Thursday, November 4, 2010

World of Tomorrow Week, Part 4 of 4: The Independent Renaissance

Part four of four, meine Autoren! Without further ado—

A Little History

For those who don't remember (though I suspect many of you do), before the late 1970s, independent stores were the primary retailers of books. Where chains (such as Walden Books or B. Dalton) existed, they were mall operations that generally didn't stock a large number of titles; for used, rare, or non-commercial books, independent stores were the way to go.

The '70s saw the purchase of Barnes & Noble by Len Riggio, however, and within a decade he had converted the company into a retail chain. Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1987, and by the 1990s, Barnes & Noble was the largest book retailer in the United States. Borders Books (which now, more often than not, is accompanied in print mentions by the adjective "beleaguered") evolved more or less contemporaneously, acquiring Walden after itself being acquired by K-Mart.

All this to say: by the 1990s, independent stores had lost their dominance in the market and were being replaced left and right by outlets of the rapidly expanding book store chains. The chains could offer title selections and deep discounts that the indies couldn't, and as a result, the number of independent booksellers has decreased by over 60% over the past twenty years.

On average, that's an independent book store closing every two days.

The Rise of On-Line Retailing

Granted, on-line retailers like Amazon didn't exactly help the situation. Although Amazon didn't become the monolithic book retailer it is today until the early 2000s, the convenience of on-line shopping and deep discounts similar to those offered by the brick-and-mortar chains (not to mention great deals on shipping and, later, aggressive bestseller and e-book pricing) set the stage for phenomenal growth. They are now the largest book retailer in the world and the largest on-line retailer in the United States.

Needless to say, the combination of lower prices, greater selection, and increased convenience offered by chain book stores and on-line retailers took a significant bite out of independent booksellers' bottom lines. Many closed; others contracted. Several that had planned to invest in their businesses by opening additional locations were unable to do so.

The Fall of the Chains

As I mentioned yesterday, right now I'm predicting that the major brick-and-mortar chains will, without significant reallocation of their business to the Internet, be all but gone within a decade. The decrease in physical print runs coupled with the increasing cost of warehousing, shipping, and rent for physical storefronts has already caused store closures for both Borders and Barnes & Noble. As e-books replace physical copies as the go-to format for mass production and consumption, the sprawling physical presence of brick-and-mortar chain retailers will become unnecessary and unsustainable. That is to say: easy come, easy go.

While some think that this will lead to the complete domination of the market by electronic retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble's .com operation, I think that consumer demand for physical books (albeit reduced) will remain strong, and physical store locations offering in-person browsing, readings, community events, book signings, and immediate access to used/rare books will ensure the survival of independent book stores. Moreover—if they play their cards right and participate as much as possible in the new media and formats—they could see something of a renaissance.

The Independent Renaissance

Again, as mentioned yesterday (and above), I think independent book stores offer experiences and benefits that are simply unavailable from e-retailers like Amazon. Amazon cannot host authors for readings or signings; it cannot function as a community center; it cannot grant you a quiet space to read or meet friends for coffee.

As the economy begins to recover and the e-revolution continues, I think it's pretty unavoidable that 1.) the chains will continue to close underperforming stores, 2.) existing indepedent book stores will begin to see their sales recover, and 3.) more money will be available for the creation of new small businesses (indie booksellers included).

Beyond this, however, independent stores can take advantage of social networking sites (like Twitter), electronic ordering systems for quick acquisition of new titles from publishers (instead of relying on paper catalogs), and potentially even in-house distribution of POD titles and e-books. This goes back to my theory that, over the next ten years, the industry will see a lot of consolidation; I see no reason why indies can't offer e-books as well as the age-old experience of browsing physical shelves.

The independent book store of tomorrow will be able to cheaply print copies of books that it doesn't have in stock, will be able to offer access to e-books, will promote local authors and host events, and will actively participate in on-line discussions about literature via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. They will adapt to changes in culture and technology, and they will continue to be relevant so long as reading remains relevant.

And despite all the doom and gloom surrounding this industry, remember: reading has been relevant for thousands of years, mes auteurs. That's not about to change anytime soon.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the history lesson - it helps to put it in context of the changes going on today in the publishing industry.

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  2. And then, the very day after the last paper book has been digitized and all knowledge has been converted to bits and bytes, a massive solar storm will erupt and fry the electric grid, destroying our beloved e-content (or otherwise rendering it inaccessible).

    Quick, someone write a book about the fall of the second Great Library...before it's too late.

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  3. @Eric: While I agree that independent bookstores have a greater chance for long-term sustainability than B&N or Borders, I do not see the renaissance you do. More like one bookstore in a large town or small city--at best--and only a few destination bookstores in large metropolises. Like so many markets that can no longer support the cost of a storefront, the most successful independent stores will also offer online alternatives to increase their sales reach.

    For the average consumer, though, places like amazon.com will continue to be a more convenient and affordable solution, allowing independent bookstores to use the brick and mortar collapse to arrest their own decline but not reverse it.

    @Rick: Don't worry about it. Such a storm would take us with it. There won't be anyone around to read the books that survive.

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  4. The independent bookstores have one White Knight on their side you failed to mention, Eric. Google. If the Google editions ever do arrive they plan to set it up so your local independent bookstore can compete on the web.

    What annoys the heck out of me is the idea that the e-book is not a book. That if it is not on paper it is the end of reading. What a crock. A book is a collection of words that tells a story (fiction or non-fiction). E-book is just another format of the book. Your history of the book business shows the change the industry has survived in the last forty years. Remember how the MM (mass paperback) changed the book industry? Heck, even before my time, remember how the printing press changed the book industry? Remember the Patron system that existed in the 16th-18th centuries as how the author got paid?

    Change is happening every day. Reading will last as long as humans do, words will survive all formats, publishers, booksellers, and probably the reader.

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  5. Eric - these have been awesome posts and very insightful. Please put them as a permanent link in your sidebar for easy future reference.

    The news was as bleak in the 1960's when catalog shopping was heralding death to retail stores and malls. I do agree things will change in book world but ultimately it is a retail business and when the end customer is the focus, retail can thrive.

    I just wanted to make that point in case it wasn't made in all the comments.

    Publishing is an industry and at the moment it seems the human being who reads is forgotten in the chaos. It is always the end/final customer who will make/break/transform whatever process a retail business presents.

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  6. To quote Bob Mayer from a workshop he gave at the Emerald City Writers Conference:

    "Nobody knows what's happening in publishing, but it's happening FAST."

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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