Archives for category: Bookstores

The Digital Reader brings us an escape from the box. Guest writer Matt Blind, in a piece originally published at Rocket Bomber in 2012 and now updated, suggests that as it stands, Barnes & Noble (whose outlook continues bad to dire) has both too much and too little: too many stores, too few books. He suggests their best way forward is not their plan to open smaller, cuter stores. Salvation he suggests is to be found in consolidation. With 10 massive stores located in Orlando, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, Boston, Columbus, Chicago, San Diego, San Jose, and Portland they would be able to serve a large proportion of the US population. In this context massive means massive. Practically every book anyone might want would be there in each mega-store, and, if customers don’t want to go there and pick up the book after phoning in to check availability, 220,000,000 of them would be within 1-day delivery range of these 10 store/distribution centers.

This may sound like Amazon opening up the front doors of their distribution centers and allowing individual customers to drop by and pick up and pay for the book they want. Of course Amazon didn’t chose the locations of their distribution centers with any such plan in mind, so they are not exactly in ideal retail locations. However that Mr Blind’s plan is a good idea may be confirmed by Amazon’s opening of more bricks-and-mortar stores. I do think that the only way to get a piece of the business of one-day-delivery book sales is to give it a try. B & N can just quietly fade away, or they can give it the good old college try and attempt to get a bit of the big-box-book business.

Independent bookstores are another kettle of fish: more boutique than H & M or Zara’s. The difference between Amazon and the independent bookstores might be seen as analogous to the difference between big trade publishing, and small independent publishers. You can’t do both well. Barnes & Noble needs to jump one way or the other: going back to being a small independent bookstore on 4th Avenue isn’t an option.

I pause to wonder who it is who’d get to fund the massive inventory cost these massive Barnes & Noble stores would incur. My pause isn’t long though: the answer is obviously the publishers. As we all know publishers are not interested in money, and in any case have tons of it. The charitable opportunity to fill up 10 giant warehouses around the country is just the cash drain any publisher will welcome with open arms! Despite my sarcasm, I have no doubt that something can be worked out.


Mike Shatzkin has another thoughtful analytical piece about changes to our industry, backed up by extensive comments from The Data Guy who appears to know more than anybody else about sales numbers in the book world. Mr Shatzkin identifies five trends:

  1. Amazon continues to grow its share of print and digital sales
  2. The overall market is growing, but Amazon Publishing and indies are the growing segments
  3. Smaller legacy publishing is suffering more than the Big Five
  4. More titles now get to be bestsellers for a shorter time
  5. Some genres and categories of books are getting almost all their sales through Amazon

The Data Guy takes issue with point 3, but otherwise sees his data as confirming Mr Shatzkin’s contentions. Surprise, surprise, Amazon is gaining market share: they now account for 83% of ebook sales and more than 40% of print sales. And their share is growing. And their share will continue to grow. We don’t really know what effect their entry into the bricks-and-mortar world will have: we just assume it will be bigger rather than smaller. As a publisher they already have a large presence in certain genres such as romance and sci fi, and are America’s largest publisher of translations.

Referring to ebook sales The Data Guy says “Legacy publishers have ceded a huge chunk of market share to non-traditional players over the last several years.” But isn’t that slightly misleading? Before there was an ebook market we may well have had control of 100% of it, but 100% of $0 isn’t something anyone should be too upset at ceding! Amazon didn’t create the ebook market by bringing the Kindle to market, but it did create the big ebook market that we’ve all become used to. A publisher will always be making more on one format than on another, and this has always been true. This doesn’t mean you stop doing the less profitable formats. As long as you are making something, and that something is something more than your costs, then something’s working. Maybe it could be better; maybe it’ll get worse; we all know things fluctuate. That’s why we keep throwing the spaghetti at the wall. I don’t believe there are any publishers whose aim is for their company to sell all the books ever published: publishers just want to publish a few good books and make money (OK, as much money as possible) while doing so.

The trouble (to me anyway) about this sort of analysis is the either/or implications it encourages — not that Mr Shatzkin or Data Guy themselves are guilty of this kind of short-circuiting. Others will be. Yes we did move from horse-drawn carriages to the internal combustion engine, so that buggy-whip manufacturing went away. But we didn’t stop burning coal once our cooking stoves became electric or gas powered. When I make a soufflé I whip my egg whites by hand (the key is a copper bowl) though we do own an electric whisk which would do the job just as well. Different ways of doing things can coexist: the latest, most efficient way does not have to eliminate the earlier ones. The legacy/traditional publishing business still generates a huge amount of revenue. No company is going to give that up. Maybe individual companies will get smaller, maybe they won’t. One thing that’s not going to happen though is that they disappear overnight.

Does the fact that one publisher now makes more than half the sales of the “Big Five” mean anything other than that Penguin Random House is a very large publisher? I suspect not. HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster etc. make sales: their sales are not as big as PRH’s but they are a lot bigger than say Grove’s. Just as that doesn’t mean curtains for Grove, it doesn’t mean curtains for the “Pretty Big Four”. Trends point towards more sales concentration: so what? Smaller (and I mean here smaller even than Grove) publishers can do very well in an environment like this. Clearly self publishers, representing the extreme on the large/small curve, show us that tiny publishers can thrive in the environment we now enjoy, and so can small independent publishers, both small traditional publishers and indie publishers. Doom-sayers can disagree, but to do so they need to believe that Amazon has ambitions to be the only publisher in the world — which, even if that was a Bezos-belief, would be something they couldn’t possibly achieve given how easy it is to get in on the act nowadays.

I can’t help thinking that the disruption ahead promises more and more variety, not any kind of take over by a giant.

The statistics we get given tend to focus on “the number of people who have read a book in the last year” which never really means very much to me. There are books and books, and readers and readers. Looking up Akita and Doberman Pinscher in The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book is a bit different from reading War and Peace from cover to cover, but both of course would count as “reading a book”. Robert Gray had a piece in Shelf Awareness last December about Christmas gift books for non readers which may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. I guess that converting a non-reader into a reader would rank as a good deed, however reluctant the non-reader might be to agree that being made to take up a novel was a good thing. Mr Gray reports on the regular seasonal query “I need to find a book for my uncle.” — “What kinds of books does he like?” — “Oh, he doesn’t read.” Still, it must be worth keeping trying: as he says, a Gary Snyder poem at the right moment can be transformative.

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Thus Anthony Powell* in The Valley of Bones, which is the seventh novel in A Dance to the Music of Time; surely the only dodecology in mainstream English literature — though there does also appear to be a series called Dead Song Legend Dodecology by the determinedly prolific Jay Wilburn. However he appears thus far not to have written beyond Number 4.

I guess it is true that you can’t impress a non-book-person by citing bookish evidence. They will either not notice, or, if they do realize you are referencing a book, believe that you are being condescending (which you probably are anyway). At the most trivial level there’s no point in remarking to someone that a person is behaving a bit like Emma Bovary, if your interlocutor has never heard of or read the book. Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time spends a lot of time keeping quiet about his being an author, that being a red rag to the bulls he moves among especially in the wartime army.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”. He believed that reading novels was a primary way of gaining understanding of fellow humans of types we might not encounter in our daily life, and that this consequently enabled us better to deal with them. Hard, to me, to argue with that, but then books are to me a necessity, and (mostly) readily convertible assets.

If hitting people over the head with a book is no way to influence their thinking, how much less must be writing about the making of these unconvertible assets. Of course I never expected there would be a large audience for my lucubrations on the making of books (of which fortunately there is no end: Ecclesiastes 12.12. But do beware: much study is a weariness of the flesh). I am very grateful for the select, but far from insignificant group of readers who follow this blog.


* Pronounced “Pole”, of course. The only other time I’ve known the name pronounced that way was Powell House at school, which we tended perhaps more to pronounce as “Poe-ull”.

In 2014 Benjamin George Friedman, famous apparently for having read the Dictionary from cover to cover, left St Marks Bookshop in Manhattan (recently closed) and opened a used bookshop in Ridgewood, Queens. It is named Topos Bookstore and Cafe, and is one block from the Forest Avenue exit from the M line. I wonder if Deborah Emin is happy; maybe she was more focussed on new books being sold in library buildings in the borough.

Friedman tells us about this in a nice Freelance column in the Times Literary Supplement of 20 February 2015 (lurking behind a paywall I fear). He writes “New York City is an unforgiving place for booksellers. The challenges facing a small independent store hardly need rehearsing: competition from huge national chains and online discounters, as well as the threat posed by electronic books, are compounded in New York by the punishingly high retail rents. In the past twenty-five years, the number of bookstores in Manhattan has fallen by more than half. But recent years have seen a happier development, with some half-dozen shops opening, some good ones among them. This second-hand renaissance has mostly taken place in the outer boroughs.” Topos seems to be doing OK, which is great news. Friedman concludes his piece with an anecdote about a lady, originally from Ridgewood, back on a visit: “‘No one around here reads books’, she declared. Her tone was not hostile but something was troubling her. Eventually it emerged that she was herself a writer, a poet. She had grown up in the neighbourhood but had left many years ago. Ridgewood was for her always going to be a place from which anyone with a bookish sensibility would want to escape. She was unable to see it, but others are coming to share our vision of Queens as a literary destination.”

We wish them luck.

And now here comes another contender. A Kickstarter campaign has enabled the Queens Bookstore Initiative to gather $70,000 and open another bookshop in Queens. Shelf Awareness reported on the campaign:

The initiative is led by Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa and Holly Nikodem, all of whom have bookselling and bookstore management experience. The trio has pointed out that after the closing last year of Barnes & Noble stores in Forest Hills, Bayside and Fresh Meadows, Queens, with a population of 2.3 million, now has just one bricks-and-mortar bookstore selling new books, Astoria Bookshop. The group hopes to open in or near Kew Gardens or Forest Hills: “It’s important for us to be as accessible as possible to all the neighborhoods who have been abandoned by the big box bookstores.”

The Kickstarter campaign has succeeded in raising all the money and now The Queens Bookstore Initiative has a webpage. The store, named Kew and Willow Books, is open and may be found at 81-63 Lefferts Boulevard in Kew Gardens.

These accounts, which mainly hang their stories on the idea that after Barnes & Noble left, Queens was no more than a bookstore desert, quietly overlook the existence of The Astoria Bookshop. I can’t comment on El Ber Bookstore, Sinagtala Educational Resources, New Life Christian Book Store, Queens College Bookstore, Apollo Books, Academy Books, Books for Life, Evan Bates Books /Documents, Turn the Page Again, Austin Book Shop, but it seems there are more bookshops lurking about than we are led to believe. Of course these tend to be small, specialist, and often second-hand. But just because B & N closes doesn’t mean we are instantly plunged into utter biblio-obscurity.

On the other hand brings us news of the eviction of the borough’s only independent publisher. I can’t believe nobody else in Queens has self published a book, but maybe they are using independent in its old-fashioned sense.

Development continues. Book Culture announced in May their plans for a fourth location in Long Island City. They have 3 shops in Manhattan already. Just shows it can be done: the store opened in December at 26-09 Jackson Avenue. Could one risk suggesting that the Queens bookstore scene is thriving?

Have we in fact moved beyond the big book chain? As I wrote yesterday, Barnes & Noble do appear to be having a hard time. Borders is gone, as are Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton. Is this the redawning of the age of the local bookstore? Professor Ryan Raffaele and the Harvard Business School send us this video singing the praises of the independent bookstore business model, using as a case study Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. The story comes from Quartz.

(If you see no video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.)

The Passive Voice manages to get his knickers into a twist over this, opining that because Porter House is in Cambridge they somehow have an unfair advantage — obviously everyone in Cambridge has lots of money and buys books all the time — whereas if Porter House were in, say, Green Bay, Wisconsin, things’d be a whole lot harder. But he then discovers that Green Bay’s The Reader’s Loft appears to be doing just fine thank you. In expiation he brings us this link to a C-Span video from 2014. The Reader’s Loft still appears to be doing well.

It does seem that bookstores have been going through a bit of a resurgence. We’ve lived through recession and digital revolution, and the weaker animals in the herd have disappeared. The remainder are thriving by exploiting their niches — both of geography and of subject matter. Although these are tough times for retailers in general, there seems every reason for optimism. There remains a fund of goodwill towards local businesses, and if you focus on your local population and provide books that they’ll be interested in, you can succeed despite general trends.

Professor Raffaele sums this up as his three Cs:

  • Community: Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism; bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. Indie bookstores won customers back from Amazon, Borders, and other big players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers also started to promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests—offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. “In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together,” Raffaelli says.

Here, from Ingram Content’s blog is a piece about one of these three, Building Communities which does seem to be something independent bookstores have been good at doing. Ingram, as our largest book wholesaler among other things, is in a good position to judge, and of course has an interest in encouraging.

The single biggest problem facing independent bookstores remains real estate. Success marches with favorable rental, or even better ownership of the space. To some extent this leads to bookstores moving out of city centers — which of course brings its own benefits, even if it may give the superficial appearance of a book desert.

The recently closed Bronx store.

Barnes & Noble announces that they are going to focus on books! And all we ignoramuses thought that B & N was  a bookshop chain. I always assumed that bookstores went in for stationery, music, coffee and all the other frills and chachkes because the margins on almost anything were better than on books — where we all know that meany publishers have been starving bookstores for ever! If that’s the case, would giving up the frills really help the bottom line?

The Passive Voice shares these extracts from B & N’s recent Second Quarter Earnings Conference Call commenting on their recent losses.

  • “As a result of the improving trends, we will continue to place a greater emphasis on books.”
  • “There’s too much stuff in the stores.”
  • “definite shift in strategy”
  • “Our goal is to get smaller.”
  • “Through customer research, we discovered that customers come to Barnes & Noble not only to browse and discover, but also to interact with our booksellers. This is a big takeaway for our store managers from a recent conference.”
  • “We remain laser focused on cost reduction initiatives that are centered on realizing efficiencies and simplification.”
  • “And while we’re not ready for prime time yet, I feel the team has done a very good job at loading up the pipeline with a lot of good ideas.”
  • “I think we’ve done a nice job of coming together to understand what needs to happen here.”
  • “What we can tell you is we have a better plan than we did at the start of the year.”

Not particularly inspiring talk. Shelf Awareness has a story about the situation. So too does The Digital Reader. There’s a definite trend for large-scale retailers to be finding life difficult. Maybe Macys et al will be able to weather the on-line storm. I guess everyone’s response is to get smaller — except of course for Amazon who continue to take over things like Whole Foods and to open more and more bricks-and-mortar stores. The retail situation has looked fairly dire for a couple of years. How much direness can be borne?

I expatiated on B & Ns problems a year ago.

Keep those fingers crossed.

LATER: The Digital Reader and The Passive Voice tell us that B & N have decided to offer in-store customers the same (lower) price for a book as they offer on-line. That they haven’t been doing this before is just dumb. The attitude can perhaps be understood as originating from the out-dated idea that on-line is an insignificant supplement to the real in-store experience.


Reykjavik in the grip of book frenzy

Publishing Perspectives suggests that we may all be familiar with Jólabókaflóð, Iceland’s annual flood of book-gift giving at Christmas. Sorry, I wasn’t. “The tradition began, according to Hildur Knutsdottir of The Reykjavik Grapevine, during World War II, ‘when strict currency restrictions limited the amount of imported giftware in Iceland. The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice.’”

Publishers in near-North-Atlantic-neighbor Scotland have now decided to give emulation a try. They are not going to call it the Jolly Book Flood, which is what the Icelandic sounds like to me. Somewhat unfortunately it will be being referred to as ScotBookFlood and, according to their promotional material, echoes the recent Arctic Circle Forum in Edinburgh at which northerly peoples agreed to find common ground. Whatever it takes to sell some books. We can all read lots during these long winter nights.

Edinburgh likewise

I’ve done a couple of other posts about Iceland, clearly the land of the book. One about Icelandic authors, and the other about one inflammatory publishing company.

We all tend to assume that a good review will sell lots of copies of a book. But it’s never quite as simple as that. A good review in the The New York Times will sell some copies of a trade book, but probably fewer than you’d think. What really sells books is buzz, publicity. We know buzz is at work when we see books jumping off the shelves, but we are not sure just how it gets started. A favorable review can’t do any harm, but it’s not enough.

It was ever thus. Here’s Elizabeth Hardwick in Harper’s Magazine in 1959* — “In the end it is publicity that sells books and book reviews are only, at their most, the great toe of the giant. For some recurrent best sellers like Frances Parkinson Keyes and Frank Yerby the readers would no more ask for a good review before giving their approval and their money than a parent would insist upon public acceptance before giving his new baby a kiss. The book publishing and selling business is a very complicated one . . . It is easy enough, once the commercial success of a book is an established fact, to work out a convincing reason for the public’s enthusiasm. But, before the fact has happened, the business is mysterious, chancy, unpredictable.”

A couple of years ago The Scottish Book Trust sent this piece from Me and My Big Mouth on the pointlessness (in sales terms) of book reviews. (The link no longer seems to work. I wonder if the blog has been shut down. Scott Pack now appears to be active on Twitter with the handle @meandmybigmouth.) The writer had observed from the vantage point of a bookshop what happens after reviews appear. I suppose his recollection is accurate when he says “As I recall the book that received the lead review in the Observer . . .  sold one copy the week after. Yes, one single copy. In the whole of the country.” And this, he implies, is not that unusual.

Now, one may have to add some missing context to understand this remark fully. When a book is first published the publisher’s sales reps will have ensured that bookshops across the country have plenty of stock on hand. When a review appears, the publisher is not necessarily going to sell any more copies right away — the stock present in bookstores around the country will be drawn down as people come in to buy a copy. Our reporter doesn’t say who it was who didn’t make a more than a single sale in the week after the review. If he means the publisher didn’t make more than a single sale, that wouldn’t be that unusual. However, if he means only a single bookshop made a single sale, that would be significant. However the testimony that a single reviews doesn’t unleash a bonanza of purchasing is generally realistic. Now, as in all things, there are exceptions, and the odd review can make a bigger impact. But by and large good reviews do not create bestsellers: the most they can do is help to create them.

Word of mouth is probably the number one means of creating a bestseller in the trade world. The “great toe of the giant” doesn’t create the buzz, though of course a rave review may motivate one or two people to pick up the book or to order a copy from Amazon. But more important for sales than the people who read the reviews are those who read the book, like it, and tell people about it. If these are celebrities that’ll work wonders.

Of course, as in all things, one needs to draw a distinction between different categories of publishing. With academic books reviews can be more important (or at least they used to be) as they are often used by librarians as a trigger to place an order for the book. There are publications directed not at the general public but squarely at librarians, providing them with reviews promptly upon publication. The timing of a review is important: there’s always a backlog. A good review of an academic book in a prestigious journal appearing a couple of years after publication of a book, serves merely as validation — anyone in the subject area will have bought the book long before on the basis of the author’s standing and the need for all in the group to have read the book.

Back in the old days when the only way to find out about a book was to read a review in a newspaper or journal, the sales consequences of a good review could be larger. The authority of say The New York Times’ reviewer was considerable, and their recommendations could move books: though by 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick suggests in her essay, this power was already in the past. Now that more and more online review sites are appearing, and print media are under more and more pressure, as printed review pages become steadily fewer the influence of the newspaper book review has diminished.

One constant remains, however; that the most effective reasons for buying a book are that you read everything this author writes, or that someone has recommended the book to you. It just becomes less likely that the person who recommends the book will have heard about it from a printed review. They become much more likely to get the word from some form of social media. It’s not insignificant that almost all publishers today have a growing staff putting out stuff on various social media.


* This essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, is included in The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney who was one of her students. This 640pp. book was published in October by New York Review Books at $19.95. (You can get it at 20% off from them.) There it joins her Seduction and Betrayal, Sleepless Nights, and New York Stories. All very appropriate as she was a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, the epitome of the serious print review.

This recently released film is based upon Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of the same title. The heroine struggles to keep her bookshop going in the face of opposition from the local powerbroker. As if the book business wasn’t hard enough.

Alan Hollinghurst wrote an extensive appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work in The New York Review of Books in 2014.

This Borgesian bookshop, mirrors multiplying books apparently endlessly, is to be found in Yangzhou, China.  Atlas Obscura shows us several pictures. Maybe it’s more bibliophile’s nightmare than dream.