotected (DRM) files sold by other vendors. (Files without DRM can be converted to Kindle format, but
Bosman, Julie. “Small Bookstores Struggle for Niche in Shifting Times.” New York Times. January 23, 2011. [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/business/media/24indie.html] Stucky, Janaka. “Independent Bookstores: How to Compete With Amazon.” Huffington Post. January 14, 2011. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/14/independent-bookstores-amazon_n_1201676.html] Bosman, Julie, and Matt Richtel. “Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet.” New York Times. June 21, 2011. [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/business/media/22events.htm]
e-books from most major publishers are sold with DRM.) Hopes were high when Google Books made its first appearance in late 2010. The program, launched partly in partnership with the American Booksellers Association, offered e-books that could be read on a wide range of compatible devices. Early press coverage celebrated the partnership as a brilliant success. “Michael Tucker, president of the American Booksellers Association, which negotiated the deal to distribute Google's e-books through independent bookstores, points to another reason Google is dealing the booksellers in: Google is fundamentally a technology company, not a retail enterprise. And it’s certainly not an expert in the book business. 'They recognized that they are not a bookstore,' Tucker tells Fast Company. 'They wanted to be able to access [the skills of booksellers].'”20 The main strength of independent bookstores' ability to sell Google Books was that it gave them a way to reestablish connections with customers who preferred digital books but still wanted to shop at their local bookstore. “This levels the playing field,” said Oren Teicher, the chief executive of the ABA. “If you want to buy e-books, you don’t just have to buy them from the big national outlets.”21 The end of that partnership was announced while this paper was being written. On April 3, 2011, Google informed the American Booksellers Association that it was ending the reseller program that allowed independent bookstores to sell Google Books on their websites, effective January 31, 2013. In a letter to booksellers, Teicher attempted to put a positive spin on the announcement: To say the least, we are very disappointed in Google’s decision, but it was not entirely unexpected. However, we have every confidence that, long before Google’s reseller program is discontinued, ABA will be able to offer IndieCommerce users a new alternative e-book product, or choice of products, that will not only replace Google eBooks as it currently works on IndieCommerce sites but that will be in many ways a better product.22 Booksellers and many others in the publishing industry will be watching closely to see if a non-Google ebook solution will prove effective. Another way that booksellers are attempting to deal with the rise of e-books is through bundling, combining a physical book and an e-book in one purchase. However, the creation of bundled books is done at the publisher's discretion, and as Algonquin's recent bundling experiment demonstrated, there are still substantial logistical problems to solve before this can become a widely implemented solution:
Boyd, E.B. “How Google's New eBookstore Might Save Indie Booksellers.” Fast Company. December 6, 2010. [http://www.fastcompany.com/1707599/google-ebookstore-bookseller-launch] Bosman, Julie. “Google Opens Doors to E-Bookstore.” New York Times. December 6, 2010. [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/business/media/07ebookstore.html] “ABA CEO Update on Google eBooks and Association's Meeting with DOJ.” Bookselling This Week. April 5, 2012. [http://news.bookweb.org/news/aba-ceo-update-google-ebooks-and-association%E2%80%99s-meeting-doj]
The When She Woke experiment, if anything, highlights how difficult it can be in the current retail environment to offer a seamless way for consumers to simultaneously receive two formats of one book. Transaction problems were the major issue: a reader who bought the hardcover at a bricks-andmortar B&N had to go to bn.com and plug in a code to receive the digital copy. More laboriously, those buying the hardcover at an indie bookstore had to go to indiebound.com, where they could then click through to another third party e-tailer, and then, at that point, use their “free book” code.23 The “experiment” in question was Algonquin's attempt to sell both a print an digital copy of Hilary Jordan's When She Woke in a single transaction. While it was not an unqualified success, it does have the distinction of being one of the rare efforts a mid-size publisher has made in that direction. Who Cares About Bookstores? Publishers. One of the strongest arguments in favor of figuring out how to keep bookstores viable is their importance to the broader book industry. “I have always seen this as existential for big trade houses, whose distinguishing value proposition for authors remains their ability to put books on retail shelves. (There are other things that matter, but I’d argue that all of them put together don’t equal that.)” writes publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin.24 In Shatzkin's utilitarian view, maintaining physical bookstores is less about commitment to community and more about the self-interest of another link in the publishing chain. Many booksellers, including Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington, are calling on publishers to act in that self-interest in concrete ways: So what does this mean? It says that publishers need to make sure that in their overall strategic planning, that their support to physical bookstores remains a very high item on their checklist. Some publishers have taken some very important steps in this direction. Some publishers have programs to ensure that their bestselling stock gets distributed as evenly as possible across all retail outlets (physical, independent, chain and online).25 There is, of course, some dispute about how much effort is sufficient. Independent bookstores generate much of the industry discussion, and have expectations regarding everything from financial terms of sale to marketing support – and some would argue that those expectations extend into a sense of
Deahl, Rachel. “Is the Time Right for Bundling?” PublishersWeekly. February 3, 2012. [http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/50509-is-the-time-right-forbundling-.html] Shatzkin, Mike. “Extending the Life of Bookstores is Critical, But Devilishly Difficult.” The Shatzkin Files. March 25, 2012. [http://www.idealog.com/blog/extending-the-life-of-bookstores-is-critical-but-devilishly-difficult] Sindelar, Robert. “What I Heard in San Jose. Did Any Publishers Hear the Same?” Third Place Books. February 9, 2010. [http://blog.thirdplacebooks.com/2010/02/what-i-heard-in-san-jose-did-any.html]
entitlement. But they also represent less than a tenth of the sales of most books, which raises legitimate questions about how much support they should be able to expect from their partners in the industry. In response to an audience member’s question about why publishers don’t do more to help booksellers, [HarperCollins executive Carl] Lennertz replied, “You’re 8% of the market and you have two-thirds of the author tours and two-thirds of the readers’ copies. Publishers want this all to work.” [Bookstore owner Gail] Shanks disagreed with his read on indies’ market share. “My feeling,” she said, “is maybe we are 80% of some of these books. I believe a lot of what we do [is thought to be due] to Amazon. Publishers have not figured out how it is we kill ourselves and those books become bestsellers.”26 All these debates might be more effectively settled if hard statistics were available, but the lack of shared data is another defining characteristic of the industry. Nielsen BookScan tracks book sales by title, drawing sales information from approximately seventy percent of retail outlets in the United States, but it shares that data only with those who pay its substantial access fees. Authors and publishers even more accurate individual book sales numbers, but those are accumulated at a glacial pace, and closely guarded. And as the person who once spent quite a bit of time telling journalists that ABA did not keep track of how many independent bookstores exist, I find nothing odd about Ted Striphas' observation: “Oddly, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) keeps no formal, long-term records that would indicate exactly how many independent bookstores have gone under since Barnes & Noble opened its first superstore outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1989.”27 There is no easy way to obtain that data on a regular basis. In its annual report the association shares the number of stores that are currently ABA members, but it has no way of tracking non-member stores. Localism The previous sections have detailed the many challenges independent bookstores face in the twenty-first century, but even the most cynical booksellers have not given up on their industry entirely. We are seeing an evolution in the cultural definition of the bookseller, and a related opportunity for justifying the existence of local bookstores by tapping into consumers' non-economic considerations. Although the bias against profiting from cultural goods endures, Miller writes that the past several decades have seen a shift away from the claim of genteel status that drove much of the book industry's history: “Unlike the bookshop owners of decades past, the bookseller of the late twentieth century was
Rosen, Judith. “Is There a Bookstore of the Future?” PublishersWeekly. October 21, 2011. [http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/49184-is-there-a-bookstore-ofthe-future-.html] Striphas, 52.
rarely concerned with maintaining and image of conservative gentility. Instead a populist style had become a marketing asset, and a populist identity had given the independents moral justification for overtly political rhetoric and activity.”28 While much of the populist and political activity has taken the form of anti-Amazon invective, the issue booksellers have found the most success in embracing is the “Shop Local” movement. This localism, the idea that locally-owned businesses are an intrinsic part of a thriving community, has made its impact by appealing to both financial and moral interests and, above all, to consumers' self-interest in making their homes enjoyable places to live. In order to turn localism into a commercial advantage, bookstores – often in collaboration with other area businesses – make the link between consumer habits and community explicit. “See it here. Buy it here. Keep us here,” proclaims a sign at the Harvard Book Store. Other stores emphasize economic loyalty to the community, drawing on studies conducted in Austin and Chicago that demonstrate that “for every one hundred dollars in sales, the locals generate sixty-eight dollars' worth of local economic activity and the chains just forty-three dollars.”29 Some stores have found that in-house publishing operations give them another way to strengthen ties to their communities. “The leap into publishing by indies can be seen as the literary equivalent of the locavore movement. It not only emphasizes local writers, and local subjects, but also asks residents to support a local business with their dollars.”30 Some bookstore-publishers provide a venue for local writers to self-publish their work, while others offer more traditional submissions and editing processes. Some stores have extended the community ethos to the act of publishing itself, organizing the production of anthologies that consist of short contributions from many local writers, and as a result creating a group of people who have a stake in the book's success – and the store's success as well. Many stores with publishing operations print the books they publish on Espresso Book Machines (EBMs). The EBM is a large printer and binder that can produce a paperback in around ten minutes. In addition to creating books from files produced in-house, the machines also have access to a growing number of public domain and backlist books that can be printed as needed. Hopes are high for the EBM's potential, but even those booksellers who have chosen to buy or lease a machine acknowledge that it is not yet a source of profits. The cost – operating and leasing or
28 29 30
Miller, 163. Mitchell, 44. Almond, Steve. “Indies Battle Amazon – By Becoming Publishers.” Salon. January 2, 2012. [http://www.salon.com/2012/01/02/indies_battle_amazon_by_becoming_publishers/singleton/]
ownership expenses are well above $100,000 a year – keeps the machine out of reach of all but the most financially secure stores. The limited data available suggest that the localism strategy is paying off. A survey conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance “found that those in areas with an active "buy local" campaign reported holiday sales growth of 8.5% in 2011, compared to 5.2% for those retailers in areas without such an initiative.”31 As a rare instance of both hard data and positive financial news, reports like this one are particularly welcomed by booksellers. Some have also suggested that localism can provide a solution to the perennial problem of insufficient access to capital, something small businesses of all sorts struggle with. The problem for independents, Teicher and Graiser agree, is capital. Small booksellers generally lack the funds to buy locations outright. As leaseholders, they will have to mollify landlords in an industry in which Teicher notes the margins are modest. He suggests creative leasing arrangements and close cooperation as a way to make bookstores work better for both parties.32 Some stores have pursued creative and locally-driven financing plans, although their options are limited by financial regulations. Bookstores are not able to sell shares in themselves, for instance, without coming under the purview of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but some have set up legal structures that allow them to get funding from many small investors, who are often members of the bookstore's community. The details of the investment arrangements vary from store to store, with investors receiving discounts and other retail benefits, repayment with interest, or a share of the store's profits. Jack McKeown, a former publisher and current bookstore owner, has suggested that the American Booksellers Association use a portion of its $30 million endowment to seed the creation of an investment vehicle targeted to independent bookstores: “The NBDB would be capitalized through an initial round of paid-in equity and then leveraged at a suggested conservative ratio of 3:1.... These parties would stand to earn meaningful annual dividends as well as long-term appreciation on their investments.”33 However, ABA has expressed no interest in the proposal. The growth of localism is one of the strongest bright spots for independent bookstores today, even
Mitchell, Stacy. “Independent Businesses Report Strong Holiday Retail.” Institute for Local Self-Reliance. January 26, 2012. [http://www.newrules.org/retail/news/independent-businesses-report-strong-holiday-sales] Konrad, Alex. “Booksellers Without Borders: Indies' New Future.” CNNMoney. July 27, 2011. [http://money.cnn.com/2011/07/26/news/companies/borders_independent_bookstores.fortune/index.htm] McKeown, Jack. “A Solution for Capital-Starved Independent Bookstores.” Shelf Awareness. November 5, 2009. [http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=1047#m7864]
though it is somewhat atypical in the evolution of American shopping habits. Bloomberg BusinessWeek quotes retail consultant Jeff Green: “'It's the only retail industry I can think of that will go full circle, back to the way it originally was,' says Green. 'From the small-village bookstore to the big-box retailer and then back again. That doesn't ever happen in retail.'”34 While the growth of localism is a welcome development for small businesses of all types, I am far from suggesting that it is the solution to all of independent booksellers' problems. Even a renewed commitment to livable communities and the bookstores that shape them cannot entirely overcome one of the industry's greatest challenges. Looking to the Future All but the most over-confident industry leaders acknowledge that it is difficult to make generalizations or pronouncements about the future of an industry as decentralized and – especially – independent-minded as independent bookstores are. As Richard Howarth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and a former president of the American Booksellers Association, put it, “I realize there aren't bookstores in every town and no two bookstores that are alike, which makes it so hard for us to exist in the collective sense.”35 That said, because I care about the future of independent bookstores, I'm going to venture into that minefield. This is what I believe, in my most optimistic moments: Independent bookstores do have a future, but they have to adapt to it. This doesn't mean giving up any of the attributes that make them unique or progressive. It does mean acknowledging that only some factors are within their control, maximizing those options, and finding ways to work around factors outside their control. Telling customers not to bring their dirty Kindles into sacrosanct independent bookstores isn't going to be a win for anybody. The only way booksellers will succeed in the long term is by following the advice programmer Marco Arment gives to the broader media industry: “Relying solely on yelling about what’s right isn’t a pragmatic approach for the media industry to take. And it’s not working. It’s unrealistic and naïve to expect everyone to do the 'right' thing when the alternative is so much easier, faster, cheaper, and better for so many of them.”36 It can be frustrating to acknowledge that consumers will not do what you want them to do out of a sense of moral obligation that makes perfect sense to you.
Austen, Ben. “The End of Borders Is Not the End of Books.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek. November 14, 2011, Issue 4254, p. 94-97. Williams, Tom. “'No Model for the Independent Bookstore': An Interview with Richard Howorth.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. August 2005, Vol. 36, Issue 2, p. 81-89. Arment, Marco. “Right Versus Pragmatic.” February 25, 2012. [http://www.marco.org/2012/02/25/right-vspragmatic]
But it is far more aggravating to expect consumers to act the way you want them to, and then to be continually disappointed when they do not. It is, to borrow Arment's construction, right to expect that customers who browse in bookstores to complete their purchases there instead of buying online, but simply expecting them to do the right thing is not the pragmatic approach. First, stores should make the connection between browsing and purchasing explicit, the way Harvard Book Store does. Second, they should make it as easy as possible for browsers to buy from the store in the way that is most convenient for them. This requires bookstores to rely on one of their strengths, their understanding of their community, in order to figure out how best to meet their customers' needs. In some cases it may mean adjusting buying habits to ensure that the books customers want are in stock and being open-minded about adding unfamiliar books; in others it may mean providing e-books and a user-friendly website. Most likely, it will be a combination of factors. This is not easy, and I don't intend to be one of the pundits who says that if booksellers don't want to work hard for low pay they should go into a different business. Bookstores will survive only if they generate the kind of revenue that allows them to pay employees appropriately; otherwise the pool of potential booksellers will be limited to an even more privileged group than it already is. A sense of mission is an important factor in booksellers' commitment to their jobs, but it doesn't pay the rent, and in high concentrations it can be off-putting rather than inspiring. Amazon's business practices are, in large part, beyond bookstores' control. While there is without question satisfaction in letting off steam about Amazon's latest outrage, it is important to balance the personal benefits of such venting against the lack of its practical impact and the potential it has to alienate customers. There comes a point when the energy expended in abhorrence of Amazon can be better spent efforts that provide a concrete return. Ultimately, this will require a shift in the bookseller mentality away from the collective myth of books' specialness and insulation from commercial realities. It is true that books are an important part of United States culture, but they do not exist outside it, and for some time now that culture has been moving toward a more rational view of retail transactions. If independent bookstores want to succeed selling books at cover price, they can do so only by providing the services and benefits that make those prices acceptable to their communities. In some cases that can be achieved by making the community a livable place. In others, the key will be offering services, from tailored recommendations to local publishing, that aren't available from other sources of books. There is no single solution. Like independent bookstores themselves, the tactics that lead to a vibrant book business in the United States
are varied, individualized, and always changing.
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