Scott wrote: This isn't the only industry on the ropes due to technological change. I was in the newspaper industry for 15 years, where the ax cut half of us. I was lucky enough to still have a job when I voluntarily left to become a full-time author--thanks almost entirely to ebooks and Amazon. Bookstores, you've done nothing wrong. Nothing. We've loved you. But we can't save you any more than we saved the woolly mammoths from the Ice Age. We can keep you on life support for a while by spending extra, but we didn't deliberately choose to have evolution, technological change, and a revolution in the way we consume words and ideas. Truly, it's nothing personal. I wish you well in your next career, and who knows? There are plenty of opportunities in the new era in which your skills may translate very nicely. Scott Nicholson Trad/small press/self-pub author.
Thanks for writing us off so completely. It is always so satisfying to be compared to Dodo birds, but we do see the comparison you’re making to the newspaper industry. As a newspaper fancier, I worry about them too. I fear for them just as I fear from my own business.
I think what the book world is going through is just another of the ‘cycles of life’. First there were the small independents, the traditional booksellers who had been there in their towns and cities. There were also the slightly larger outfits (Brentano’s is one that comes to mind, or Joseph-Bell), small chains of booksellers who were a bit larger than the small independent, that showed up in larger cities. They could stock more and offer more than small shops but at this point everyone played by the same rules and had access to the same books at the same discount. I could be wrong about this but I don’t recall that the small independents were being driven out of business by this type of business.
Then came the first wave of corporate stores – the B.Daltons and Waldens of the late 20th C. These corporate outfits could get a leg up on the smaller independents due to the economies of scale. The buying and shipping of books was done centrally, not by the individual. They were homogenous but ever-present. There was at least one of ‘em in every shopping mall. Publishers must’ve loved it; think of all of the new shelves that had to be filled with books!
Let’s step back to sketch out a brief history of the American Bookselling Business:
1853: Brentano’s opens as a bookshop in NYC.
1917: Barnes partners with Noble to open a bookshop in NYC.
1966: B.Dalton started by the Dayton Department store.
1971: Borders opens in Ann Arbor. Barnes & Noble bought by Leonard Riggio
1972: Murder Ink, the 1st mystery specialty bookshop, opens in NYC
1973: Elliot Bay opens in Seattle.
1974: Barnes & Noble becomes first corporate bookstore to advertise on national TV and to discount books.
1976: Elliot Bay moves to their larger, corner space
1976: 1st Tower Books opened (1st Tower Records was opened in 1960!)
1977: Crown books founded in DC.
1979: Elliot Bay café opens
1979: Powell’s opens in Portland
1984: Walden’s bought by Kmart
1985: Kmart’s Waldenbooks subsidiary buys Brentano’s
1986: 1st Joseph-Beth independent bookshop opens
1987: B.Dalton’s bought by Barnes & Noble
1992: Borders bought by Kmart
1993: 1st Barnes & Nobel bookstore to open with a café.
1994: Kmart merges Waldenbooks and Brentano’s subsidiaries, Brentano’s ceases to exist.
1995: Amazon.com goes on-line
199?: late ‘90s, Borders spun off into a separate company.
2004: Waldenbooks begin being renamed Borders
2006: Tower files bankruptcy
2006: Murder Ink closes
2010: B.Daltons becomes defunct
2011: Borders files for bankruptcy
But readers found them lacking depth. You could easily get the new bestsellers and the new books by the Big Names but probably not the author’s earlier books – their ‘backlist’ – or books from smaller publishers or new books by authors who were not Big Names yet. So some smart people who loved books saw a void and began to fill it with a new creature, the larger independent. They competed with the chains with a greater depth of selection and with a new draw: the in-shop café. So the chains begin to lose business and the corporate offices look around to see where it is going – and it is going to the larger independents that have a greater selection of titles and amenities like cafes and – whaddya know! – the Big Box super store is born.
The cycle then begins to turn against the traditional, smaller independents. As the corporate chains move in, the independents close. Little shops who were part of the fabric of the communities can no long make it – they can’t compete with the discounted books and the newness of the experience. There is also the matter of the way the major publishers’ aided these Big Box stores by paying them placement fees to ensure that their books are placed up front and in the shopper’s way. This also allowed them to afford to discount the books involved.
So here we are with the small independents threatened. They can’t do anything about the local/national/global economy. Many are trying to compete for the sales of e-books. But in all fairness, so are the corporate booksellers. And, to be sure, publishers are threatened, too, and that’s new. Will this continuously turning cycle continue to turn? We’re too close to it to know but I think it will – and I am not known for my optimism.
I cannot believe that there will not continue to be a place for small independent booksellers in the future. Why? Not everyone wants to read on an electronic gizmo. Not every author’s works will be available as e-books and not all of their earlier books will be re-worked as e-books. Remember, it was not so long ago that books were not written on computers and the books do not exist as electronic files so that they can be easily converted. Who is going to pay to convert them? You’ll be able to find e-books for Patterson and Grisham and Steel and King. But what about Muller and Pearson, Hall and Wilhelm?
Years ago, when audio books began to appear on cassettes (remember those?), ‘they’ began talking about the death of the printed book. Then the audio books were switched to CDs and ‘they’ said books were doomed. Now books are said to be doomed due to e- books. I don’t see that. No version of a book is as convenient as the printed book.
At some point, though many independent bookshops may be gone, readers will begin to chafe at the lack of selection from the corporate websites, they’ll miss the dialogue with a human over the books they’ve read and will want to talk to someone they know instead of taking recommendations from a faceless stranger. Someone will decide that the time is right for them to start a small press and someone will decide that the time is right for a new, small independent bookshop that can carry the printed book and the hell with the e-book. That’s the cycle of life: small independents, bigger chains, small independents, corporate monster warehouses, independents, e-books and on-line conglomerates – and independents will return.
Woolly Mammoths may’ve vanished, but the idea of them is still around.
They’re called elephants.