An American Editor

November 28, 2011

The Indie Bookstore in the Amazon Age

All the news that is fit to print about indie bookstores can generally be summarized this way: they are closing faster than a shark feeding frenzy. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but the demise of the indie bookstore is on everyone’s lips.

The questions are why are they dying out and what can be done to halt their death march? As to why, I don’t think we need spend much time on the question. Fewer Americans want to either pay more for local availability or want to patronize a local bookstore. What they are becoming accustomed to is huge selection and lower pricing without leaving home — the online bookseller. Another problem for indies is the trend toward ebooks. Their online competitors have them and they do not, or if they do have them, they are not as cheaply priced as their online competitors. It is just a matter of economics.

I grant, however, that the loss of indie bookstores is another nail in the coffin of Americana. It is pretty difficult to call Amazon on the telephone and discuss the merits/demerits of a book selection with a knowledgeable bookseller. But Amazon is doing to the indie bookstores what Walmart did to mom-and-pop Main Street, and while many of us lament the demise of mom-and-pop Main Street, we are also the first to shop online and the last to buy on Main Street.

Yet indie bookstores can and should fight back. Although books are entertainment — few people would call a Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh book an educational bromide — they are also the source of knowledge and we continue to need help in picking through the detritus for the gem.

I have been thinking about what indie bookstores can do to fight back. I’m not sure they can ever compete on price unless book publishers, especially the Agency 6, are willing to give special help, but there are things that they can do.

First, if your local pizzeria can offer free delivery, why can’t your local indie store — or if there is more than one local indie store, why can’t they band together to offer free local delivery? Amazon’s delivery is quick but indie delivery could be quicker, and we all know how unwilling we are to wait. This seems a minor customer service that could quickly and inexpensively be implemented.

Second, consider making the local populace a partner in the store. If the store is not already a corporation, make it one. Then create a nonvoting class of stock, a preferred stock, that entitle the owner to share in dividends on a preferential basis. Give 1 share of stock for every $250 in purchases (the dollar amount could be higher or lower). Give the local book-buying public a direct stake in your success. Think about parents who would see this as a good way to introduce their children to capitalism and stock ownership.

Third, create a special members-only club. Amazon tries to do this with its Prime and Barnes & Noble with its membership, and even some indies have their clubs — but none of them are really special. What is so special about Amazon’s Prime? Nothing. Make this club special. Club members with young children can use the premises for birthday party with the bookstore staff doing the work; major holidays have special get-togethers; have a biweekly restaurant-of-the-month get-together for adult members where they come to the store and for a steep discount are cooked a special meal by a local restaurant and get to learn how to make the dishes as well as eat them; have audience participation mystery plays bimonthly. The ideas are almost endless. The point is, make the membership more than a discount membership; make it something to look forward to and you can even theme the parties around certain books.

Fourth, come to an arrangement with other local indies whereby if someone is looking for a particular book and you do not have it in stock but your competitor does, your competitor will give you the book so you can make the sale subject to a small fee and your ordering a replacement. This will expand your inventory.

Fifth, make it a point for you and your staff to comb places like Smashwords for indie authors who are self-publishing. When you find a good one, contact the author and see if you can’t cut a deal with the author to write a book that will only be available to indie bookstores, that you can use to draw people in. This is more difficult to do than the other ideas but if you can create a catalog of indie books that are available only through indie stores, you are at least fighting back against Amazon exclusivity.

Sixth, as part of finding indie authors, you need to figure out a way to offer ebooks and print-on-demand pbooks for those who only buy one or the other format. The Espresso machine is expensive, but why not join with several other indies to buy one that you can share? Or why not talk to a local print shop and see if you can work something out with them.

Seventh, create an Indie Book Mall where several indie bookstores can share the space. This type of arrangement is often done by antiques and collectibles dealers and I see no reason why it couldn’t be done by indie bookstores. It would create a shopping “destination,” which seems to be something consumers like. Some of the advantages to doing this include the ability to share fixed expenses (e.g., rent, heat, electric) and it would allow each indie to have an area of concentration rather than be required to have such a general focus that each is a full replica of any other. It would also facilitate some of the earler suggestions. Additionally, this is the kind of project that would fit right in with Main Street renewal projects and could enable a group purchase of the real estate or low rent from cities trying to draw busiensses and people back to the Main Street. Something like this could also be done in conjunction with a struggling local library system, something I proposed nearly 2 years ago in A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age.

I’m sure that others can add to this list, but it is clear to me that indie bookstores can fight back. Imagination and effort are the keys. The Internet Age has isolated more of us; we tend to do less socialization because we are working by ourselves. The indie bookstore could become our new socialization venue with some effort.

At least it is something to think about.

July 19, 2010

Repurposing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in the eBook Age

The consensus among the ebook seers is that in not too many years brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores will cease to exist — all book sales will be online or wireless.

If B&M bookstores continue to look and act as they currently do, I think the seers may eventually be proved right. To save B&M bookstores, and possibly even traditional publishers, the bookstores need to be repurposed in the eBook Age. They not only need to be repurposed, but they need to change how they generate revenue.

I think it is safe to say that we are several decades away from an ebook-only world, assuming we ever reach that point. I believe we will never see a truly ebook-only world; pbooks will always be around, even if just as antiquarian throwbacks for social trendsetters. As I’ve noted before (see The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age), I think pbooks will retain significant value to a significant segment of the book-buying and -reading public, especially among scholars (see, e.g., eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite and Can eBooks Save University Presses?).

There is also another consideration. When the next Stephen King novel is about to be published, everyone knows about it — the B&M store is simply a conduit for getting the book to the reader. But the same isn’t true when the next Shayne Parkinson novel becomes available (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept for a review of her excellent series) nor is there an easy way to keep up with new releases of university press books, and these books — university press and independent authors — deserve the same exposure as the James Patterson books and need that exposure more than James Patterson books.

Repurposing of the B&M bookstore may be the way to aid independent authors, university presses, and small traditional publishers in the eBook Age.

Today’s B&M bookstores are blockbuster oriented and oriented toward the major traditional publishers. Except for local independent authors, indie authors and presses are not heavily stocked, and for good economic reason: they simply do not sell well enough to support the expenses of the B&M store. Perhaps instead of being corporate America bookstores, a cooperative of indie authors, indie presses, university presses, and smaller traditional publishers who currently struggle for bookstore shelving should be created to run B&M bookstores.

But if the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders chains are struggling, how can such a cooperative succeed? One way would be to act as fronts for print-on-demand (POD) pbooks and as a gateway to ebooks.

Yet this doesn’t address the new thinking that is required for indie bookstores to remain alive in the Internet age. Perhaps the answer lies in the creativity being shown by BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (see “At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off Page”) and imitated by indie bookstores in Decatur, GA, and Brooklyn, NY. Although the idea focuses on a camping experience that involves using imagination and role-playing based on popular children’s books, there is no reason the options can’t be expanded. BookPeople’s Camp Half-Blood (based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) had 450 available slots — and all slots were sold out within 90 minutes. Brownstone Books’ (Brooklyn, NY) Camp Half-Blood charges $375 per week for its Camp Half-Blood.

Using imagination is only a start. Perhaps indie bookstores could also become afterschool care centers for children or run tutorial programs. Let books become a partner in the enterprise rather than the dominant purpose of the enterprise. Doing so would give indie bookstores a new life and make them relevant again in the eBook Age.

If the indie bookstores banded together under a single associative umbrella, they could easily tap the creative talent of hundreds of bookstore owners and employees across the country and develop these competitive models that would repurpose the B&M bookstore and extend their lives significantly. But closer cooperation, which is the key, I think, to survival is tough to come by: people own their own businesses because they want to be wholly independent and it is difficult to think about giving up some control. I do not think another trade association is the answer; I think what is needed is a mix between the rigid top-down governance enforced by say a B&N corporate-structure chain and a franchisee relationship. Indie bookstores need to maintain individual character yet they also need to band more closely together if they intend to survive the eBook Age.

The true test will be whether indie bookstores, indie authors, and indie/university presses are willing to band together and whether they will cede some control in exchange for a future. If they are so willing, it will be beneficial to all book lovers as well as to the indies themselves. Although the creative ideas of indie bookstores like BookPeople can provide a small shot in the arm, I think there is a need to broaden the creativity pool. One idea — no matter how good it is — will not save the indies.

June 23, 2010

Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting?

I know the article title is a bit odd, especially having been written by a booklover, but the question has been bothering me the past several weeks.

In the past, I went to my local Barnes & Noble at least once a week, sometimes more often, and always walked out with 1 new book and often 2 or 3. But for the past couple of months I have had no desire to visit the store and the one time I did, I bought 2 books rather than the 5 I had originally picked up (i.e., I put 3 back on the shelf after first having decided to buy them). Even more telling, however, was that I had gone to the B&N only because my wife needed to pickup some B&N gift cards for neighborhood children; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone at all. And even more telling was that in the past I loved to browse the shelves looking for books; this trip I was impatient to leave.

I’m not buying fewer books; in fact, since I was given my Sony 505 Reader 2.5 years ago, I’m buying more books than ever. But what has changed in my buying habits is the number of fiction books I am buying — from a handful each year pre-Sony 505 to hundreds each year post-Sony 505 — and how I am obtaining them.

As those of you who have followed my On Today’s Bookshelf posts (On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III)) know, I still buy quite a few nonfiction hardcover pbooks. But whereas before I would largely find them by browsing the bookstore bookshelves, I am increasingly discovering them through ads and reviews in The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the book review sections of various magazines to which I subscribe, such as The Atlantic and Smithsonian. If I read a review of a book that intrigues me or see an ad for one, I simply go online and order the book.

Fiction books, however, follow a different trajectory. For those few authors whose new books I buy in hardcover (e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, Terry Brooks), I go to an online site, check the coming soon category for these authors, and preorder the books. For those fiction authors whose books I do not buy in hardcover, the process excludes the brick-and-mortar bookstore because these aren’t authors I am likely to find on the shelves — they are independent authors. And the largest growth area in published books is books by independent authors whose books are only available online.

I discover independent authors via online forums like MobileRead and by looking through the multiformat section at Fictionwise and Smashwords. At Fictionwise, I wait for the big sales because I am unwilling to spend too much money on an unknown author; I usually get to Smashwords via a recommendation at MobileRead and often with a discount coupon.

But even then independent authors are losing out — at least as far as my buying goes — because I simply do not have the patience to sift through lists of books. Neither Fictionwise nor Smashwords makes it very easy to scroll through their offerings. There is no way to stop for the day, return tomorrow, and pickup where I left off — I am forced to start from the beginning of the list yet again, which rapidly becomes tiresome. And it doesn’t help when what I see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller frustrations.)

The brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstore suffers from an inability to compete either in price or selection. Independent authors are increasingly (or so it seems) pricing their ebooks at $2.99 or less. Knowing this makes me reluctant to try a new author I find at the B&M bookstore; it is one thing to gamble $2.99 on an unknown author and quite another to spend $12.99 or more.

So what is there to attract me to the B&M bookstore? As each week passes, I find it a greater struggle to want to go to the B&M bookstore. I’m not interested in the pastries and coffee; I rarely ever peruse the magazines; I can buy the same books online for less (in Barnes & Noble’s case, its online bookstore undercuts its physical stores on pricing so why buy at the B&M version?).

Are ebooks quickly making B&M bookstores uninteresting destinations? In my case, yes, because there is little incentive to shop at the B&M store, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, the online ebooksellers aren’t making their sites must-go-to destinations either. I think there can be a great future for B&M bookstores, just not in their current guise. I’m not sure what guise they need to undertake, but it is certain that they do need to make the experience an interesting one and they must become must-go-to destinations.

February 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age

Recent posts on some blogs and forums I visit have questioned the future viability of libraries in the future ebook world. These got me thinking about libraries and independent bookstores.

I think libraries are the repositories of knowledge; it would be tragic if they disappeared, removing a fantastic resource for learning and knowledge. Libraries are a great way to introduce children to the wonders of books and reading. When my children were young, library visits were a weekly excursion and I expect to repeat the same with my grandchildren.

But now libraries — and independent bookstores — face a threat of extinction through the growth of ebooks. I admit that my power in Washington is nil and that getting Congress to do anything to protect libraries in the digital age is beyond my abilities. So, instead, I’m offering a modest proposal that, hopefully, doesn’t take an act of overpaid politicians to accomplish. I admit that the idea is in the germinal stage, but I also think it’s one worth exploring.

I modestly propose that libraries and independent bookstores combine and create a new entity that I’ll call the Lindie for want of better imagination (shall we hold a contest for a better name?).

Currently, many communities have at least one large building dedicated to the local library. If there is an independent bookstore in the community, it usually is a very small affair and in precarious financial condition.

As things are presently constructed, libraries and indies work against each other’s best interests. Indies want to discourage readers from borrowing, preferring that they buy, and libraries want to encourage borrowing. Additionally, indies have to fight against online booksellers, the growing ebook market, and the chain bookstores — very daunting tasks. Libraries have to deal with declining numbers of readers.

But what if my local library became a book mall, a Lindie, a place where I can both borrow and buy? I would readily give up visits to Barnes & Noble and online book buying, and if not give up entirely, at least significantly reduce those visits and buying. The Lindie would be my choice for one-stop shopping for the reader.

No indie bookstore can carry on its shelves the variety of books that the library can; they simply can’t afford to. Many indie bookstores supplement their current books with “antiquarian” and specialty offerings. Think about a reader browsing the library shelves and then wandering over to the  in-library bookseller and buying a print or ebook version.

The indie bookstore would pay a rental income and perhaps a percentage of sales to the library, thereby helping the library fund its own purchases. The library would provide the shelf material, the inventory so to speak, for the bookseller. More importantly, the combined resources of the Lindie could enable the purchase or lease of an Espresso-type machine (the one that prints books to order, not the coffee type). Currently, this is cost prohibitive for most small indie bookstores.

Someone who read a borrowed book and really liked it or wanted to give it as a gift to a relative or friend could get a copy printed at a discount or purchase an ebook version on the spot. And because of lower business costs, the indie bookstore would be better able to compete against Amazon and B&N by offering  a comparable discount and still make money.

Suppose the indie had a book that someone was looking to read but didn’t want to buy and which was missing from the library’s collection. Why not have a system where the indie supplemented the library’s lending collection? Perhaps by directly lending for a fee or by allowing the library to “lease” the book on behalf of the borrower.

And don’t forget the marketing capabilities. Think about combined marketing and advertising, especially around holidays.

But, you ask, how does this help the library in the age of ebooks? By providing funds to the library to purchase and expand their pbook and ebook offerings, by offering a single place for book lovers to go and thus increasing lending, which is often the basis for financing, and by giving libraries a source of revenue they currently do not have. For the indies, the advantages are lower costs and a better ability to compete.

One other advantage to indies and libraries is that many libraries have community rooms, places to hold readings, signings, children’s activities, senior meetings, and the like. The indies could sponsor more community events to draw in community members and the libraries could offer those events at minimal to no cost it.

By turning into a book mall where one can both borrow and buy books in either ebook or pbook form, the Lindie offers a way to save two endangered species: the local library and the local bookstore. It’s a win-win, I think.

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