Archives for category: Bookstores

Are bookstores a cultural good? And does this mean they should somehow be supported from public funds? Book Culture’s financial troubles make us think once more about public support for book shops. Mr Doeblin asks for a loan of at least half a million dollars.* Is this the only way to go?

With coincidental good timing The Economist‘s issue of 6 July includes an article about public support for bookstores in France. A law from 1981 bans the sale of any book at a price different from the price assigned by the publisher. The focus of the piece is just how the law should work in a digital world. “The fixed-price rule is meant to keep customers loyal to their local bookshop and out of the clutches of supermarkets and hypercapitaliste American corporations. But the advent of e-commerce and e-readers has prompted questions worthy of their own tomes. Can you fix the price of a book if it is part of an all-you-can-read subscription service? Are audiobooks books at all? And what of authors who self-publish?” In 2011 the law was adjusted to apply to ebooks. Used books are exempt, but of course you’re not going to have to check for fingerprints belonging to a putative previous owner when you open your Amazon partner package.

The argument against resale price maintenance projects is that they raise prices, or maybe more accurately, prevent them from falling. Britain got rid of its New Book Agreement in the nineties largely for this reason. Depending on your point of view this has been a great thing, or a national tragedy. Books are available in a wider variety of places, and sales have increased. Pricing is an essential tool for mass marketing, and bestselling books are more widely available and at lower prices than they were before the end of resale price maintenance. On the other hand as England’s Restrictive Practices Court foresaw, the number of stockholding bookshops has been reduced; although certain titles are cheaper, the price of most books is higher; and it has become much harder to publish titles of literary and scholarly value. I do believe that resale price maintenance does save bookstores.

I always feel I’m doomed to be on the wrong side of this argument about cultural goods. The trouble with state subsidization of culture like the opera, art galleries, symphony orchestras (and books, if they were subsidized) is that what gets subsidized is what we, the cultural elite, want to have subsidized, not what everyone might chose. I’m not sure I know what the masses would like to see subsidized, if such an issue was ever raised among them, but I doubt if it’s opera. I love opera and am delighted to benefit from state subsidization whenever I come across it, but I cannot really justify spending other people’s tax payments on making my seat at Götterdämmerung a bit less expensive. By extension, books.

Is there any way to parlay the fracturing of the book business represented by the growth of digital media and self publishing into some solution to the cultural good issue. Would it help serious publishing and serious bookselling if we were to have some form of resale price maintenance for print books? To some extent (a large extent?) print books are already a sort of elite product. A few years ago this would have been crazy to think this way: we were all worrying that print books were going to disappear before the flood of ebooks. Now I don’t think we fear this any longer. Do we have the confidence to say that print books are for committed print book readers, and discounting them is not essential to their sales success?

Part of me says “Yes of course”, but then another little voice says “Amazon, Amazon” and I have to admit that it may too late to think about saving any kind of widespread bookstore universe.


* We need to remove from the conversation the Amazon New York HQ deal which Mr Doeblin explicitly cites as a justification for help for his business. This sort of thing is an entirely different kettle of fish. Whatever one thinks of it, states and cites do often give tax breaks to (mostly big) companies to attract them to move into their locality, or often to persuade them not to leave. The justification for this is that the large company will generate so much tax revenue, via corporate taxes, income taxes, sales taxes and so on that the subsidy is a mere sprat next to the long-term revenue mackerel. This has nothing to do with culture, good or bad. It’s all about money.

Book Culture, booksellers, have four locations in New York City: two near Columbia University, one near the Natural History Museum, and one in Long Island City. They are facing financial difficulties. Am I wrong to feel that they pushing it a bit in asking us to bail them out? The Columbia Spectator reports that the mini-chain’s owner, Chris Doeblin, claims they need $500,000 from taxpayers in order to stay open. We all acknowledge that there are problems with the economics of the book business, and obviously moving to a $15 minimum wage has a big effect on the equation. With 75 staff spread over four locations, it clearly adds up to quite a shock to the system when their hourly rate jumps quite sharply (if not altogether unexpectedly). Shelf Awareness of 3 July tells us Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris is working on the case. Will this do anything? Mr Doeblin says his landlords have been cooperative, so my normal reaction to bookstore problems, “blame the landlords”, isn’t the appropriate one here.

A report in Fast Company has Mr Doeblin justifying his request for help by citing the deal negotiated (and later repudiated by) Amazon. Well, yes; and well, no. Book Culture has a slightly smaller footprint that Amazon, and doesn’t need tempting to come to New York: that’s where they are. The Book Culture LIC location is right next door to where the Amazon headquarters might have appeared! However, though Amazon does of course sell books, the tax incentives they were offered were directed not towards funding a bookshop or two, but toward the establishment of a headquarters office with a supposed creation of 25,000 high paying jobs. These jobs were estimated to lead over 25 years to a $13.5 billion benefit to the city in tax revenues as well as the effects of consumption by new well-off residents. Can Book Culture suggest even a proportional boost for the city if we give them a loan? Sure we want bookstores. But we probably want them to stand on their own feet. The implication that $15 an hour is the root cause of the problem is a bit unfair: you can’t blame staff for the balance sheet. As the various articles cited suggest, Mr Doeblin has not always had the best of relations with staff and unions, and although he’s not baldly blaming staff pay for the stores’ financial troubles, the tendency of his argument does point in that direction. Might there not be other management issues? I still believe the key to bookstore economics should be rent control for “essential businesses”, with maybe some sort of culture-value discount on taxes. But a gift of half a million dollars? Should I feel better thinking of it as a repayable gift, given today but set off against future taxes?

According to Gothamist on 24 June, “On Monday afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer issued a statement in support of Book Culture, saying, ‘Independent stores like Book Culture should get more support from the government. My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve.’” Maybe we are going to be able to work something out. Is “independent stores . . . should get more support from government” just something to say, or does it carry any real policy content?

Of course I don’t know anything about the details of the economics of Book Culture’s business, but how about cutting back to three locations? Two locations? Clearly Columbia University has been supportive. “When the bookstore realized that it would face significant hurdles following the minimum wage raise, Columbia lowered rent prices for the store’s 114th Street and Broadway location so they could stay in business” The Columbia Spectator reports. Although Columbia has a college bookstore deal with Barnes & Noble, Book Culture does act like a bit of a college bookstore: when I went in to buy a copy of Patty Smith’s Just Kids in their main location I was directed upstairs to the college department because the book was on a Columbia reading list. Does this not suggest that maybe they owe Columbia a bit of loyalty in return?


It looks like rain and so I step inside.
Another bookshop: rows of shelves and stacks,
At least a dozen rooms where I can hide
Among the faded Penguin paperbacks.
I breathe the musty air and then begin
To rummage round. Before too long I’ve spied
Something in which to feign an interest:
Dog-eared and foxed, with pages folded in,
Some local writer. I am unimpressed,

But what I light on next is even worse:
The Vegan Cookbook, Yorkshire from the Air,
Teach Yourself Danish, Esperanto Verse,
Though I suppose the things that I find there
Are only what I ought to have expected.
I choose a book and, rooting through my purse
I make my way back to the door again
And, having paid for what I’ve just selected,
I step back out into the icy rain.

I wonder why I’m drawn to shops like these,
Heaving with dusty, battered hand-me-downs,
The ramshackle discarded libraries
In quiet back streets of provincial towns
Where I can while away the hours and read.
I wonder, too, why I feel so at ease
Amidst pulp fiction sold at knock-down prices.
And shops like this still satisfy a need
When we all carry digital devices.

I held a slick new tablet once, to see
What it was like – a bookstore in the “cloud” –
Thousands of books downloadable for free,
A function that could read the text out loud.
One swipe across the screen removed the text –
Plastic and metal have no history –
No scribbled notes, no underlined key phrase,
No sense of past – a perfect palimpsest –
No dedications; everything erased.

No; give me attics, landings where floors creak
Weighed down by lovely leather folios,
The scent of slowly mouldering antique,
And cloth-bound volumes, green and brown and rose,
If only in the hope that what’s long dead,
Can have a proper form through which to speak
Or the illusion that between the pages
I still might hear what long ago was said
And feel myself connected with the ages.

~ Charles Jenkins

Picked up from The Passive Voice. Presumably © Charles Jenkins

I guess everyone now knows about the somewhat surprising purchase of Barnes & Noble by Elliott Management, a venture capital group who also rescued Waterstones in UK. Vulture provides a time-line history of Barnes and Noble, starting only from Len Riggio’s acquisition of the company in 1971, at which point it was already expanding beyond its Cooper Union origins.

Mike Shatzkin‘s not beating about any bushes: he doesn’t think James Daunt can pull off the same trick with Barnes & Noble as he appears to have done with Waterstones. Actually, I don’t really think it is quite the same trick he’s being asked to pull off. Waterstones was never a transatlantic clone of B&N. Which just means I don’t think the trick will work either, just more emphatically. It’s hard to see how the constantly changing inventory advocated by Mr Shatzkin could be organized in a physical bookstore let alone a collection of lots of stores. Workers would spend all their time opening cartons and packing books for return. Trying to reproduce conditions available online in a bricks-and-mortar environment is a Sisyphean task: which of course is just the problem.

I believe that we have lived through the era of the gigantic bookstore. A meteor killed the dinosaurs; the Amazon drowned the chains. That the warehouse store model did indeed work for books in a pre-internet age is indisputable. That lots of money can be made from books is shown by this weird article from The New Yorker, recounting an odd initiative by a Riggio literary charity funded by money earned during Barnes & Noble’s glory days. It took me quite a while to decide whether the article was fiction or non-fiction. I’m still not sure though I’m plumping for real. “The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship” is undoubtedly strange.

A number of writers were invited to turn up for a “’congress of writers’ that would teach skills and speak truth to power”. Who was organizing it and why was shrouded in mystery, but Daniel A. Gross agreed to try it out. In the end the thing he got out of the experience was this article for The New Yorker, not nothing of course. Buried in the middle of his article is the odd sentence, used as a pull quote by Jane Friedman in forwarding the link, “I wish someone had told me that early-career writers are the cheap gas on which much of the writing business runs.” Maybe I’m just too dumb to be an early-career writer (or too old) but I can’t figure out exactly what this means, and I doubt, if someone had muttered this cryptic warning to Mr Gross, things would have turned out any different. So he got $5,000 from the Riggio Foundation for turning up a few afternoons for “the pedagogy” after the fellowship program was cancelled, not the $10,000 promised at the outset, but I don’t see who in the writing business (if such a business really does exist) benefitted from his gas, which as far as I can tell wasn’t sold particularly cheaply, if indeed any product changed hands. It’s fascinating to know that there are people with money who think this sort of gathering does any good — I’m forced to believe they apparently do since nevertheless such programs do take place. There’s always something new.

Richard Charkin’s Mensch Publishing has reached its first anniversary. They published one book, well received and sold, and Mr Charkin asks “If a book as successful as this only just manages to cover its costs over time, what’s going wrong in our industry?”

Mensch sold 3,270 copies of Guy Kennaway’s Time To Go earning £16,389. This almost covered costs, and future sales will probably get there.

Mr Charkin reports that, on UK sales he got about £7 a copy; and as he put it “In other words, the retailer is on average receiving a potential, before discounting, of £9 a copy, by far the largest element of the value chain with no stock risk attached.  Can this be right? Can it be sustained? Can our industry afford for it not to be sustained?”

Not easy questions to answer, though right and wrong probably don’t come into it. Surely to suggest that something has changed and has started “going wrong in our industry” is historically inaccurate. Hasn’t it always been like this? Most of the books which get published will lose some money; many, like Mensch’s one, will break even, and a select few will breakout and pay the rent. If you only have one book it’d be nice to think it might become a bestseller, but as there’s probably something less than a 1% chance this happening, it’s not too surprising that it doesn’t. Publishing has never been an easy way to make money: it can of course happen, but it’s hard to plan for continuous bonanza. We work on the basis of throwing masses of spaghetti at the wall and hoping some of it will stick. I once worked for a company where the call come down from senior management that we should publish fewer books and they should be only bestsellers. You need not ask how that went.

Sure, the man in the street assumes that the publisher gets the vast majority of the money the punter spends when buying a book, but this, as we in the game all know, is just miles from the truth. It is what it is. If bookstores start going under the situation will only get worse, as Amazon grows from its current 50% (?) of the retail book market towards 100%. That way just guarantees demands for bigger and bigger discounts. Maybe we need to go back to the beginnings of our industry where him as printed it sold it. Sure it’d be a loss to give up all the showroom space provided by bookstores around the world, but making the retail sale yourself does have a dramatic effect on the profitability of the sale.

See also Start your own publishing house.

The One Book, One New York book for 2019 has just been announced: it is Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Goodreads describes it thus “In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work — from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.” Epochal days? I seem to remember constantly threatening bankruptcy, but as Ms Smith said on WNYC when the announcement of her book’s selection was made, the great thing about the city then was that it was so “economically welcoming”.

Do literacy programs like Big Reads really work? asks Terena Bell at The Outline. (Link via Literary Hub.) Nancy Pearl got the ball rolling in 1998 with Seattle Reads and that seems to have been successful: by 2005 Seattle was adjudged the nation’s most literate city. The overall answer to Ms Bell’s question seems to be that these mass reading programs probably do work, but we can’t really tell. Maybe we should all just ask our local bookstores if nomination has a noticeable effect on sales: I had a little difficulty locating a copy yesterday, partly because it’s on reserve for class reading at Columbia University. This morning Amazon says they’ve only got three copies of the paperback left in stock, though it doesn’t show in their top twenty bestseller list.

In the meantime: get out there and buy a copy from your local independent bookstore. Your reading schedule kicks off on 10 May with an event at Symphony Space as part of the PEN America World Voices Festival.

Richard Charkin, writing at Publishing Perspectives in recollection of his years of work with the Publishers Association tells this tale:

. . . it was common practice for overseas booksellers to tear out and return title pages of [medical] books for credit rather than incur the cost of shipping heavy books back to the UK. One of our members, Peter Wolfe, noticed that a particular Singaporean bookseller’s returned title pages had four straight edges rather than three. The bookseller had worked out that it was more cost-effective to reprint title pages for credit than to pirate whole books and that big Western distribution centers wouldn’t spot the fraud. It took a small medical publisher to do so and put an end to the practice for the whole industry.

We book publishers tend to assume that, because we are obviously not motivated by money (otherwise we wouldn’t be in the business!) nobody that we deal with could possibly be afflicted with that bug. It always comes as a surprise to us when someone pulls a fast one. This is a good feature of our business, but too much abuse cannot but tend to erode this philanthropic world view.

The reason why we would accept for credit just the torn-off covers from mass market paperbacks was that the books were not worth the cost of sending them back to the warehouse: the same reason, at a different scale, for the decision not to have medical books shipped back from the other side of the globe. As my earlier post, End returns? suggested, the returning and crediting of books is a cumbersome and expensive process, so avoiding it with cheap books is absolutely logical. The assumption of course is that the bookseller will destroy the now coverless book, and NOT sell it off at a huge discount. As a publisher, I naturally assume that booksellers do all comply with this deal, and that those coverless books which seep into the market all come from the garbage pickup crews. (No doubt there are people out there willing to write in support of the inherent honesty of dustmen, and I apologize for using them as a whipping boy even if ironically.) It’s obviously a bit more expensive to print up a cover for a mass market paperback than it is for the title page of an expensive medical text, so I would imagine nobody’s ever tried this one on.

Publishers need bookstores. The relationship between these two branches of the book business is however potentially fraught. As it’s the publisher who sets retail price and discount on their books booksellers can be imagined occasionally to chafe under their inability to improve margins. Of course a bookseller can mark up the price of a book, but with easy access to pricing information customers can also walk out and buy elsewhere, so only the most ballsy bookseller can try this one. To the extent that book prices rise in step with inflation the problem is mitigated, but the difficulty comes when rents, especially, race upward at their own frenetic pace.

This is the fifth year we’ve been doing this. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seems to be working.

The organization’s website is here.

So, on Saturday go buy a book (or two).

Last year saw a net increase of 18 bookshops in Britain despite overall declines in retail store numbers. Here’s Shelf Awareness‘ 12 April story:

British Bookshops Defy Negative High Street Trends

Although a record number of small retailers closed in Britain last year–an average of 16 stores a day–bookshops “are bucking the trend,” the Bookseller reported. A record net 2,481 stores disappeared from Great Britain’s top 500 high streets in 2018. In total, 3,372 shops opened, compared to 5,833 closures. (2017 net loss: -1,772 stores), according to PwC research compiled by the Local Data Company.

Despite the widespread decline, “bookshops took second spot of the biggest growth categories after gyms with ice cream parlors. Bookshops reported a net change of 18 units with 42 openings and 24 closures,” the Bookseller wrote.

While welcoming the news, Booksellers Association managing director Meryl Halls said, “We are delighted that the PwC report confirms the strong showing for bookshops on our high streets that the BA highlighted earlier in the year, and we continue to be immensely proud of the hard work and creativity by booksellers that has led to this situation…

“Booksellers are creative and deft, but they can’t save high streets by themselves. We need to work in collaborations and civic partnerships with others to ensure our high streets survive and flourish, and we need government to recognize the enormous part high street retail plays in the culture and economy of the U.K. and act to support it, partly through business rates reform, which currently clearly unfairly favors online and out of town retail.”

Only gyms with ice cream parlors increased more quickly! I guess you put it on and take it off in one handy location. Food for the mind usually doesn’t require you to sweat it off, but after coffee shops and wine bars, is an ice cream parlor with a couple of treadmills the next idea for a bookshop?

What happened in USA? Well, during 2018 the American Booksellers Association gained 96 new members and in 2017, 75. The ABA is a membership organization which stores have to pay to belong to, so its membership list is by no means synonymous with “the independent bookstore”, but maybe we can assume a similar trend throughout the entire bookstore universe. In an NPR interview last year Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School, claimed that between 2009 and “today” the number of independent bookstores in the USA increased by 40%. This piece from Statista shows a similar picture, slightly lower for companies, rather higher for locations. There’s a graph illustrating this at the link.

The long and the short of it is that for the moment independent bookstores are more than holding their own: sales increased about 5% last year according to Professor Raffaelli. I went to The Shed in Hudson Yards last week after it had been open for a couple of days, and they too have a bookstore.

See also Independent bookstores, where there’s a Professor Raffaelli video.

OK, it’s short, and it may take you longer to queue up to get it for free than it’ll take you to read it, but who wouldn’t like a free short story from one of the three vending machines which have just been put up at Canary Wharf? The Guardian brings us the story.

Here’s one at the station, where it looks like it may risk getting in the way of rush-hour commuters.

Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I noted these machines a couple of years ago. According to another Guardian story, the same French company, Short Édition, is the one supplying the machines. They have many installations around the world: you can find a map here which you can enlarge to see where to go to get your stories. New York’s a desert: the nearest are the three machines in Boston and three in the Philadelphia area. (You can, it seems, also read the stories online at the Short Édition site.) Obviously someone has to pay for these machines, the writing, the paper, the maintenance. Another Guardian story tells us “The cost is borne by businesses, which are encouraged to install the machines as a way of improving customer experiences and preventing people from getting cross or bored.” Well, OK. Let’s hope these businesses continue to think it a good idea. I’m not expecting the New York subway system to spend part of their anticipated windfall from congestion charging on short stories. Inevitably they’re not even going to be getting enough fully to replace the 100-year old points. Maybe we need a wealthy commuter.

Here’s a promo video showing Francis Ford Coppola getting on board — but, more importantly, also showing the machine in operation.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link.