Archives for category: Bookstores

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.

Photo: Getty

“What to read on a train journey” by Arthur Bingham Walkley first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on January 24, 1902, and was just reprinted this year in their June 23 issue. The author suggests “The modern passenger either reads merely to kill time or does not read at all”. O tempora! O mores! Nowadays we’d probably want to work on the second half of that sentence and try to get more people to read — anything. In 1902 Mr Walkley lays in on the sub-par selections made by the average passenger, attributable in his view to the trashy offerings at railway bookstalls.

William Henry Smith opened the first railway newspaper and bookstall on 1 November 1848 in Euston Station, just around the corner from where I started working in publishing 117 years later: the bookstall was still there. The company ran a lending library and printed “yellowbooks”, cheap reprints of public domain novels. For the same audience, Longmans initiated a traveller’s library series. History Today has an article recounting the story. In Scotland our railway bookstalls were run by John Menzies & Co. (which we’d pronounce Mingis) a company acquired by W. H. Smith in 1998.

If the offerings are any indication, people do seem to be reading fewer time-killers, and more decent books when they travel. Hudson News, present in so many U. S. airports and railway terminals seem to be expanding into non-travel bookstores, and have just announced the opening of their second “Ink by Hudson” store in Tucson. More are planned for later this year and beyond. While their store at Penn Station is already offering an impressively wide selection, their Ink stores feature a “contemporary style and indie-inspired design and ethos,” with an inventory of bestsellers, small press titles, classics, prizewinners and books by local authors or with a local focus. Hudson Group operates more than 950 stores in 83 airports, train stations and other transportation hubs in the U.S. and Canada.

And of course it’s airports we’d want to focus on now. A few weeks ago I was struck by the excellent, small selection at the bookshop in Edinburgh’s airport (not a Hudsons store of course). No doubt one of these days we’ll be worrying about filling- or electric-charging-station bookstalls as we all loll about in our autonomous vehicles. Some would say we’ll have no need of such retail outlets, having by then passed beyond anything as primitive as reading books on paper or buying things from a real place.

Can it really be true that a Japanese bookshop/hotel allows you to sleep among the stacks? Publishing Perspectives tells us the unlikely story. I wonder how much reading in bed you are allowed to do? Guests falling asleep over an expensive volume and crushing it when they turn over during the night makes for significant stock-shrinkage risk.

Books are well established as sleep aids of course. We know of many a book which is all too effective in this regard, no matter what time of the day one engages with it. The BBC radio program, “A book at bedtime”, began in 1949 with a 15-part reading of The Three Hostages by John Buchan. The program was a steady presence in my childhood, though I don’t recall listening in any regular way. I do think this is a good use of the airwaves, especially now that audio books are gaining in popularity and respectability. Being read to is a great way to fall asleep (educators claim it as the foundation of children’s literacy, though I think they focus on the reading rather than the falling asleep). Reading in bed is also better for your mind than a sleeping pill: it often seems to take effect all too soon. Reading a print book is allegedly better for this purpose than e-book reading, though this bright screen effect is not something that seems to stop me dozing off.

If you don’t have the energy to do it yourself, and you can’t find anyone to read you to sleep here are several options reviewed by The Guardian. Of course the advantage of having a parent or other live person read to you is that they can stop when you doze off. The machine will just go on reading, leaving you to figure out where you’d got to — something which is often hard enough if you lose your bookmark while wide awake.

The Global Read Aloud program is introduced at Book List Reader. This year’s event kicked off on 2 October and ends on 10 November. The idea of Global Read Aloud is that groups of children around the world have the same book(s) read aloud to them, by librarians or teachers, and share follow-up projects and reactions with others elsewhere. The idea that kids may take to the book because of the on-line interaction is probably a good one. The organization claims that over 2 million kids have participated since the program’s inception in 2010. Of course the trick is to get the parents to stop regarding book reading as a school activity and figure out that this is a good idea which they themselves might take it up at bedtime.

Cambridge University Press is not the only one to tangle with the forces of regression in China’s literary marketplace.


Jifeng, an underground bookstore (literally — it’s in a subway station below the main public library) in Shanghai is to shut down at the end of January. Their persistent selection of books too liberal-minded for the authorities seems finally to have brought them to grief. Enough is enough: their lease from the library will not be renewed. The library says they have no choice in the matter.

Obviously anyone seeking to keep a lid on any kind of materials available to their citizens is likely to keep an eye on bookshops. Book selection is an even more challenging problem for Chinese booksellers than it is elsewhere. However, as The Economist relates politically risqué books and Western literature in general can often be offered in stores which purvey clothing or café service. The vigilant authorities will probably catch up with many of these, but in the meantime others will open. Whac-a-mole lives. (The Economist piece on-line doesn’t actually show a picture of Jifeng at the top, as their print edition did. Their picture is of the café named 1984 which displays various editions of the Orwell novel, but carefully displays a sign stating “None of the books in this shop is for sale”.)

Barnes & Noble’s shares jumped 6.9% on one day recently because of rumors that the company was about to be sold. The rumors were denied; the share price readjusted. Whatever’s up, there do seems to be problems with our big chain bookseller. They recent announced that although sales were up profit was down — as reported in a Shelf Awareness story on 31 August. Fortune piles on (link sent via The Passive Voice) reporting  year-over-year decreases in same-store sales. They appear to have a proclivity for starting digital initiatives and then looking the other way as developments overtake them. The Digital Reader tells how they seem to have lost sight of Yuzu, their textbook platform, and for all we hear of it NOOK seems to be hiding itself in some remote shady nook. From the outside it surely looks like we are observing a company in trouble. The Digital Reader tells us that B&N’s big plan for salvation is to sell more stuff! Book people always emphasize that they personally don’t believe that B&N is in serious trouble, deprecate the very idea, and certainly claim not to be privy to any real information suggesting such a state of affairs. Of course we can’t afford to say anything different. To this chorus, obviously, I add my voice.

But the nasty question keeps being asked. What if Barnes & Noble went bankrupt? is is the title of a discussion between Nathan Bransford and Mike Shatzkin. Their answer is: bad news for publishers. We have grown accustomed to being able to get lots and lots of copies of big books in front of the public upon publication, and B&N’s a big part of that ability. But I often wonder just how important those front-of-store tables-full of the latest wannabe bestseller really are. Just because this is what we have become used to doesn’t have to mean that some other model (e.g. no chain bookstores) might not work adequately. As Bransford and Shatzkin indicate there are significant financial demands on publishers who deal with Barnes & Noble. At a minimum you have to pay to manufacture the books you print in large quantity: and that frequently means, pay for and kiss goodbye to the books they take. Barnes & Noble, with the encouragement of publishers’ sales reps it’s true, will tend to over-order to be sure they don’t run out of a runaway success. Few books, unfortunately turn out to be runaway successes, so many/most of the books they’ve ordered will be returned to the publisher for credit. Regardless of the cost of shipping stuff back and forth and issuing credit notices, the realities of modern warehousing mean that unless we are talking about an expensive book (and with books ordered in mass quantities we rarely are) the cartons of books will just be destroyed when they come back. To check them for wear-and-tear and then restock them just costs too much, so it’s cheaper to waste returns. Unsurprisingly smaller publishers have to think hard about whether they want to deal with a big customer who often seems almost to be paying for their new purchases with returns of older inventory.

The idea that retailing works best if centralized is only about 100 years old. Are we on the edge of a switch away from that model? It’s not just books that are being affected by on-line sales. We hear rumbles about Macy’s and other department stores. Similar changes can be expected in the grocery business: maybe 50 years is it for the supermarket model of food retailing. Consolidation in the bookstore business was a relatively recent phenomenon — certainly taking place during my working life — and it looks like it’s now going into reverse. Borders disappearance was an early indication of the withering of the mall model of general retail.

It does seem evident that the book business is undergoing big changes. Two words, Self-publishing and Amazon, are enough to indicate the shifting earth. Does it seem realistic to think that that’s the end of it?