Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Copout; Question

I know I promised a meaty post today, but I'm still doing a bit of research for the one I want to write, and I also really, really, REALLY have to get some non-blog-related work done today. So in lieu, I'm asking all you smart book people a question.

Q: What is the future of bookselling?

Lots of media and industry types have sounded off on this, but I want to know what you, the folks in the trenches think. We've talked about what ought to happen, but now I want to know how you think it's really going to play out. How will bookselling venues evolve, including chains, superstores like Wal-Mart, independent stores, and the internet? Who will rise and who will fall? Are we headed toward increased corporatization or increased local independence? How are consumers' and readers' tastes changing or remaining constant? How will authors' roles evolve? What will independents need to do to stay viable? What will the next generation of booksellers be like? The next generation of readers? Authors? Publishers?

Tell me what you think in the comments. Be as vague or as specific or as optimistic or as angry as you want. I'll incorporate your thoughts into my next post, which will hopefully happen Friday. I'm sorry to take a day off, but this could be the perfect opportunity to get a broader view of your opinions on where we're all going.


Anonymous said...

Q: What is the future of bookselling?

When I first thought about this question, I believed that I would have answered this question differently in December than I would today. Until the end of December, I worked for a small trade publisher about 40 minutes outside of Washington, D.C. From that perspective, I would have said that independent booksellers and independent publishers will increasingly get absorbed by large corporate entities or put out of business by the same entities until few independents existed. Those existing indies (both booksellers and publishers) would survive because they speak to a very niche market, who hears, loves, supports, and respects them.

In January, I started a new job as a Marketing Coordinator for a trade association in Alexandria, VA. Daily, I see how our over 210,000 association members look to our association book store to provide them with the books they need for their jobs and business in general. This book store can succeed because we have built-in customers, who view as knowledgable purveyers of the books they need to keep up in their industry and do their jobs well. They want to buy from us because they trust us to provide them with the books they need, and they want to support their non-profit association.

I realized that both perspectives speak to the same possible future - the necessity of building a loyal and large customer base that lookes to your store as the best place to get the topic-specific books. How does a general bookstore build such a large amount of customers? I don't know. My association bookstore has built-in book buyers, but our association book store still has problems, and our sales aren't where they should be. I also think the store relies too much on getting co-op advertising money to generate store income.

I look forward to hearing what people think.

Anonymous said...

Exactly: The dedicated customer-base will always want to work with the expert bookseller. The greater the bookseller's expertise, the more devoted the specialty customer will be.

As to the general interest walk-in trade, the biggest question looming is whether Barnes & Noble will attempt to acquire Borders soon, and whether George W. Bush's antitrust enforcement will respond favorably to American Booksellers Association efforts to prevent such a merger.

Certainly today's announcement that in England, Waterstones will indeed take over Ottakar's provides no helpful precendent for keeping the industry at least a LITTLE bit decentralized on this side of the Atlantic. Especially with the rise of online bookselling, the Federal Trade Commission might rule that in the U.S. as in England, B&N and Borders as a combination will not be a monopoly (as they would surely have been judged as recently as the late 90s before Amazon and the other online sellers got as large as they are today.)

Anonymous said...

The below is all either warmed over conventional wisdom or half-baked, ill-informed speculation. But that's what blogs are for, right? Or the comments section, anyway.

-If anyone figures out how to get people accustomed to reading whole books on the screen, or if it just happens organically as successively more technophilic generations enter the marketplace and neanderthals die out, everybody's screwed. Especially booksellers. Maybe not publishers, but probably.

-Independents will continue to lose market share, and, as andy and jenny say, will be able to survive mostly as elite boutiques / niche specialty stores. But those that do it well, will thrive. I don't mean boutique necessarily as serving only the carriage trade, but just what the previous commenters are referring to: providing a distinctive service and selection to a dedicated audience, whether it's literati, scholars, activists, etc. etc. I think this only works well in cities, though, which seems to say some pretty depressing things about the future of indies in the country as a whole, given the demographics of exurbs and whatnot.

--Similarly, small presses will be able to thrive in a weeds-in-the-sidewalk kind of way, and to do much more interesting publishing than the biggies, but only if they are extraordinarily smart, focused, agile, thrifty and lucky at every step, from acquisitions to marketing to reprinting. It wouldn't hurt to be a non-profit, either.

-B&N (at least) will continue and expand their proprietary publishing program, picking the pockets of plenty o' pissed-off publishers. (Maybe this is an option for boutique-y independents, if the technology and the economics of scale could be worked out? I would pay for a really nice "Three Lives & Co." edition of, um, Three Lives...)

-Conversely, publishers will (very gingerly) start to sell more and more books direct to consumers. This will only happen in a major way when it becomes an economic necessity or the market changes in some fundamental way. But I wouldn't bet against it.

-Maybe there will be a reckoning between big agents and big publishers, some way of addressing the inflated advances that are at least partially responsible for so many of the bad things in the book world (including the plight of the midlist/literary author and the marginalization of independents). On the other hand, probably not.

Anonymous said...

I'm a booklover, mother of three young children and an attorney. I want to consider all these three aspects in my comment to this question. To me personally, physically browsing in a bookstore is my single most favorite shopping experience. To be honest, I personally hate shopping, except for books. There is nothing like holding a book in your hand and flipping through pages, underlining meaningful lines, enjoying vivid photos, illustrations, a beautiful cover, etc.

As a lawyer, all my legal research is done over the computer these days. I wouldn't even think of using the printed codes and annotated case law books, just not time efficient. It's the difference between enjoyment and work. I personally cannot see the need to continue to publish large legal research books that are now available on the computer.

As a mother, I wish for my children to develop a love of books over computers, hard in this day and age, but I keep trying. I want them to love the feel of the book, the smell of the fresh pages, the experience of curling up whereever you may be and enjoying a good book. I think young kids naturally love books and it is up to parents and teachers to foster this love into adulthood. If this is done, then I can only assume and hope that the printed book will continue to grow a devoted readership that will savor the physical pleasure that one can only get from an actual book.

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