Sunday, August 22, 2010

We are not all the same.

The problems surrounding Barnes & Noble, and so many other bookstores around the country, started me thinking. Yes, that's dangerous. You never know what will happen when my brain strains and begins trying to work. If you wan, you can blame Chris K because his comment to yesterday's post is what started me down this track. Still, you guys can come out of your bunkers. You're safe -- at least as long as you aren't buyers for the big box bookstores or the corporate suits that run them.

Let me start by saying I love bookstores. I grew up with a wonderful locally owned bookstore that took much more of my money as a teen and twenty-something than any other store in the area. This bookstore, sandwiched into a small store front next to a grocery store, still managed to have just about any book you could want. Why? Because the owners listened to their customers and ordered to meet demands. There were magazines of local interest. Non-fiction books of all sorts. Fiction was well represented and, miracle of miracle, there was a wonderful selection of science fiction and fantasy that highlighted not only the "masters" but the up-and-coming authors of the 70's and 80's as well. There was no coffee bar. If you wanted to sit, you found a place on the floor. But no one minded. This was a place to come and find a book, maybe spend a few minutes to talk with the owners. It was also a place to meet authors because the owners knew how important it was to build relationships between the readers and the authors they liked. In short, the owners knew their client base and knew how to market to them.

Fast forward now 2o some years. National news carried the story of the largest independent bookstore to open in years. That store, located in Dallas, came in with great plans and did wonderful promotions. But, unfortunately, it didn't last. The downswing in the economy didn't help. Neither did a location that didn't bring in the foot traffic a bookstore needs. Fortunately, the owners aren't giving up. They will be reopening under a new name and in a much better location after the first of the year. Why? Because there is a demand for a bookstore that pays attention to what local readers want.

So what makes these stores different from the big box stores? That's easy, really. It's the same thing that makes locally run libraries different from those that have been outsourced (Yes, there are libraries that have been outsourced. It is something we faced the potential of in my hometown. The selling point -- it would be just like Walmart). Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Walmart. The issue really is that bookstores, like libraries, should reflect the community they are in. That becomes a problem when you have purchases controlled from a central office. That problem only increases when that same office tells you to pull books from the shelves if they aren't selling well enough across the country. It doesn't matter if they are still selling well in your store.

I remember when the first Barnes & Noble opened in my area. Like so many others, I was thrilled. Why? Because of the sheer number of books offered. Yeah, I liked the idea of having a coffee shop there. But then, if I'm addicted to anything, it's coffee and books. So there was finally a place where I could fee both my habits. Back then, there weren't big box stores on every corner. The next closest B&N or Borders was almost 20 miles away. Yes, there were B. Dalton and Waldenbooks stores in the malls. But those never really counted -- at least not as "local" bookstores.

So, what's changed? Well, the market has been saturated, at least down here, between B&N and Borders. Every mall -- and, man, do we have malls -- has one or the other major bookseller in them. Then there are others, located in shopping centers throughout the metroplex. There are 20 B&N stores in a 50 mile radius of my home. There are 25 Borders. As a reader, that should thrill me. But it doesn't. Why? Because I won't find any major difference between any of them. The books will be the same. Oh, one store might have more copies of one book than another, but there won't be any major stock differences. Worse -- and this is especially true of Borders -- the amount of stock (books) has been drastically decreased over the last year or so. There are toys and gifts and all sorts of gee gaws. But books? Not so much. And certainly not if you're looking for something that isn't a best seller.

They'd have us believe people aren't reading as much as before. If that was the case, the circulation numbers of libraries would be going down. I don't know about the rest of the country but here, numbers are increasing with every year that passes. When you ask library patrons why they are using the library, they often say it's because they can't afford to pay the price of books these days. So they borrow that new hard cover from the library to see if they like it. If they do, they might, MIGHT, go out to buy it. More than likely, if they do, they order it from Amazon for a discount, or buy it at a used bookstore, or -- gasp -- buy it from a used bookstore.

What's the solution? I'm not sure, but it has to happen industry-wide. Publishers have to find a happy medium between the outrageous prices for hard covers they want and what the pubic is willing to pay. Bookstores have to go back to their roots. In this case, the readers. They need to go to regional purchasing so they can take the greatest advantage of their customer base. They need to downsize -- both in the size of their stores and in the numbers. When you saturate a market and there is no competition in pricing between you and "that other chain", people will look for other alternatives -- Amazon, the local library, used bookstores. Most of all, as readers, and as purchasers, we need to vote with our wallets. That is the only language the corporate suits seem to understand, and that not always well.

What do you see as the issues facing these stores today? Any thoughts on how they might survive? And how do we, as writers, survive the fall-out in the meantime?

21 comments:

sean said...

it is a shame that the small stores can't compete, but the internet opens us up to so much choice at a much lower price, so it is hard to see how it can go back. Even libraries, which i used to love, have now become slightly conservative internet cafes.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Outrageous prices for books, Amanda?

Here in Australia a paperback is $20 and a a hardcover can be between $30 - $40.

I've noticed a lot more people reading E-readers on the train, which is my way of surveying what people read. But in the past it is what genre, not what format.

I think the specialist bookstores have their niche market and I always go to my specialist bookstore for my books. I also order over the internet from them.

Kate said...

Rowena,

You've hit on another problem within the industry as a whole - the Internet blows away all those nice little regional oligarchies the assorted industries carved out for themselves. Do you remember the screams of how allowing direct import of US books instead of having to wait for a UK version - if the UK industry deigned to provide one - would destroy Australian authors?

Yeah. Right. You can stop with the hysterical laughter now.

Of course, the damn fools are still trying to enforce their oligarchies, making ebooks not available to non-US readers, at least until someone's paid extra license money and they have an excuse to jack up the prices some more.

C Kelsey said...

Seems to be my weekend for making Amanda think. Uh, oops. :)

In the past, ebooks and ebook samples only served to give me enough to determine whether I want the dead tree format or not. Now I still prefer dead tree, but I'm much less willing to shell out that too-high price anymore.

Amanda Green said...

Sean, the small stores that transition into niche shops will survive -- assuming they have a decent business plan and financial backing. A good niche store that keeps a solid stock and does at least a modicum of promotion will find a market. As for libraries, unfortunately, they are a victim of politics and public funding.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I guess everything is relative. Much as I hate to say it, I'd expect you guys to have to pay a great deal more, simply due to geographic constrictions.

And yes, most folks here do look at the price of hard backs as outrageous. I happen to be one of them. Which is why there are very few authors any more I buy in hard cover.

I think the growing number of different e-book readers, and the fact their prices are going down, will mean more and more people are looking to buy e-books. It's a trend publishers are going to have to finally recognize and figure out how to deal with.

And I agree with you about niche bookstores. One of my favorites was a mystery bookstore in Dallas. Alas, it's closed now, but it proved for decades that such a store has a place in the market.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, very interesting point and so very true. All you have to do is watch the kindle boards to see how publishers play games between markets. E-books that are available here, may not be available in Britain -- or Oz. But the converse is true as well. Then there are the promotions that are available in one country but aren't in another. And all of it is usually because of some very small print boiler plate in a contract somewhere.

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, you are going to learn not to make me think. Next thing you know, I'll be giving you writing assignments...oh wait, I have. And I'm waiting for the rewrite - bwahahahahaha!

As for how my use of e-book samples has changed my buying habits, I used to be like you. I used them to determine if I bought the dead tree copy or not and, if I did, did I buy the hard cover or soft. Now, e-books and their lower prices have allowed me to read authors I might never have before. I still buy dead tree copies of books, but not nearly as many as I used to. Hard covers are reserved for those few authors whose work I collect. Soft covers are bought for books I may be toting around with me to places where I don't necessarily want to take my kindle.

But I love the ability to carry as many books as I want -- in my purse -- and not have to worry about weight, etc. Now, if only the publishers and retailers would come up with a standard format and NO drm, I'd be a very happy camper.

Mike said...

Warning -- early morning thought, unmediated by tea or awakened neurons...

I have to admit, I keep thinking about the ACM digital library, the IEEE digital library, and others that I'm getting offers for. For a relatively small fee ($250 a year, I think? Something around that) I get access to a huge library of articles and books -- as much as I want to search, read, download. Now admittedly, the economics of professional group publications are a whole different beast, but I wonder if something like that would make sense?

Suppose a cooperative of writers said, "Here. Buy into our collective library and you get easy access to everything we write." 1,000 fans at $200 a head is $200,000 -- even divvying it up a bit, that could be a nice revenue stream. The interesting thing here is that the more writers/fans participate, the better for everyone -- this is one where economies of scale seem to apply.

Amanda Green said...

Mike, I think that is basically what a lot of the "cooperatives" we are seeing pop up are. However, the problem with this situation is how your scenario is set up. Would this be exclusive access? In other words, do only those who "subscribe" get access to the author's work? Or is it first access? If it is exclusive access, think about the ramification: no new readers to discover that author, or authors.

Frankly, while this situation works with regard to unlimited access to libraries and professional/scholarly writings, I'm not sure it would work for fiction. At least not long term. It limits the audience too much, imo. However, as something to bring in some cash for special projects where the subscribers get first look, I like it. In fact, one of the authors with NR is talking about doing something along that line: for a fee, you see the author's work as it is written, warts and all. And you get to see it go through the editing process. At the end, you have not only the first draft, final draft, e-arc, but also the final product. Whether we actually get it done, well, we'll see.

C Kelsey said...

I'm hoping to get to the rewrite today, Amanda. Sorry it's taken me so long. My stupid brain decided to completely switch off any desire to write for over a month. It's coming back now... I think. It must be coming back because I'm thinking about writing again. Of course, I also keep having the phrase "Who is the Celtic Cat?" run through my head. The answer to which is, "I DON'T KNOW!" I then promptly break into tears while begging, "why won't you leave me alone".

Oh, uh... TMI? :P

Brendan said...

Amanda, re:

"I'd expect you guys to have to pay a great deal more, simply due to geographic constrictions."

While geographic concerns may be a part of the extra cost of books in Aus, it is no where near the whole story.

A while back I was looking at buying a Jim Butcher book and since there is no Aus release the website I was checking had both the US and UK editions for sale.

Factoring in the exchange rate the price on both titles were exactly double the US-UK RRP. There is no way that shipping can account for such a huge jump.

Brendan said...

We have had our own chain issues in Aus prior to the current wave of uncertainty. back a few years ago the Collins empire collapsed and the franchise was rescued by the a couple of the franchises, both from country Victoria.

When they rebuilt the franchise they made a couple of stipulations that any new franchisee would have to stick to that encouraged a local focus for stores, like getting them out of big shopping centres and onto the shopping strips.

Brendan said...

Oh and in the Collins store in Bairnsdale where my parents live they remember me, someone who may step into their store at most twice a year.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, re: shipping rates. Kate and I were talking about this yesterday and I have to say she probably has hit the nail on the head. It sounds like someone is lining their pockets at your expense and that's just not right.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, I like the idea of the franchises having to get into the smaller centers. Lower overhead and, if your smaller centers are like ours, more foot traffic and drive-by traffic simply because they are near grocery stores, places where people travel on a daily basis. More exposure = more business.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, remembering a customer, no matter how often they walk through the door, should be the goal of every salesclerk, stocker, etc. It is that personal touch that keeps people coming through the door. Sounds like a great shop.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I understand about the writing. I've been going through much the same. And, now that you've brought him up, I want to know about the Celtic Cat ;-p

Mike said...

Yeah, it's tricky. Might be worth noticing that IEEE library stuff turns up in all kinds of searches, and they do offer abstracts (like samples?) to read. Seems like the Baen approach -- which seems to involve making fairly large chunks free for the reading after a while, while the latest stuff gets more exclusive paid access -- helps with that "growing the audience" thing. Add in the Storyteller's Bowl approach... and blogging groups like this, too... fun, huh? Wonder what the readers in say 20 years will say about this?

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, I can't think how I missed your post. The big issue here -as writers - is our income has increasingly been derived from the 10-15% of Hardcover prices... from a steadily shrinking pool of buyers. I agree HC prices are over the top for something that costs maybe 20% more to produce (ie maybe two dollars max?) The premium was largely for early access. I'd rather not even talk about Aus prices! But from the author's POV 10-15% of $23 is a better living than 8% of $7.99... unless you're selling a lot more in paperback - and the ratio is down to about 2:1 now. So let's assume joe midlist (and not low midlist either, quite a senior midlister) sells 15K of books - 5 K hardcover and 10 pb. He gets $11500 for the hardcover -and $6392 for the paperback, less his agent's 15%. His earnings are small, his paperback earnings paltry, and without the hardcover share he'd be typing in a cardboard apartment under a bridge. Now the retailer and publisher make a lot more than the extra 2% out of hardback. But not to destroy the midlist as a professional class if the price of hardbacks has to become reasonable: either the author needs a far bigger share, or the numbers of paperbacks (or e-books) has to rise. Or both. Because without a viable midlist the opportunity for quality regionally tailored reading vanishes. Realistically (unless they are able to sell secondary rights - a midlister now needs to sell two books a year to survive, with not much prospect of improvement. It's quite difficult to find buyers, let alone write the work, year after year. So: if small retail is going to survive regionally... their suppliers are going to have to earn more.

C Kelsey said...

Amanda,

I want to know about the CC too. Stupid thing is hiding its secret identity from me. Why would a character keep its identity hidden from the writer? It makes no sense!