The Future of Bookstores?

In December, a few authors (we call ourselves the Magnificent Genre Seven) will be doing a signing at a Waldenbooks in western New York.  We’ve signed there before – it’s a great bookstore with a great manager who’s a friend of several of us. 

Unfortunately, our signing will be the store’s last.  The parent company will be closing it down (along with 100 other stores) in January. 

It’s a complicated decision, not helped by the fact that the mall in which the store is located is doing poorly.  But it’s also an example of everything wrong with corporate bookselling.  Increasingly, the big chains are trying to sell books as if they were commodities.  The manager of this store has been repeatedly frustrated over the years by her inability to sell books she feels fit her community’s tastes and needs.  Instead, the company insists her store sell the same titles as every other Waldenbooks, and in the same amounts.

Think about that.  Do you think the folks in western New York want to read the same books as the folks in western Tennessee?  Sure, they’ll read a lot of the same books, but they won’t all be the same.  There are regional differences (in fact, the folks in western New York probably don’t even read the same books as the folks in New York City or Long Island).  And there are other differences, too.  Do you think the folks in a town with a large military base read the same books as a town with a couple of small liberal arts colleges?  I doubt it.  And yet Waldenbooks (and Barnes & Noble) demands that their stores do just that.  And then they judge the stores on their ability to match up against this artificially created national taste, too.  Can a store manager order more books than the national buyer already has for her store even if she knows she can sell them?  No.  The national buyer tells her to have the customer special order the book instead. 

Stupid national buyer.  Why would anyone come in to Waldenbooks and special order a book Waldenbooks doesn’t carry when they can order the same book from Amazon from home?  Have Waldenbooks fail to carry a book you’re looking for a couple of times, and you’re going to start not bothering to come in at all. 

Which means that Amazon has the chain bookstores right where they want them. 

So what is the future of bookstores, and bookselling, going to be?  The Kindle and the Nook?  Hardcovers as a luxury market for bibliophiles the same way vinyl is for audiophiles?  Bestsellers in grocery stores and airports and everything else online?  POD? 

Writers discuss this all the time.  What do you think?

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    A great topic Mr. Butler. What neither box-store nor indenpendent store gets is the disconect in customer service. Selection aside, the service is just about as bad in one as in the other.

    We have a couple of specialty stores here in Houston that do fare-to-middling business. We also a have representatives of every chain on every-other corner. If I go to the store specializing in mystery or crime, I get the high-hat. If I go to the chain-box, I get disinterest unless their pitching their discount-card. I don’t even go to the LITERARY book store as the condescending attitudes makes me nauseous at the door. So I can be treated badly at full retail or at a discount.

    Or I can buy on Amazon at a big discount, hold the attitude; yippee. With Amazon I loose the book-browsing experience and typically only find what I specifically know to look for. I loose the author-events, the readings and signings, the meet and greets as well as simple pleasure of the smell of ink and paper.

    I don’t know that bookstore-manager autonomy is the answer either. Blockbuster is my example. Each franchisee selects the movies. So, in my neck of the conservative woods, I can’t beg, buy, or rent a documentary or foreign film. But if I go to Blockbuster or Netflix on line I can get what I want, in 3-7 days snail mail; fantastic.

    This is the best customer service I can get if I want to rent and watch a movie right now? This is the best I can get if I want to buy a book right now? Really?

  2. 2. Tom

    I’ll miss book stores. The browsing is the best way to find new authors. How do you browse on Amazon? I guess I’ll just have to rely on recommendations from websites and community sites.

    I may have a TBR pile, but sometimes not of those titles spark an interest at that time. Browsing a well stocked book store will usually surrender up some that will catch my attention and excite me.

    I don’t feel sorry for all the chains about to go belly up. They are full of ignorant baffoons who caused their own demise. I hope they enjoy their time on unemployment.

    Oh no, I’m not in pre-bitter mode. Am I?

  3. 3. Skip

    Well I have to say that since I bought my kindle early this year I’ve bought exactly 1 dead-tree edition book – the latest Robert Jordan, due to Tor’s inexplicable decision to not publish the ebook for a year. Well, I probably would have bought it in dead tree anyways as I have the rest of the series in hardback. The reading experience, for me, is so much better on the Kindle that I can’t imagine going back. It’s like when CDs replaced cassette tapes. Once I bought a CD player, even though I still could use the legacy stuff I tended not to, and I doubt I bought more than 2 or 3 total cassette tapes afterwards. I suspect most heavy readers are going to be that way as soon as they get their first quality reading device, and the market is big enough to ensure that in general, if they want to read it, it’s available electronically.

    I used to go to a brick and mortar dead tree store about once a week, usually Tuesday or Wednesday at lunch, to see the new arrivals. That stopped with the Kindle purchase. The problem for publishers is they don’t have the slightest idea how to market to the thousands of me’s out there, whose numbers are growing. Historically, the PR blitz has cycled around the initial hardback release, trying to sell a relatively small number of copies at a very high margin, followed by basically no PR a year or so later when the paperback comes out. That model simply doesn’t work for e-editions.

    Most folks will pay a small premium for having the work early, but not the 400 percent or more that’s a typical hardback versus the eventual paperback, when at the end of the year they won’t have anything different from the folks that paid the later reduced price. So unless maybe they can come up with some other mechanism to add value, the model of ‘$30 during the first year, $8 thereafter’ is going to die, and probably relatively quickly.

    As an aside, this is why the ranting and raving that many authors have done about the Kindle $10 price point for that first year is severely misguided – I would be absolutely shocked if it’s a net money loser for any of them. They’re not losing a $30 hardback sale, mostly, they’re gaining paperback sales early, at a premium.

    Now having said that, I do admit that the shopping experience on the Kindle is a mess. There’s no equivalent to, for example, browsing all the SF&F from A to Z looking for something new to read. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you won’t stumble across it on the Kindle. But this is a fixable problem for them, and I’d already gotten to the point where most of the things I bought from authors I didn’t follow were on recommendations I’d read online. That works as long as the publisher understands that this is likely the only chance for me to buy the work, the initial time I browse it on the Kindle. So they need to make sure that the time they spend pushing a book coincides with a pricing scheme that will actually result in a sale.

  4. 4. Adam Heine

    I love bookstores, but you’re right. When I know I can get anything I want on Amazon from the comfort of my home (usually w/ free shipping, if I buy 2-3 books), combined with the fact that brick-and-mortar doesn’t always carry (for example) Tobias Buckell’s books, it makes my choice easy really.

  5. 5. Mike Barker

    Just for comparison, you might take a look at the Baen approach? They’ve been selling ebooks for about ten years now — at less than paperback prices. Free library at http://www.baen.com/library/ with plenty of free ebooks to help you get started. Then there’s the webscription bit — buy a month of ebooks (4-6 titles) for $15 at http://www.webscription.net/ And their experience is that the free and low-priced ebooks build readership, which leads to more sales of paperbacks and hardbacks and e-arcs (yes, Baen readers pay premium prices to read some ebooks early). Oh — and NO DRM. So you can read your books on whatever device you have today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

    I’m sold on ebooks. I think paper is going to become the secondary medium, for books that have that kind of readership, while the midlist and beginners fill the ebook markets. But watch out for the tipping point where it all shifts!

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    Dear God, I just re-read my comment as I read the other comments. I am truly embarrassed for my horrid spelling. I don’t think there is a cure for that anymore than there is a cure for the chain vs independent dilema.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Elias – Interesting point about Blockbuster. I didn’t know they were all franchisees. The bookstore chains own all their own stores, so it’s an entirely different corporate model. As for service, it all depends on the store (and the salesperson). Some stores have great service, whether they’re chains or indies, and some don’t.

    Tom – The big drawback with Amazon is the inability to browse. How do you find something new? Not on the Amazon recommendations, at least in my experience.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Skip – Tor is my publisher, and I have to confess I was absolutely mystified when they decided to publish my books in hardcover when I’d never published anything else before. But apparently Tor makes more money these days on harcovers, because the margin is so big, than they do on mmpbs. A lot of this has to do with the demise of the old distribution system, when most mmpbs were sold in thousands of small stores around the country and distributed by several hundred small distributors. The Kindle may very well bring back that dominance of the smaller margin sale.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Adam – I still go to my local independent first. But I live in a city where the bookstore is a five minute walk away. Not everyone has that luxury.

  10. 10. Chris F

    With you on all those points. The only thing that drags me into big box stores is when they send me any discount coupons over what Amazon offers, and even then I usually regret going, thanks to the confusion at the counter over how to handle the specific coupon I brought as opposed to the half dozen on offer at that time. Or, I came in a day late to use it. Which sucked.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Yes, the corporate model between Blockbuster and Walden’s is is different. But the issues are the same: access to product and declining revenue. Blockbuster is in the top-10 failing franchises in the US. Walden/Borders sales are flat with the company titering on the brink of collapse.

    As for my point about customer service, well, I don’t care to lose the generalization argument again. However, I don’t see a consistent commitment to customer service in the retail enviroment, whether it is chain or independent. Ultimately there is no easy answer to this situation. I certainly don’t believe it is Kendal or Amazon. Amazon simply comes the closest for me.

  12. 12. Tom

    As for Blockbuster, I worked almost 10 years for them in IT. Most of the stores are corporate owned. Most of the franchises are in smaller towns, and such. They are all run pretty much the same, where corporate or Franchise, though.

    I’m not defending Blockbuster. They canned me to give my job to someone overseas for 1/4 the pay. Nothing personal, the CEO told us in person. Just business. Well, it was very personal to me. I’ll step off my “Bitter” soapbox now.

    Carry on.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    Having never worked for BB, Tom, I consede your point. However, I have a lot of experience as a customer. If I go to the east-end of Houston, I find a large selection of Spanish language films made in Mexico and South America.

    If I to go the west-side of Houston, I find films from all over the world, French language, German, Russian; you name it. There are also a lot of documentaries, anime, and dramas. But in my red-neck of the woods, all I find is actioners and comedies, oh and more games for rent (which you won’t find in the east-end or north side at all) than anything else.

    So whether it is franchisee or company owned, the selection is skewed toward a demographic. Which, as I’ve contented, does not work any better than one person making a selection for a national chain.

  14. 14. Mike

    I sometimes use an independent bookstore (it carries both used and new books, which I like) and sometimes Amazon.

    I’m curious why some people say that browsing at Amazon isn’t possible. At a regular bookstore, I have to pick fiction based on title and cover, then read the first few pages. This isn’t much different than what I do on Amazon, but I have the benefit of reviews and user lists that may lead me from one book that I love to another. The problem, I suppose, is that not every book has that ‘look inside’ feature.

    I think the future is in e-books, but it bothers me to think that local economies will suffer and that bookshops may all disappear.

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Mike – I think the future’s in ebooks as well, but I’ll miss browsing in bookstores if that happens. And I don’t think you can browse as easily online as you can in person at a store. How does something catch your eye? Amazon’s suggestions? That’s never done it for me.

    What I like about a bookstore (or a library) is the fact you can just go down the stacks till you find something you like.

  16. 16. Booksforever

    Even with online stores, there are this who don’t shop online, or still prefer to walk in and browse, then buy local. This is unlikely to change, and even if there is a decrease in bricks and mortar stores for whatever reason, they will still be around, and thank fully so.

  17. 17. S.C. Butler

    Booksforever – Thankfully, indeed.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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