Monday, June 05, 2006

Comment: The Future of Bookselling: This I (and You) Believe

(Reader beware: this is a really long one.)

Before I get to what you've said, I want to mention what's being said elsewhere. I promise I didn't plan this timing, but today's editions of The New York Times and Shelf Awareness both have pieces that pertain exactly to the subject(s) of today's posts. "Digital Publishing is Scrambling the Industry's Rules," trumpets the Times, but it's less about e-books than about first chapters posted online, reader talkback on author websites, and a couple of convergence projects combining print and digital mediums. There's the requisite acknowledgement that John Updike is horrified by all this (I missed his speech at BEA, and I can't say I'm terribly sorry), along with some other, more equivocal voices from authors and others in publishing about the potential implications. No booksellers or mention of the effect of this stuff on the means of distribution, but the article is relevant nonetheless.

And almost every piece in Shelf Awareness today seems relevant to me: the civic joy over the expansion of the Tattered Cover in Denver; a piece about the rise of indie wine shops despite the availability of wine at Wal-Mart (because "People come to a wine shop for personality and service. They would much rather look someone in the eye and trust somebody--and laugh with somebody"); a link to a newspaper editorial calling for book buyers to "vote with our pocketbooks"; a meeting of a Vermont-wide local independent business alliance; and this comment from a business school professor about Powell's Books founder Michael Powell: "I'm not sure what the next big thing is, but [Powell] has been involved in several very major big things so far and has made out . . . with really striking efficacy."

So what the heck am I talking about – how are all of these things related? As Andy Laties slyly pointed out, my list of think-questions in the last post "looks like a page of notes to yourself in preparation for the writing of a book proposal." He's right, of course – they were leading questions, which I've been thinking about and answering for myself, and I think they all have to do with the question I posed to all of you:

What is the future of bookselling?

You responded, naturally, with a range of predictions and opinions, and I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find you less optimistic than I would have hoped. The sentiment "independent booksellers and independent publishers will increasingly get absorbed by large corporate entities or put out of business by the same entities … Those existing indies (both booksellers and publishers) would survive because they speak to a very niche market, who hears, loves, supports, and respects them" was a representative one, expressing the idea that indies will survive only insofar as they find niche markets.

This was extended to "Independents will continue to lose market share, and… will be able to survive mostly as elite boutiques / niche specialty stores… 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."

Other dire predictions for bookstores: "publishers will… start to sell more and more books direct to consumers," "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," and "I personally cannot see the need to continue to publish large legal research books that are now available on the computer" (a comment that speaks to the struggles of university stores in particular). Yep, there are certainly a growing number of alternatives to buying a book in a bricks-and-mortar, independent, locally-owned bookstore, and things could just get worse.

But there was also some fierce, if wary, optimism to be found in your comments. Way back on that May 24 post, you said "I personally believe there's room for booksellers big and small in the marketplace…The book industry as a whole needs to step up the pace with the ever changing and growing world of the internet but not neglect the brick 'n' motar shops. It's a tricky balance but it can be done."

You booksellers said: "We lost all those storefronts BEFORE the rise of online bookselling, and with the rise of a new generation of storefront indie booksellers, people will cut back on their internet bookbuying and spend more time out hobnobbing with neighbors in all the swell new indie bookstores." And "indies are finally figuring out that… trying to replicate the Big Corporate Bookselling model on a smaller scale is a waste of time, effort, and money…Don't be afraid to be an INDEPENDENT BRICKS-AND-MORTAR BOOKSTORE. It's a ton of work, but there's no better way to spend a lifetime."

You consumers and readers said "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." And "I feel like where I spend my money these days is just as important, if not more so, as who and what I vote for. And I want to cast my "money vote" for people who are passionate about what they do, who are interested in the world around them, and who consider how they affect change in the world."

You publishers [if this is the Ben I think it is] said "indies can narrowcast to their customers, and if the current conventional wisdom about the coming fragmentation/segmentation of media and cultural taste is right, narrowcasting is the future. Indies can't offer every option under the sun, like a cable system or a superstore, but they can offer you, specifically, what you want -- and better than anyone else. "

Hell yeah.

So here's what I have to add. I asked about Local First, Slow Food and organic movements because I think all of these trends are symptoms of a widespread dissatisfaction with the mass-produced, executive-board-run, corporate, impersonal, huge scale economy and culture that has been on the rise in the United States maybe since the industrial revolution. It's a big claim to make, but I think the tide is turning, at least in some places and to some degree. That doesn't mean we're all going to go back to farming, but it means that a lot of people are realizing that not every kind of "rationalization" is actually good for business or for humanity, that we can be progressive technologically AND progressive ethically and socially, that we can think big and stay small. I don't think Barnes & Noble, Borders or Amazon are to blame for the ills of society; in fact, I think they can serve a valuable function in getting books to underserved markets. But if I can quote my favorite silly White Stripes song:

"Well you're in your little room
And you're workin' on somethin' good
But if it's really good
You're gonna need a bigger room
And when you're in the bigger room
You might not know what to do
You might have to think of
How you got started
Sittin' in your little room"

We're all in the process of thinking back to how we got started, taking our really good big thing and remembering what makes it good.

This doesn't mean independent bookstores should be an attempt to freeze time, or go back to some idealized past. As the comment about Mr. Powell shows, indies have the potential to be right in the thick of the next big thing. Independent presses like Kelly Link's Small Beer Press are finding that publishing portions of books for free online doesn't hurt their sales, it builds word of mouth. Independent bookstores like Atomic Books in Baltimore are finding that for their market, having a website with a daily blog and all their inventory for sale online is very attractive to their customers, and keeps them coming in to the brick-and-mortar store. McNally Robinson in New York was the first bookstore to stage a remote author event using the LongPen technology (it didn't work very well, but it was interesting). Those in the book industry who treat new technologies and ways of reading not as threats, but as opportunities, will be the ones who will carry literacy into the future, in whatever form it takes.

There's an author quoted at the end of the Times article about the futility of positing ourselves as the defenders of civilization, barring the gates against the barbarians; his contention is that the barbarians will burn us to the ground and "put a parking lot over [our] sacred grounds." I'd agree with his warning, though not with his prediction. I think, as tends to happen in even the bloodiest of cultural clashes, the barbarians will inherit some of the old civilization's values and achievements, and the old guard will pick up some of the barbarians' new insights and skills, until it's hard to tell the difference between defender and barbarian, and some newer, stronger thing will continue to go forward drawing from the contributions of each.

Lastly, I think it's ultimately a silly question that I've asked, because the future of bookselling in New York City is probably not the same as its future in Fargo, or San Diego, or Istanbul, or even upstate New York. Similar issues will play out in different ways depending on local demographics and the personalities who get involved, and we'll win some and we'll lose some.

For me, the future of bookselling looks like a medium-to-large general independent bookstore in a frontier neighborhood in Brooklyn. It looks like a place that serves white, African-American, and Latino communities, kids and adults and families and singles, literary readers and pop readers, rich people and poor people and middle-class people, and that remains super sensitive to what its customers ask for and need, while continuing to carry what its booksellers think is wonderful and worthwhile. It looks like a place that understands that what's valuable about a brick-and-mortar store isn't just the ink-and-paper books, it's the one-on-one human interaction, and trains its employees accordingly, and makes itself a resource for the community accordingly. It looks like a place that creates events that emphasize not only authors of new books by major houses, but self-published authors, not-yet-published authors, even long-dead authors, and offers the wondrous, exuberant, real-time, real-people appeal of a carnival. It looks like a place that mentors the next generation, that is eager to embrace new possibilities while retaining all that is valuable from the tradition which created it. It looks like something that, with luck and flexibility and a lifetime of work, might last forever.

Okay, I'm a starry-eyed, bull-headed optimist. But I think we make the future by predicting it. And all I can really predict about the future of bookselling is that I'll be doing it, whatever it looks like.

Feel free to comment if you feel so moved. I imagine you and I have a lot more to say on this subject, and it will continue to get said in the posts to come. Wednesday I want to move on to another aspect of the future of bookselling: the Emerging Leaders Project.