Archives for category: Bookstores

At least in the UK the sales gap between ebooks and p-books (print books) appears to have narrowed. The New Publishing Standard sends us a report that the Publishers Association’s latest sales numbers for 2020 show an overall annual increase of 2%. Print sales were down 6% to £3.4 billion, while digital sales rose 12% to £3 billion: only a £400,000,000 gap. NPS provides more detail, though he does allow a little distortion by discussing sometimes total sales and sometimes trade sales only.

Perspective demands that one note that these numbers represent one year’s data, and for most of the period reported on bookshops were actually shut or running a sort of skeleton operation, making it much easier to get hold of an ebook than its physical manifestation. But a change is a change, and we have to take note of it. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the proportion of ebook to print-book sales had remained fairly steady during the pandemic (in America). Thus this British evidence should provoke some rethinking. Should we rush to the conclusion that the print book is dead?

The idea that publishers don’t want to sell ebooks seems deeply entrenched in the mind of the commentariat. As long as publishers “have to” print physical copies, we will remain fixated on selling them: ebooks don’t represent a tying up of your capital in inventory which, if it doesn’t move out of the warehouse, has the potential ultimately to bring you down. Publishers don’t print physical books because they hate ebooks: they print p-books because the majority of their customers prefer them. Given this capital consumption, it cannot be surprising that publishers appear fixated on printed books. Is change a-coming? Nobody could argue that 2020 was typical in any way — so this data comes from a pretty cloudy source.

Nevertheless this is the first suggestion for years that the relative popularity of ebooks might actually be increasing. Will this trend continue? Wait and see is about all I can say.

David Gaughran (link via The Passive Voice) provides a hugely detailed description of how Amazon’s recommendation and “People who bought this also bought that” systems work in their online store. “Other retailers do have rudimentary recommendation engines, but Amazon is quite literally years ahead of the competition.” They also use the technique in stocking and displaying the books their quasi-showcase bricks-and-mortar shops.

Mr Gaughran has written a book entitled Amazon Decoded from which much of this is no doubt derived. His focus is on self-publishing and how the self publisher can best adapt to Amazon’s algorithms. Surprise, surprise metadata is important.

How much of an effect does this sort of remorselessly placing books and more books in front of your customers actually have? If Amazon does it, I think we can assume it has an effect.

I recently wondered if these automated recommendation systems might actually be the reason for last year’s uptick in backlist as against new book sales. Any book you choose must be able to provoke the thought, if you liked A you might like B, and the algorithm putting this into action is bound to work with books which have sales large enough to register as good candidates — this means books already published and sold; i.e. backlist. Someone browsing in a store is, on the other hand, more likely to find the new book they are looking at surrounded by other new books. In so far as it’s in the shop, the backlist will be spine-out on a nearby shelf.

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LitHub links to this Washington Post story about how independent bookstores have fared during the pandemic. Overall the answer has to be better than feared, I think. US bookstore sales were down about a third over the year before. The threat however isn’t just the loss of a third of your sales — the bigger risk is that customers may have become accustomed to getting their books by other means. We all could assume Amazon would prosper in such a world, but who’d have forecast that Target and Walmart would have become major book outlets?

Kerbside pickup, mailing books to buyers, and other dodges helped to preserve a significant portion of the market. After reopening things seem to be looking up a bit. James Daunt gave an upbeat report on Barnes & Noble’s progress at the IPBA conference: Publishers Weekly has the story. Of course it was only a week ago, on April 12th, that British bookshops were allowed to reopen at all — who knows what shaking out there may yet be? Early reactions are not discouraging.

One thing publishers have noticed (and remember that many/most publishers did rather well in 2020) is that sales of new books suffered while older books, backlist, picked up hugely. For example Amazon’s bestselling book for 2020 was a novel published in 2018: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. Wannabe blockbuster books which were published in 2020 have no doubt missed their chance. The New York Times writes about the phenomenon and attributes the backlist surge to readers seeking the solace of the familiar. My bet is that this reliance on the old familiar had more to do with Amazon’s recommendation system — those messages where if you look for X they’ll tell you that people who liked X also loved Y. To get into this virtuous cycle of recommendation and counter-recommendation you have to sell a lot of copies. In a world where older books are the ones with the sales, it becomes harder and harder for a new book to break into this back-scratching circle. Maybe in this thought lies some encouragement for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore: in order to launch a moonshot we need lots of people to buy lots of copies in lots of bookstore outlets.

The 24th of April fast approaches. Get out and celebrate by buying lots of books. More details can be found at IndieBound’s website.

For the competitive, from April 17th till April 24th, Independent Bookstore Day will choose a random winner from posts about your local independent bookstore on Instagram, or Twitter. Include #BookstoreShoutOut and/or #IndieBookstoreDay. “Winners will receive an Independent Bookstores of the Unites States map from Pop-Chart, a 2021 IBD tote bag, and credit for free audiobooks courtesy of Libro.fm.”

“Booksellers Against Trick Spines” was originally an April Fool’s gag, but the problem of trick spines might have some basis in reality. A trick spine is the name someone has given to book spines which don’t look anything like the front cover of the book. Brilliant Books gives a few examples. Some of these spines are indeed starkly different from the front cover art: One Long River Song has a yellow spine but hardly any yellow on the blue front; The Body Keeps Score ditto, with orange instead of yellow. One can see how this might make a spine-out book difficult to locate on the shelf: the memory of the book you have internalized is the front cover.

Well of course this is by no means cause for major concern, but I do think “good” design would tend to call for some relationship between the various panels making up a cover. After all a good design should stick in the mind, and become integrated with the overall idea of the book in question, facilitating picking it out in a crowd. Given that in most bookstore crowds the only bit of the book that’s going to be seen is the spine, that should argue for a bit of primacy being given to that portion of the design. And I don’t mean by this those annoying little boxed duplicates of the illustration on the front cover which became such a fashionable trick a few years back. I think the design of the whole cover should be one integrated whole.

The original joke, picked up in a Shelf Awareness update on recent April 1 “initiatives”, includes this logo for the supposed organization dedicated to countering the plague.

While booksellers driven batty by this problem might solve the issue by training and alphabetical ordering, perhaps we should also bear in mind the needs of the home library user with the seeker desperately trying to locate that blue cover while all that’s exposed to view is a yellow or orange strip. Almost makes you want to settle for a boring alphabetical arrangement for your books. I keep mine in serendipity-inducing randomness — constant inspection is needed to keep fixed in your mind where any individual book is to be found.

Might the trick spine be a problem, real or imaginary, which finds its origins in the increasing importance of online bookselling? All the design attention nowadays gets focussed on the need for a striking front cover, one which will be readily identifiable when reduced to the thumbnail size we are likely to encounter online, so that the spine and the back cover almost become afterthoughts.

Photo: Inhabitat.com, from The Karachiite

Apparently they’ve been around since 2015. Morioka Shoten is a bookshop in the Ginza district of Tokyo. It’s small and utterly exclusive — it sells one book only (in multiple copies though). This ultimate in curation sees a different book selected for sale each week: if you don’t like this week’s book, come back in a few days and see if you like that one any better.

For those of you fluent in Japanese it will come as no surprise to learn that the founder of the bookshop is Yoshiyuki Morioka — shoten means just bookstore. Mr Morioka explains in The Guardian “Before opening this bookstore in Ginza, I had been running another one in Kayabacho for 10 years. There, I had around 200 books as stock, and used to organise several book launches per year. During such events, a lot of people visited the store for the sake of a single book. As I experienced this for some time, I started to believe that perhaps with only one book, a bookstore could be managed.” 

Apparently the store was advertised as being based on the philosophy of ‘Issatu Issatu’, roughly translated as ‘A Single Room, A Single Book’. Tough to keep up with all the new philosophies! This one seems to be working.

When I was a youth bookshops used to stick little labels inside the back cover of the books they had in stock so you knew which shop you’d bought it at. My impression is that every shop did this, but I can’t find evidence for this, and almost all my books don’t have any such label. I did find a couple.

The Holliday Bookshop opened in 1920. They continued book-dealing till 1951, having moved in 1925 to 49th Street. University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center site The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door has a short remembrance. The book involved is a quasi-collectible edition of some Austin Dobson verses published by Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, and printed in in 1895 in Edinburgh at The Ballantine Press. The Story of Rosina and Other Verses has lots of nice line illustrations by Hugh Thomson, (Who also did the illustrations for my Jane Austen books.)

The second one is significant (to me anyway). It is inside the back cover of Thomas Mann’s Tristan in the Reclam paperback edition, and shows that I paid 65 Pfennig for it (0.65 deuschmarks), which was pretty cheap — probably too cheap to warrant the time spent pasting your little label in it. I bought it in March 1961, and am relieved to say I finally got around to reading it almost exactly sixty years later. The book is in amazingly good shape. Although a groundwood sheet was used it has browned very little. The perfect binding is still “perfect”. Not sure how the book would fare in English translation. It’s written in a rather Biblical idiom, old-fashioned and elaborate, and the rhythm of the German seems spot-on in the passage where the heroine, “Herr Klöterjahns Gattin” (Mr. K’s spouse/helpmeet as she is constantly referred to) orgiastically and fatally plays a piano transcription of Tristan und Isolde. It’s almost as if Wagner had been the author of the accompanying text.

I bought the book at Beier Books & Stationery in Murnau in Ober-Bayern where I spent some time (1 month?) at The Goethe Institute ostensibly improving my German, but mostly chatting in English with the other foreign students. I remember a few Egyptians, at least one Lebanese, as well as one French youth you used to stride about cussing “sonne avez biche” under his breath all the time. Not sure, but I think I may have lived above Beier’s: I remember the door up an alley off the main drag, with a view from my window of the top of the church’s onion dome spire. Murnau am Staffelsee was the center of the Blaue Reiter movement, and one could (anachronistically) imagine bumping into Wassily Kandinsky or Gabriele Münter round the next corner. Like the painters it seems that Beier’s is gone.

Reclam, a most estimable publishing house if you are a student of German, announced its Universal-Bibliothek in the 13 November 1867 issue of the Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel. The company was founded in 1828. Apparently there were quite a few cheap-book imprints back then, but Reclam’s the one that survived. Their success depended on the early adoption of stereotyping. By 1942 the Universal Library consisted of 7,500 titles priced at “2 Silber-groschen” each. (The Silber-groschen was eventually replaced by the 10 Pfennig piece.) No. 1 and No. 2 in the series, both of which I happen to own, are, appropriately Goethe’s Faust, Parts one and two. The books weren’t all short ones either: No. 153, E. T. A. Hoffman’s Kater Murr clocks in at 520pp. The firebombing of Leipzig in 1943 and 1944 destroyed this inventory, but the grandsons of the founder reestablished the company in Stuttgart, where they are still active, claiming 3,000 backlist titles.

Here’s a third bookshop sticker, this one at the front, from Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (now the CUP bookshop).

I still have half a dozen or so of my Reclam books, but I appear to have ditched the French equivalents, the Classiques Larousse. Why don’t Britain or America have an equivalent cheap-o series of literary classics? I think it’s economics. (I don’t count Oxford’s World Classics as really cheap.) If you devote a section of your bookshop/warehouse/publishing program to little cheap books, you’ll find it harder to pay the rent! It requires an almost evangelical cultural commitment to the belief that cheap books are good for us all to make such a series available. In the English-speaking world we seem to have tangled up value and money into one sticky mass.

No doubt the reason bookshops don’t stick labels in their books any more is that they are now quite likely to want to return the book for credit when they fail to sell it. Such a label would result in the hurting of the book.

It’s an exaggeration, but there’s something to it, that the world is on its way to becoming one big village. We certainly haven’t taken this idea totally on board yet, but we’ve always known that what drives book sales is really that invaluable, hard to create, word of mouth. Thus The New York Times can express mild surprise at the fact that two teenage sisters in Brighton can apparently effortlessly cause thousands of their followers to buy a copy of a book they particularly like. More specifically thousands of copies of a book which reduces them to tears — which effect they video and post on Tik-Tok. Apparently seeing someone cry at the end of a book triggers an irresistible impulse to experience the same emotion. Lots of young ladies are now doing the same kind of book reviewing — there seems to be an insatiable appetite.

The phenomenon has its own hashtag #BookTok — TikTok is better at moving books that other social media platforms. The book trade is paying attention. “Many Barnes & Noble locations around the United States have set up BookTok tables displaying titles like ‘They Both Die at the End,’ ‘The Cruel Prince,’ ‘A Little Life’ and others that have gone viral. There is no corresponding Instagram or Twitter table, however, because no other social-media platform seems to move copies the way TikTok does.”

Would you be surprised to learn that money is elbowing its way into the picture? “Now publishers are starting to catch on, contacting those with big followings to offer free books or payment in exchange for publicizing their titles.” Some opinion makers suggest fees of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Random House Children’s Books now “works with” about 100 TikTok reviewers.

No doubt cynicism will take over, as teenagers twig that some of the influencers are actually getting paid. Who does not approach Amazon reviews with large quantities of salt at the ready? Still, we used to be quite good at figuring out who in the village we should ignore when the gossip started.

Appears to be on 4th of March this year despite what Google may tell you.

Wait for it: only a few days now. Meanwhile visit their site which tells you how to get books for a £.

This is a UK celebration despite the title, so don’t go breaking coronavirus restrictions in California hoping to join in the festivities. World Book Day is funded by contributing publishers and sponsored by National Book Tokens Ltd and other supporters, as well as participating booksellers.

Here MC Grammar tells you all about their vouchers. He’ll make readers of us all.

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

I noticed World Book Days in 2020 and 2013 too.

LATER: “More than 110,000 people in the U.K. tuned into World Book Day‘s Share a Story Live digital events program over three days, far exceeding the 10,000-person attendance recorded for live events in previous years, theBookseller reported” — reported to us by Shelf Awareness on 9 March