Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Good bookselling, good reporting

One of my oft-lamented pet peeves is the recurrence of media stories about books and independent bookstores that tell the same old story: indie bookstores are a dying breed, reading is the victim of new technologies, etc. So I must give credit where credit is due to two pieces of journalism today that present a more nuanced picture of the world of books and bookstores.

Via Publishers Weekly, here's an LA Times piece on the uncertain future of the fabulous and venerable Hollywood bookstore Book Soup, after the too-young, too-soon death of its founder Glen Goldman. Even with this somber starting point, the LAT piece offers the most balanced and realistic picture of the actual business of bookstores that I've read in a national newspaper. Here's a sample:
In recent decades, independent bookstores have become endangered, closing as chain stores move into their neighborhoods and market share is gobbled up by online booksellers such as Amazon .com. Some, like Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, closed when the cost of real estate (usually rented, rarely owned) swamped small (though reliable) profit margins.

Yet believe it or not, independent bookstores, carefully run by those rare individuals who are both "book people" and "businesspeople," are often profitable -- meaning that you can make a living, pay a few employees and work reasonable hours.

Contrast this with the dire reports of Borders teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, or Barnes & Noble's reported $172-million loss at the end of the third quarter last year. To hear the chain executives talk, you'd think people had stopped reading altogether.

People have not stopped reading. The problem, most bookstore owners and publishers will tell you, is a distribution system that caters heavily to chains and wholesalers like Wal-Mart.

When the economy founders, big stores, with their hierarchical policies enacted miles from where the books are sold, have a harder time responding in a flexible way.

According to manager Tyson Cornell, Book Soup did "very well" last year. So did Los Feliz independent Skylight Books, which recently expanded from 2,000 to 3,100 square feet.

I suspect that Tyson and the other great booksellers at Book Soup will find a way to a future despite the terrible loss of Goldman. And it's good to see the newspaper with an open-eyed pictures of their strengths as well as their challenges.

Also today in Shelf Awareness, Robert Gray writes about the issue of technology and books. The best part is the link to his previous column, where he quotes extensively from Stephanie Anderson, inspiring Emerging Leader-type bookseller (and soon to be Brooklynite). Here's what Stephanie, who comes from a very traditional bookstore, has to say about the boogeyman of e-books:

"If there isn't a place for e-books in the indie store retail future, there isn't an indie store retail future. I like your Genius Bar example [i.e. asking whether bookstores can work with the Apple store model of expert help]. That is always what I've envisioned--you handsell the book and then the customer sets their e-reader into the dock, pays you, downloads the book, and leaves. It's important for indie booksellers to look at this as an opportunity, not, groan, another thing to add to an already busy day. As I see it, once most books are available in e-book form, and presumably stored on someone else's server and accessible through the Internet, the so-called advantage that chain and online bookstores have in terms of number of titles available just disappears. Everyone is on a level field now--except that we still have the advantages we've always had, like solid customer service/hospitality, staff who read books and handsell well, etc."

Kudos to Robert and Stephanie for thinking forward on this one, rather than trying to resist the developments that are coming.

And in what turned out to be her last online column for Publishers Weekly, editor in chief Sara Nelson expressed her trademark responsible optimism about the industry to which she's devoted herself. For example:

In other words, while everything suggests that the road ahead is going to be rocky, like many others in BookLand, we're still on our feet—and moving forward—because we're still passionate about what we do. We're real readers, we care, and even though many of us have spent our lives swimming around in the publishing pond, we still get excited at the sight of a mail delivery that contains padded envelopes filled with books. And publishing is all about passion: in the people that make books and the people who will still, always, continue to read them.
I was saddened to hear that Nelson had been let go from PW, as she's been a very visible face and voice for the book industry, someone who paid attention and listened and expressed well-informed opinions in the magazine as well as in panels, news sound bytes, and anywhere else there was something to be said about books. I hope she'll find another platform to speak from, and I'm grateful for her words.

Let's hear it for "those rare individuals who are both "book people" and "businesspeople,"" the ones who make books and bookstores viable now and in the future.