05 July 2011


A spectre is haunting bookstores – the spectre of e-publishing and sales.

Historically bookstores and authors have been partners, they have relied upon each other to try and make a go in two fields that have always been a tough business.

But the times have changed. These days, a lot of what is hurting bookstores is helping authors.

How can a store, working on very thin margins, with increasingly high overhead, hope to compete with Amazon and its deep discounts? Or with e-book sales – the only actual growth part of the book market?

And authors cannot afford to ignore Amazon and e-books. Increasingly, to make any kind of living from their writing, they need to focus their attentions on them.

I have read angry tweets and blogposts from booksellers railing against authors who link to Amazon from their websites to sell their books and who are lavishing their promotional attentions on e-book sales. And as a lover of bookstores I can sympathize with that.

But as an author, what am I supposed to do? Just like a bookstore, I’m trying to stay in business.

I make $2.06 from the $2.99 sale of an e-edition of one of my books through Amazon. I make $1.19 when a bookstore sells a trade paperback of the same book at its list price of $14.95. (Sales of my backlist in trade paperback editions had been at a slow trickle over the past couple of years. Now that the e-books are available, my total royalties are on a pace to increase by more than 350 percent this year.)

Have the changes in technology and the market turned authors and traditional booksellers from friend to foe?

It greatly saddens me that so many bookstores have closed, and that so many more are going to close. There is just no way that the new marketplace for books can possibly support nearly as many bookstores as have existed in the past. Only the strongest, most innovative, most creative bookstores are going to survive.

And as someone who loves bookstores, whose first job was in a bookstore, who credits bookstores for some of the minor success I’ve achieved so far as an author, I want to do what I can to help at least some bookstores survive, even thrive.

What can I and other authors do to help bookstores without hurting our own sales? I cannot stop promoting the sales of my e-books or even my paper & ink books that people buy from Amazon or other online sellers. How else am I supposed to earn the money that, among other things, allows me to buy books from bookstores?

The important question for us authors is: what do brick and mortar bookstores offer readers/book buyers that they can’t get cheaper and more conveniently online?

And, just like anyone in business, the next question for us authors is: what’s in it for me? How can working with bookstores help our bottom line?

The one and only thing that traditional bookstores can offer us authors that online booksellers can’t, is personal, face-to-face interaction: between us and the bookseller, between us and the book buying public when we show up for events at bookstores, and between the bookseller - who is representing us authors when they sell our books - and their customers.

How valuable are those things in the modern book marketplace is a vital question for both bookstores and for authors, like me, who still want to work with and support bookstores.

The very sad truth seems to be that the fewer bookstores there are - the less impact bookstore sales have on an author’s bottom line and the less cost-effective it becomes for authors to work with bookstores to promote their books. (If you know what you’re doing, you can reach a whole lot more people in an hour spent online than you will ever reach from any book event – which involve investments of many more hours of time and money.)

I love bookstores and want them to survive and prosper. But there seem to be limits on what I can do to help them.

I can continue to shop at them myself, which I will certainly do.

I can continue to do my best to write books that they can sell. I’d love to write a bestseller for them to sell. That’s what I, and every other author, have always done and it hasn’t changed.

I can put links to independent stores on my website and find other ways to encourage book buyers to shop at those stores. But I can’t afford to not link to Amazon and to my e-books where my readers can, if they choose, buy my books cheaper and more conveniently.

I can continue to do events and drop-in signings at bookstores (if they’ll have me after this blog) in the hope of helping them attract more customers – both to the event and afterwards when they know me and my book better and so they can do a better job of hand-selling. But my publishers have never contributed to my book tours – few publishers do for any of their authors – and events end up costing me time and money, just as they do the stores.

I am sorry to say that as much as I want to help, bookstores can really only help themselves if they want to survive. How they can do that is a subject for a whole lot more discussion and experimentation (if they can afford it with their already slim margins.)

In the meantime, if any booksellers can think of realistic (not charity, not compromising our own sales) ways that we bookstore-loving authors can help, I’d sure love to hear them.


cherryberrypip said...

I love bookstores too -- small and large -- but I don't see how they can survive if they don't embrace the technological changes you mention. For example, could they not use their web sites more actively, perhaps to review books OFF the best-seller lists, which people could order through them? Perhaps they could add a "tax"? Hmmm...

Paul Salvette said...

As you mention, they need to offer more personal interaction and have knowledgeable staff that can recommend titles and know their customers. That's what I look for as a paying customer. It can't just be a clearing house for every title under the sun (which is what Borders became last decade), the only game in town for that is Amazon.com.

UBU said...

In response to Cherry's comment, we have a large website with hundreds of reviews of books - segregated by category - of books we've loved. There's a handy "buy" button attached. And while our website gets many hits, I think people use it as a reference, and then they go on to the library or to Amazon. Eric unfortunately doesn't have too many good news answers for booksellers here. While we are trying to figure out our place in the market place, we are thankful that we carry used books which happily are still cheaper than an e-book in most cases. But I am a print luddite, and plan to go down with the ship.

Nathan said...

I think what bookstores can do better than on-line book sellers is show me things I didn't know I wanted. When I go to Amazon, I already know what I want. When I go to a bookstore, I go to discover what I want. Being able to see faced out books and flip through them is an important part of that process. Having the employees make recommendations is another part. Amazon's "You might also like" function is a pale imitation of that, and doesn't work for me.

Eric said...

Nathan, I'd certainly have to agree with that. Amazon's algorithms are improving for figuring out what you might like based on what you've bought and browsed, but they still can't hold a candle to a bookseller recommending something unexpected based on a conversation.

cherryberrypip said...

The problem is that small bookstores can't compete on price -- only on quality of experience. How to turn that into a profit?? There must be a way....I do know that many older people would like to have help with their e-readers -- charge to load them up with wonderful things?

mamacasz said...

I love bookstores. Always have. I cringe to think of their extinction. But, I go for these reasons:
1) a quiet place to discover new things, like a library experience where I can get a coffee and really spend some time
2) To see authors (readings and signing sessions) I love or discover new ones
3) To support my local business community. I think a good book store helps other businesses. People who read tend to be more educated or intellectual and have a higher margin of disposable income.

By the few amount of comments thus far, I wonder if how to make bookstores profitable and viable in this age is a real impossibility.

I hope a way can be found, but I can't think of anything outside of the reasons I've already mentioned as to why I go to bookstores.

Eric said...

I go to bookstores for the same reasons. As an author, I love going to bookstores and feel that they've been an invaluable resource to me in terms of meeting people who are interested in books and writing, not simply as a place to promote my books. I will feel a very large hole in my life if they disappear, although I don't think they will disappear. I think some are already beginning to find ways to survive all this. It's taking creativity and some investment, but I'm hopeful for at least some of them.

Em Bronstein said...

Eric, I think some of us readers experience the same quandry. I love browsing in bookstores too, but the fact of the matter is that the only ones remotely near me are the big box chains. The closest independent is about an hour's drive roundtrip if there is no traffic so time and gasoline are factors too. I buy over 300 books a year (350 last year) and most of those will not be from an independent. Why? One is that I find that most of the books I buy are not even carried by the independent stores. I buy a lot of books printed in the UK (British authors and translations-none sold by the nearest independent) so either there is a tremendous market up or the independent only carries the title IF it is later published in the US. (It's also the reason I don't buy much in the way of e-books). With US printed books Amazon pricing is hard to beat. It generally means with the same dollars I can support the efforts of three authors instead of two. And the tax is never an issue as I claim my use tax on my income tax every year. Amazon's marketing is also very good for me. I buy a lot of new authors from recommendations on my homepage and from other buyers who 'also bought'.
I love the independents, and sometimes Barnes and Noble, for drawing the touring authors and I have always tried to 'pay' admission by finding something to buy. I realize the day will come where my face to face interactions will possibly be limited to local authors at libraries and major conventions.

Jan Christensen said...

Some things I've seen in some bookstores that I'd love to see in all of them: Regional books. Unusual books--I used to go to B&N for their many aisles of books with subjects I'd never thought about before and usually bought a couple, but those aisles diminished in numbers and it wasn't as much for for me to go there anymore. Reading groups (!)--for mystery readers, romance readers, literary readers, science fiction and fantasy readers, etc. Writer events where the writer doesn't just sign, but gives a talk. Writer's groups, also broken down by genre if there are enough people interested. Popular author's backlists with rotating displays. Poetry readings or short story readings (limit times). Game nights--pick one or two--bridge, chess, anything. In other words, there should be something different going on to draw people in at least twice a week, or even every day and/or night.

Eric said...

Some good ideas there, Jan. I do think that successful bookstores will find ways to reinvent themselves that take advantage of their physical space as an event / meeting space where specific communities can get together. Toss in some value added other things to sell to help supplement book sales, and maybe they'll have a better chance of surviving.

Gary Phillips said...

I wonder though if bookstores have to become hybrids to survive. It didn’t exactly work for Borders -- well, it worked for a while I guess to sell gift items, stuffed bears and what not – but I was thinking of a more rugged model than the coffee shot/bookstore. Like a bar and a bookstore, even just a joint that sold beer and wine. A micro-brewery and bookstore – maybe that too Portlandia, so I don’t know. I do know I still like going into bookstores to prowl about and chancing on something I didn’t know about. The Last Bookstore downtown has moved into a mammoth space and I guess we’ll see if they can make a go of it as I gather they’re planning spoken word events, mini-concerts and so on. I’d say a strip club and bookstore, but then all your money would go into the G-strings.

Eric said...

Hmmm, strip club and bookstore, well, there are so many memoirs these days by strippers, ex-strippers, would be strippers and porn stars who moonlight as strippers that the place would never lack for author events.

Sally Carpenter said...

Bookstores can try to stock more books from small presses that are often overlooked for the more well-known authors and bestsellers. Since many small presses are shut out of bookstores, their only marketing tools are Internet and Amazon. Stores are not helping themselves by ignoring the presses that are driving readers to purchase their books online.

Eric said...

I know that one problem bookstores have with books from small presses is that they often don't have the same return policies as the larger presses do, so stores have to take a bigger financial risk to stock books from small presses. A lot of stores can't afford that.

MysteryWriter said...

It is a real conundrum, Eric. On one hand there is nothing like plucking books that call to you from stockied shelves, but as everyone says, the author can't ignore online resources. Being with a small press, even though two of my books were approved for in-store stock at Barnes & Noble, internet sales definitely are the life blood.

I want to support bookstores because it breaks my heart to see them disappear. My husband and I try to buy books at brick and mortar stores and I also list a link to Independent Bookstores on the front page of my website. But when I profile an author in my Spotlight articles on examiner.com, I generally use the Amazon link. Why? Because it is universal.

The books are easy for the reader to find and/or buy.

That said, perhaps some of the bookstores need to be more friendly to local authors to attract their followings.

The B&N on Maryland Parkway in Las Vegas has been very friendly to the Southern Nevada Sisters in Crime chapter. We hold our meetings there and attendees often walk out having purchased books, both from our speakers and from browsing.

It is hard to say what the future holds. Retailing is no longer the model it was only a few years ago.