Bookstores Still Matter: A discussion on how to keep them around.

*There is an addendum from 8/31/2016 at the end of this post

I was saddened to read that the only bookstore in Mount Shasta is closing.  This is particularly troublesome given that Mt. Shasta was recently voted one of the best places for progressives, aka Best Hippie City For Stressed-Out Progressives in 2016 by reverbpress.com. There is an irony here, that a place where you would think that people care enough about local economy and about books, can’t support a bookstore.

Do bookstores still matter? Or, should we all just buy our books online and at big box stores? Obviously, from my perspective the question is rhetorical.

Bookstores do still matter. There has been a lot written on this over thbookstoree years, as bookstores close, as Amazon continues its dominance–even over the publishing industry, as Borders closed its doors. While many lament the changes and demise, few tangible suggestions arise. I have seen naive suggestions that more author events would help. Really, then why is it that most author events get one or two people to show up? I have seen suggestions that this is all about customer service. Really? I doubt that was the issue with Village Books in Mount Shasta.

No, the issue is more complex and not easy to “solve.” Bookstores, like the publishing industry, are slow to change and rely on ancient models. What other industry has a model where the retailer gets to return the product sitting on the shelves if it doesn’t sell. It’s not even a consignment model. At least with consignment the owner of the product gets to set the price. Amazon’s eBook model for self publishing is more of a consignment model–and Amazon only really went that route because of pressure from Apple (who then paid the price of lawsuits).

I certainly can’t discuss all the issues, but I will touch on a few that strike me.

  • People don’t read (books) anymore
  • Price drives everything
  • People are lazy: top lists dominate the market
  • eBooks
  • Community
  • Malls
  • Publishing model(s)
  • Libraries
  • Newspapers
  • Time

People don’t read (books) anymore

Steve Jobs famously said (in 2008) that the Kindle would fail because no one reads anymore. Well, he was both right and wrong. His statistics were correct. Only about 40% of the U.S. reads even ONE book per year. That really hasn’t changed since his quote. So why was he wrong about the Kindle (and why did he jump in on readers with the Apple ecosystem)? Because it’s not just about reading. Its also about wanting to read and about other things. Bookstores need to be about other things also. Amazon uses the concept of “spinning the flywheel.”  The concept was popularized by Jim Collins in a book (yes, some books are read) called Good to Great.   The Kindle was not meant to be successful all by itself, but rather latch on to the flywheel that is the Amazon base strategy. I won’t go into too much on Amazon’s thinking right now, despite having worked there and observing a bit how they work and think. Suffice to say that even the low readership of the U.S. (which is quite low for industrialized nations) is still enough to support a modest number of bookstores.

Bookstores need to change their own model so that selling books is only part of their business. Selling books helps spin their flywheel, but is not the only aspect of it. This is really tough. It is not cheap. I don’t have all the answers.  I could propose a number of possible solutions, but I’ll hold off for now. Bottom line is that we (the U.S.) don’t read enough and it is not getting better, but it is probably not getting a whole lot worse. I don’t think any individual bookstore is going to get more people to read (well maybe Amazon could, if they wanted to). Rather look at the environment and figure out how to succeed. It hasn’t really changed (reading) since 2008.

Price drives everything

Let’s face it. We are all hypocrites.  We decry the demise of many things–made in America, quality, Walmart, etc.–but we vote with our purchasing power and we tend to focus on one thing. Price. I have talked to authors who decry the demise of bookstores and the lousy advances from their publisher. When pressed, they admit that they buy their own books from Amazon. It will ALWAYS have the lowest price. Why? Because they know that having you always come to them spins their flywheel. You’ll use them for their book reviews.  You’ll use them for browsing for merchandise. You’ll go Amazon Prime (a huge win for Amazon). The brick and mortar store can NEVER win on price.  We know it. They know it. Publishers know it.

Get creative. Know your community (see below). Shape your community. Get community support. Create a community. Go niche. Be more than a bookstore. Make sure you have the money to build it right.

Much of what I am going to say is cliche amongst independent booksellers, but I’ll repeat it again and add that part of it is the magic mix for your community.

The brick and mortar edge is the experience. Customers should pay more for the experience and hopefully the community will figure that out. The experience needs to focus on what Starbucks stole from Ray Oldenburg: The Third Place.  I have found this concept a powerful one and one that I will return to from time to time (Redding really needs to think about this as they work on revitalizing the city).  You should really read the short, to the point, summary in the Wikipedia entry.  This sort of third place for a bookstore has been created, at no small expense, at places like Third Place Books in Seattle, or I would argue at Powell’s in Portland. Barnes and Noble has not achieved this. Shoe string bookstores have a hard time achieving this–it takes some space, time, and money. It helps if the city supports your efforts also.

The key about a third place is that the books (or anything else) is only one component. What mix works depends on the passion of the owners and the community. Amazon is not a third place.

If we can pay $5 for a cup of coffee, you would think we can figure out how to spend $15 on a book.

People are lazy

This ties into reading in general and simultaneously to the Third Place concept. One aspect of the Third Place is “highly accessible.” It should be in walking distance to a lot of things. Yeah, the problem is partially no one walks anymore (there is an obesity epidemic in the U.S. too). But, you get the idea.  If you mix things like food and books, you also tap into the laziness. Tap into the laziness in other ways. Why wait for a book from Amazon when you can have it here? Why spend an hour browsing all the really crappy books that the world has self published, when you can get some filtering done by us (the bookstore). You get the idea.

People are also lazy in picking books. If the world is reading a book, or if Oprah recommends it, hey, I’ll read that too. Make it EASY for them to see other lists, picks, etc. Make it fun. Lists of stuff they won’t find at a big box store.

I can’t solve the laziness of the brain, where people would rather have a video served up, no matter how stupid, than read. That is a different issue. Time.

Time

Actually, people aren’t lazy. They don’t have any time. The U.S. works too hard. We have no mandatory vacations. We have no time off for children. We work our asses off and for some reason we’re proud of the fact. Why is it something to be proud of? Other countries have longer life expectancy and higher happiness indexes. Years ago there was an article in the Economist magazine noting how the two countries in the world with the most screen time per capita–the U.S. and Japan–also had the most working hours per capita in the world. The speculation by psychologists was this was why we (the U.S.) had so few people pursuing hobbies and doing things other than staring at a screen. Because we didn’t have enough time to relax and develop hobbies and passions. Rather, we basically are looking for ways to shut down our brains after work.

Make the bookstore a place where you can pursue a hobby and maybe relax enough to restart the brain. I’m not going to be able to change the way the U.S. works. That is a giant social issue that no bookstore is going to solve, but just as we each do something to demonstrate we understand water shortages, or global climate change, the individual bookstore can do their tiny part.

Community

In my discussion on third places, I touched on community a bit. Bookstores thrive in certain areas in towns of any size. Unfortunately, bookstores often start on a shoe string and go for cheap rent, which is not necessarily where they will thrive. Area businesses, or even developers need to WANT a bookstore as part of the community. A real estate developer can decide that a bookstore is a cornerstone of a set of businesses and thus give that bookstore some breaks, or build additional facilities, such as a stage, or other event foci, in or near the bookstore. This was part of the vision of Third Place books in greater Seattle. Unfortunately, this is out of the control of most wanna be bookstore owners. But, it is not out of reach of developers and city planning. Cities can think about how to attract a bookstore to a community, or how to have a group of businesses join forces.

Malls

Malls are dying also. This is in no small part because of the Internet and ecommerce (where Amazon raises its head again). It is also because the age of the giant department store as an anchor is fading. Really, mall owners/developers need to rethink the entire concept. Back to community.

Libraries

Libraries are also changing their identity. The root of the word, libraria, means “a bookseller’s shop.” Various other roots have subtly different meanings, but the idea of a collection of books is fading. Libraries are back to that community thing. A community without a library is heading in the wrong direction, as is one without a bookstore.  I was stunned with we first moved to Redding, CA a city of 100K, to find there was only one library. This certainly removes a library as a third place. It is hardly accessible to all.

That said, I would love to see libraries collaborate with bookstores more. Their roots are similar. You need a book that is not in the library? The online catalog should make it easy to go to the community bookstore. It is crap to say this interferes with the free market. Collaboration between a community service and a business should be encouraged, not discouraged. The library and bookstore should be able to collaborate on a number of things, from writing classes, to lectures, to other forms of media.

Newspapers

Newspapers are desperate for eyeballs (online or hard copy).  In a city of any size the newspaper should be helping create community and shape the future of the area. Yet, in their desperation to survive they are ignoring the very audience that they need. Readers. All newspapers should have REGULAR book reviews and they should coordinate with bookstores. A third place is also one where people are likely to read a paper. Work together people! Newspapers tend to have blog areas now and more and more are turning toward only registered subscribers get to do things like comment. This is moving backwards.  Get some cross collaboration between bookstores, authors, and even other artists going. Sponsor some events at the bookstore. Co-sponsor events between the paper and bookstores: like a writing contest. Sell some books from the contest through the bookstore.

Newspapers also need to reverse the race to the bottom as far as their stories. Go in depth. Recommend books on the subject. Jointly do some blogging with the bookstore/author/other.

eBooks

The rise of eBooks is definitely a factor in the demise of bookstores. If 40-50% of popular fiction books are now purchased as an eBook, its hard to see how the bookstore wins. Kobo has tried to ally itself with independent bookstores, but Kobo accounts for 1% or less of eBook sales. I would love to see more eBooks sold like a gift card, the size of a greeting card. The card can have the artwork on it, or even some other content, with a code for the book.

That said, this goes back to the flywheel. Bookstores have been and will need to continue to diversify and do other things. A bookstore coffee shop for example can have a free book if you buy X number of coffees, or something similar. Spin the flywheel. Make it worthwhile to come in the bookstore and hang out.  There are ways to leverage an eBook. Don’t just depend on Kobo or the Barnes and Noble route (which is failing).

The other problem, similar to music, is that people do expect to get things for free. There is no magic solution for that. Authors don’t get to do a concert, like a performance artist. Books have always been a problem for the author. A used book sale does nothing for the author. Creative thinking, such as the greeting card artwork with eBook might slow down the piracy issue. All I can say is stay creative, don’t simply ignore eBooks and throw up your hands (you the bookstore owner).

Publishing Model

Independent bookstores still depend on the old style model of returning your book They also depend on the big 5 publishers and distributors. Time to get creative. Go very deep into independent authors. Start to build up your own particular brand and set of authors. Help promote them — if yo believe in them. Additionally, bite the bullet and get an Espresso Print machine and print get some local authors. These machines are not cheap, but they could make the difference.

Not every community is going to have a plethora of local authors–that are any good. But, there has to be some regional ones and the bookstore needs to really commit to helping some of these, not just passively say let the market determine the winners and losers. With social media and other things, the market is not the invisible hand, nor is it perfect information for all consumers. Partner with some publishers directly and with some authors directly. Influence. Break out of the publishing model. Buy the books and if they don’t sell, give them away each month, year, whatever. Give some to the library.

Summary

I have just touched the tip of the problem and possible solutions. Obviously it is easier said than done and those with a passion for books rarely have the funds. Unfortunately, large foundations don’t hand out grants to try these solutions and most don’t have reading as a high priority–although they do declare that education is important.  Books are part of an ongoing education.  Books and bookstores are part of a healthy community and of an educated one. The decline of the bookstore is a sign of a declining society. A stagnant one. That’s why not only do books matter, but bookstores matter.

*Addendum:

As luck would have it, a day or two later I stumbled on a good post from Kaitlin Kelly on Forbes.com (you need to login to see the article). Her post was more optimistic than this one, although really the main point was Indie bookstores can survive and it discusses how some of her favorites have in this difficult times.

My main critique of the upbeat tone is that is mixes and matches data and doesn’t provide context. For example the raw number of registered bookstores went up quite a bit since 2009 (7 years), but during that period Borders went bankrupt and Barnes&Noble shuttered many, many, stores. If even half of the shuttered stores were replaced by Indies, that would raise the total registered stores, but the total bookstores in the nation could have still gone down. Data is tricky and without context and full information, one can draw the wrong conclusions (medical data is even worse, where people draw cause and effect conclusions where they shouldn’t, but that is for another time).

Regardless, I like the upbeat stories Kaitlin cites and I think the examples of success she gives mesh with my thinking above.

2 Comments

  1. Bob Clinton August 31, 2016
    • Stanislav Fritz September 2, 2016

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