Monday, May 23, 2011

How independent bookstores might survive

A couple of posts down, I took note of the spiteful boycott by independent booksellers against "indie" authors Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch, because of their decision to publish a book with Amazon. Many independent bookstores regard Amazon as the Great Satan of the book business, the "enemy" who is putting them out of business.

This is stupid. It isn't Amazon that's putting them out of business; it's their customers. Customers want maximum choices and convenience, minimum prices and wasted time. Right now, Amazon does a much better job of giving them those things than do bookstores, including "indie" bookstores.

So, is there anything that independent bookstores can do to save themselves, in an era when so many of their customers are taking their physical book purchases online to sources such as Amazon, or to ereaders such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad?

Maybe. But to survive, they'll have to get out of the way of the customer-driven bandwagon, and instead leap on board. If indie bookstores want to survive, then -- in addition to those suggestions offered by Konrath and Crouch at the linked blog post -- here are a few more things I would do if I owned an independent bookstore:

1. Turn your physical location into an advantage, rather than a liability. Change from being just another warehouse for books, into becoming a constant meeting place for authors and their fans.

This expands on a point made by Konrath and Crouch. There is a BIG niche market of fans who want to meet their favorite authors -- including local authors. I know fans (self included) who would drive many miles to spend time with their favorite writers.

So, transform your store into a literary meeting place -- not just in the evenings, but all day -- where authors meet with their fans. It benefits authors by cementing their bond with readers and peddling their wares. It obviously benefits readers. And, if the stores charged a small cover fee ($5?) for the event, as well as sell the author's books (including POD books on consignment), that would keep the lights on and pay the hired help.

Authors can also be invited to hold workshops about writing, self-publishing, etc. The authors could charge a fee, and the bookstore could take a cut.

2. Embrace indie/self-published titles, rather than banishing them. Many readers love novelty in novels (and nonfiction). They can buy Big6 bestsellers everywhere. But where can they get edgy, unusual, provocative, or unsung titles? Not in Barnes & Noble. And who there would know much about them?

So, become known as THE place that stocks and advises readers about indie titles.

3. Embrace ebooks. Hold classes for potential buyers to explain and demonstrate the various differences among various ereader gadgets, and how to use each device most effectively. Run hand-holding sessions for the technologically timid to introduce them to the Brave New World of ebooks and ereaders. Then stock and sell ereaders to your customers. Or rent them, by the day.

4. Partner. If all indie stores in a region worked together, they could coordinate their calendars of events so that they could run "tours" of authors among the various member stores in nearby towns. "Meet Author X at 10 a.m. in Store A." "Meet Author X at 1 p.m. in Store B." "Meet Author X at 7 p.m. in Store C." Advantage for the author: He can sell lots of books and meet lots of fans in a given region during a short period of time. Advantage for stores: a constant flow of interesting authors.

Will ideas like this save indie stores? I don't know. But it's clear their current business model won't work much longer. Either they transform themselves to embrace the current customer-driven changes, or they won't survive. That's the message they need to confront. Throwing temper tantrums against indie authors such as Joe Konrath is just trying to kill the messenger.

UPDATE -- Dean Wesley Smith really knows how to think outside the cliche -- and he has an absolutely fabulous idea. So good, in fact, that I think you'll soon see this one at stores everywhere: books in the form of GIFT CARDS.

UPDATE #2 -- News for chain bookstores on May 25 isn't great.

From Books-a-Million: Sales for Books-A-Million's first quarter dropped 11 percent to $104 million, with store comps falling 13.2 percent from last year (when the company reported a 3.6 percent drop from 2009.) The bookseller lost $3.5 million, compared to $2 million in profits at this time last year. Clyde Anderson, CEO, blamed "the growing effect of e-book penetration" and "the effects of the devastating tornado outbreak" that hit the Midwest and Southeast region in the early part of 2011. Yeah -- blame the weather.

Meanwhile, from Barnes & Noble comes news of an unspecified number of layoffs, including executives, at a New Jersey distribution center.


Robert Jones said...

One of the things I love about is that I can buy use books through them, sold guessed it: Indie book stores. When "independent" book stores pay more attention to politics than business, then naturally, business will lose out. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that while some independents hate Amazon others have learned to use it to sell and promote their books. Like the big chains, some figured out how to evolve, others did not.

When I started ordering off Amazon over ten years ago, never did I think chains like B&N and Borders would fail to keep up so spectacularly.

No longer is Amazon really doing much that is really that innovative. It's the traditional stores thinking for a decade that they didn't have to change. Much like how Kmart and Sears have been slowly dying while Wal-Mart and Target grow rapidly. You either keep improving your business or someday, someone else will sneak up on you and clobber you.

The truth is that there is room for both Amazon and the brick & mortar stores. Both have positives and negatives. No matter how interactive Amazon may be, there is something to be said about browsing through physical books. The prices on Amazon, however, reveal the mark-ups that the stores charge. Wal-Mart recently engaged in a price war with Amazon so why are actual bookstores so reluctant to compete?

You can't meet people and authors on-line the same way you can in stores. Some people who have been drained of all social ability by technology might not care. Yet many haven't abandoned the old ways knowing that books won't be obsolete anytime soon.

I'm reminded of the scene in Star Trek II (1982!) where Kirk receives an "ancient" book as a gift. Perhaps a bit of a warning: Don't overembrace technology and don't throw out the past without thinking. Find the best of both worlds and when real improvements come along, we will know (DVD over VHS).

Stores like B&N grew because they sold theirselves as big versions of the local bookstore. Then they lost sight of that and became book warehouses (still, B&N is my favorite chain, but really, $20 bucks to be a member?). As that has happened, some independent booksellers have staged a comeback ( They were once the home of independent and local authors. Now they have the chance to bring in the explosion of independently published works that the chains have largely ignored.

Their original people-focused business model was always sound. Now that the big stores have forgotten that, and with a little technology, these small stores can thrive again.

Even with Amazon.