How Independent Stores Can Succeed in the Age of the E-book

(Note: The following was an opinion piece  I wrote that appeared in the October 11 issue of Publishers Weekly.)

With all the news about book publishers’ and chains’ struggles to adjust to the digital juggernaut, I’m wondering, possibly counterintuitively, whether this may be a real opportunity for independent booksellers.

For the past 20 years, the book chains have had a marketing strategy that emphasized huge stores with a vast selection of titles and discount pricing. The stores were primarily in high traffic stand-alone locations or in regional and big-box malls that would draw on a large body of shoppers needed to support the overhead.

By the year 2000, the chain superstores’ title selection had been trumped by Internet booksellers. It was also a particularly bad time for independent stores. They did not fare well in a world dominated by media-driven blockbusters, by mass merchants skilled at selling these kinds of books, and by well-financed Internet retailers who offered formidable competition in price, selection, and service. The indies that now seem to be the most robust are the smaller stores that are situated in neighborhood centers serving discrete audiences. What they offer, and what has always been the singular virtue of independent stores, is the uniqueness of the bookseller’s sensibility and taste, the devotion to a very personal kind of customer service, and the vision of the bookstore as a community center.

In the age of the mass merchant and the big-box retailer, these values were often eclipsed. But with the rise in popularity of e-books and the struggles of the huge superstores to adjust to this new model, the smaller independents will reap benefits by serving those customers who will always exist to buy traditional books. And let us not forget that ineffable, even sensual,  experience of browsing that will forever be lost in the marketplace of e-books. As e-books become the dominant platform, which now seems all but inevitable, those virtues will become all the more apparent and valued by comparison.

But there is possibly even more good news for independents. Let us also hope that the economic paradigm that seems to be emerging is one where the big Internet companies are not able to compete by ruinous price competition, a strategy that has always served them well, and a game that independents can never win. When the retail price is determined by the publisher, as it is in the new “agency” models, for the first time the independents can compete in price on a level playing field and, at the same time, offer comparable selection and superior service.

Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, wrote a brilliant article in the July 14 issue of the Nation. He pointed out that the huge proliferation of choice engendered by Internet bookselling and by the growth of POD self-publishing has had the paradoxical effect of reducing the ability of the book buyer to make his or her own informed evaluations and choices. This is made manifest in book publishing by the tragic decline of the midlist, which has been caught between the Scylla of the commercial blockbuster and the Charybdis of the undifferentiated mediocrity of self-publishing. (Begging your pardon. There are also lost masterpieces in the self-publishing world. But they tend to be just that – lost.)

And in this environment as well, the independent is in the strongest position to profit from this development by being uniquely positioned to offer informed guidance to the book buyer.

People in the book business have always had and still have a sentimental attachment to the independent bookseller as the “heart and soul” of the business. But with the coming of the e-book revolution, it just might be possible that the indies will again become an economic force to be reckoned with, and the idea that bookselling is a vocation, not just a business, will gain a new life and a new stature, and will again be a virtue to be valued in the marketplace as well as in our hearts.



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