Books and bookstores

Jody at Raising WEG has a couple of great posts up about the decline of the independent bookstore and why this is still a golden age for readers.  She’s 100 percent right that it’s just sloppy reporting by the NY Times to treat the rise of the chain bookstores and Amazon.com as the same phenomenon.

Personally, I almost never go into a bricks and mortar bookstore to look for a specific book anymore.  (Well, except maybe the Harry Potter releases.)  If I know what I’m looking for, I generally start by looking online to see if I can get it from one of my local libraries.  If they don’t have it, I use fetchbook to see where I can get it most cheaply online.  I go to bookstores when I’m browsing to see what’s out there, to get ideas for presents, and to take the kids to story hours.  (And I make up for the sin of buying used books by often buying signed copies at full retail price to give as gifts.)

And I live in an urban area, with access to lots of bookstores.  If I lived in a remote area, internet bookstores would be even more transformative.  And there’s no doubt that the internet has saved the mid-list book, which is less and less likely to be stocked at a physical bookstore.  (And even less likely to be stocked at Walmart, Target or Costco, which account for an astonishingly high proportion of book sales these days.)

I’m not so sure it’s a good time to be an author.  I occasionally read MJ Rose’s blog about the book industry, Buzz, Balls and Hype, which is fascinating and utterly depressing.  The chains overwhelmingly order books based on the computer prediction of what is going to sell, and things that don’t sell fast get sent back to the publishers.  The publishers are desperate for the next big thing, so they’ll throw money at a new author who they think could break out, but god help the second-time author whose first book sold respectably but not spectacularly.  Rose tells stories of authors who invest pretty much their entire advances on hiring independent publicists, because getting a book published doesn’t mean that your publisher will do anything to help your book succeed.  (The combination of publishers providing less and less support to authors and the costs of printing dropping is pushing more authors into self-publishing, but that’s another story.)

One of the things that independent book stores do is sell books that aren’t best sellers, that aren’t getting hyped by the publishing company, but that someone on staff really believes in.  Authors are desperate to find a way to replace those disappearing independent book stores.  That’s why I have an inbox full of emails offering me free books, in the hope that I’ll write about them.

The other thing that good independent book stores do better than the chains is create what Ray Oldenberg calls "third places" — places that are neither fully public nor fully private, that invite conversation and community.  The best portrayal of this that I know of is the ongoing saga of Madwimmin books in Dykes to Watch Out For.   (And Madwimmin has closed; Bechdel says she didn’t want the strip to be frozen in time like the Family Circus.)  While Barnes and Noble is full of people reading, surfing the internet, and drinking coffee, they’re unlikely to talk to people other than the ones that they came with. 

As Jody points out, the internet also fulfills some of that role; I don’t need to hang out in a women’s book store to find people to discuss feminism with.  And again, that’s a lifesaver to those in remote areas, or those who would be too shy to join in the discussion.  But it’s also harder to make a real personal connection.

10 Responses to “Books and bookstores”

  1. landismom Says:

    I don’t have a particularly good bookstore near me–the closest one is about 12 blocks from my office, which is too far to walk during lunch, and I never seem to want to go there on the weekend (hmm, could office proximity be an issue?). I cut my book-buying almost in half last year, when I became addicted to internet book-trading, and I wonder how much that phenomenon will change the market.
    When I do buy books online, I tend to get them from powells.com, which is at list an independent bookseller somewhere, even if it’s not close to me!
    The other thing I’ve found lately, though, is that I just don’t have the time to spend browsing in bookstores that I had before I became a parent. Once in a while I will take the kids to B & N, but it’s not that relaxing, the way it was in my pre-parenting days.
    All that being said, I think that the death of the feminist/African American/gay & lesbian/other niche bookstore is a real tragedy, and it’s not the same to go online for those communities (at least not for me).

  2. Christine Says:

    We have one of the best independent bookstores on Long Island, The Book Review. They have great author readings and have featured very prominant authors and politicians. One of the things I love is finding a small, independent bookstore when on vacation.
    My first full-time job after graduating college was for a subsidy press (a.k.a vanity). Later I worked for a foreign-based scholarly publisher (such a small market). I learned that if a book is not heavily promoted within 6 months it is shelved. We did more promotion for our self-published authors than many well-respected publishing houses. There were several key problems at the time, chains took over and did not respect self-published work (sometimes for very good reasons) and the distributors (Ingram was one) wanted huge discounts. Chains only ordered through huge distributors, unless specialty ordered by a customer. Amazon had just arrived at the time and was contacting us to buy one copy of every book we had in print. Barnes and Noble, which never gave us a glance, all of a sudden followed Amazon, as to not to be cornered out of the market. We had authors thinking they would make millions of dollars by publishing, which never happened. The most successful books were for children and the author had to be willing to do many author signings with accompanied costumed characters. Poetry were the lowest selling books. Nobody respected the subsidy press, but we had published very notable people and authors when no one else gave them a chance. The real excitement in publishing seem to be as an acquisitions editor (the one battling for contracts with authors). I could go on forever…

  3. Mel Says:

    I, too, buy books online, as cheaply as I can find them, but I struggle with the guilt about what it might be doing to independent booksellers in my town. I like your idea of the full price autographed copies for gifts; my solution has been gift certificates from the local shops.
    One thing I’ve wondered is why the local used booksellers don’t simply sell their books online through Amazon Used and other sites instead of competing with them. Perhaps they can’t command the same prices that way. But, then, that’s the reality of supply and demand in the internet age, I guess…
    –Mel

  4. Ailurophile Says:

    As you pointed out, a lot of people never had access to those wonderful independent bookstores in the first place. For them, Amazon et al are a godsend.
    I remember being a pagan teenager in a conservative suburb and making a special trip to Berkeley to get the kind of books I liked from Shambhala, Cody’s, etc. I was lucky to be able to do that – if I lived in a tiny Central Valley town I couldn’t.
    This is why so many laments for the loss of indpendent bookstores come off as priggish and elitist to me. It’s so much college-town and big-city smugness with no inkling about how the small-town or suburban other half lived.

  5. jen Says:

    I live about five blocks from Chicago’s Women & Children First, to my knowledge the largest feminist bookstore in the States, and they’re surviving. They sell Book Sense gift cards, do lots of special events (signings, readings, etc), and sell other miscellany like greeting cards, a bit of jewelry, feminist magnets, etc. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a trend in the last five years that now *men* are willing to shop at W&CF. Used to be you couldn’t ever find a man in there. (I’ve been going to W&CF since maybe 1992.) That said, I’m just as likely to buy books online, and I’ve been known to go to Borders when I’m looking for a computer book.
    To me it’s all good. There are more small businesspeople today thanks to eBay than there ever were ten years ago. But it may be that what’s sold by small businesspeople is changing. It could be that the third place Elizabeth mentions is now the all-female Shakespeare company, or the dyke-owned restaurant, or the local coffee shop (all things that exist within blocks of W&CF) … something that’s more overtly about the experience and less overtly about the purchased product.

  6. Nancy Says:

    The owners of the local independent bookstore do so much in the community that I would feel guilty buying new books from anyplace else. They have been hosting local kids there two Saturdays per month, alternating American Girls and role-playing games; it’s neat to see so many kids enjoying themselves hanging out at a bookstore these days. One of the owners, Pat, knows the reading preferences of many kids in the community and will let them know when new books come in that she thinks they’ll like. My 12-year-old son is very comfortable walking over and enjoying himself browsing the shelves.
    I buy used books at a second independent bookstore in our village and at flea markets, yard sales, and such. I’m still resisting buying anything over the Internet – probably as much paranoia as guilt at play. ;-)

  7. Anonymous Says:

    (ooh – should have reread that before I post. sorry for the sentence structure issues. ;-)

  8. Kai Jones Says:

    My local independent bookstore is…Powells. The main one is 4 blocks from my office (I go on my lunch hour often) and there’s a branch (well, two: a general bookstore and a cooks’ and gardeners’ bookstore) 5 blocks from my house. Since Powells is having very little trouble competing with Amazon, there’s some doubt in my mind whether it ought to count. But it is locally-owned and not really a chain.

  9. Christine Says:

    Not sure how many people visit fan sites, but I found this very interesting in light of the above topic. Independent bookstores in England are considering not stocking the next Harry Potter book since they are not afforded the same discounts as chains stores (not only bookstores). They claim to have even lost money on the last book. This bit of news can be found on http://www.veritaserum.com/.

  10. MCMilker Says:

    Interesting discussion.
    I too have lamented the loss of independent bookstores. In retailing, in general, every trend has a countertrend, so we might expect to see a resurgence in independents.
    However, I fear the countertrend will be Internet based, niche bookstores with community input rather than that of your friendly bibliophile-owner. But, as fans of the printed word, perhaps we bibliophiles would prefer it that way…not.

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