Assessing the Health of Independent Bookshops

26 February 2015

From The New York Times:

In a 1936 essay, George Orwell recognized one of the main difficulties of owning an independent bookshop: turning a profit. The bookshop, he wrote, “is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” Nearly 80 years on, the business has hardly gotten easier.

More than one-third of the independent bookshops in Britain and Ireland have disappeared in the past decade, unable to compete with large retailers — chiefly Amazon — who use their superior market position to offer deep discounts on printed and digital books.

According to data released last week from the Booksellers Association, which represents independent publishers, the downward trend continued last year, with around 50 bookshops closing, including one of England’s oldest, the Ibis Bookshop in Banstead, Surrey, which was a mainstay on the town’s high street for 78 years. Tim Godfray, the Booksellers Association’s chief executive, said it had been difficult to watch one store close after the next. “The last few years have been really tough,” he added.

. . . .

 In the United States, independent bookstores have rebounded strongly from the financial crisis, increasing their numbers by 27 percent since 2009, according to data from the American Booksellers Association. The group’s chief executive, Oren Teicher, said American indie bookshops have filled the vacuum left by big box bookstores like Borders (which went out of business in 2011) and Barnes & Noble (which has closed hundreds of stores). They have also capitalized on a spirit of localism and urban renewal that is coursing through some American cities. “The enthusiasm and optimism is pretty staggering,” Mr. Teicher said. “Despite all the quantum leaps in technology, the fact is nothing beats a physical, bricks-and-mortar store to discover books that you didn’t know about.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Waterstones’ boss James Daunt on taking the fight to Amazon

25 February 2015

From Management Today:

The question everyone still wants answered is why? There you are, happily running a clutch of acclaimed, independent bookshops branded with your own name, making a decent profit, meeting interesting people, employing motivated staff, growing slowly at your own pace, which leaves you time for all the other important things in life, such as family and travel and reading and hobbies and fun, and you park all that on one side and take on a vast, broken business like Waterstones, with its millions of pounds of losses, its thousands of anxious employees and hundreds of muddled-up shops.

Why? James Daunt cocks his grey head thoughtfully. ‘Because if I didn’t, my world was going to change radically and with pretty severe implications for everyone in this industry including me.’

And yet, had Waterstones, Britain’s last national bookshop chain, closed in 2011 when it was, as Daunt puts it, ‘a business that had fallen off a cliff’, I would have thought it could only have benefited him. His eponymous business, six large, upmarket bookstores in swanky areas of London such as Marylebone, Chelsea, Hampstead and Holland Park, and a seventh, Owl Bookshop, in the more bohemian Kentish Town, would probably have doubled sales overnight. He could even have had a go at picking up a couple of prime Waterstones sites.

Instead, he helped push forward a deal for Russian investor Alexander Mamut to buy the whole broken chain, and agreed to head it, at a time when high-street bookselling was being shredded by Amazon, the online Godzilla.

Deep breath. ‘OK, so suddenly 300 Waterstones shops close, 4,000 booksellers lose their jobs, we are much busier but the publishing industry here goes through a really traumatic period and almost certainly publishes fewer books, and a lot of smaller publishers disappear altogether. And there’d never be bookshops back in places where there are currently bookshops – through historical accident we have Waterstones bookshops in prime locations; they would go to H&M or Next or whoever, and we’d never get back in.’

The result, he says, would be a return to the world we grew up in. ‘Just a very small number of very small, independent bookshops in secondary locations, with the economics of retailing now very much against the small independent. The reality is you have all the libraries closing down and then all the bookshops as well.’

. . . .

So, sensitive question: do Waterstones’ employees earn as much as Daunt’s staff yet? He clears his throat and speaks almost in a whisper.

‘No. And that’s one of the problems here. It is a people business, so much rests on what the booksellers in shops do, it is a skill and you get better at it the longer you do it, you have to give people a career structure. They want to drive cars and have mortgages and go on holidays and you can’t do that on a Waterstones’ salary.’

. . . .

‘I’m not interested in pulp,’ says Daunt. Meaning? ‘Romantic fiction, supermarket fodder.’ He wants some of that approach in Waterstones to hook smarter buyers, while acknowledging it has to stock what sells well. It sounds like a nightmare to manage.

. . . .

At the root of it, of course, is everyone’s relations with Amazon, the American online retailer that now ruthlessly undercuts British bookstores. Amazon demands and gets big discounts from publishers that have to maintain good relations with such a major seller.

Daunt says he has no complaints about the great deals that Amazon offers to customers, but he wants the tax burden on shop-owners reduced so the playing field is levelled. The government and local councils must do more to support high-street retailing.

‘It’s extremely important to communities, it provides good-quality employment and is burdened by rates that are wholly driven by the erroneous assumption that retail spending will continue to rise forever more – but that’s been ripped out by internet firms that exploit their competitor advantage, in particular, the lightness with which they are taxed.’

High streets are fine in the south-east, he says, but in the north they are emptying. ‘And they offer good-quality jobs which give people in communities self-respect.’

In their place we get logistics centre jobs, ‘which are not high quality at all, they are temporary jobs to match seasonal highs and lows, minimum wage, all the things Amazon does, and its one (in Dunfermline) got £10m from the Scottish government to set up something that rips jobs out of the high street and the buggers run everything out of Luxembourg to minimise tax, and it is not a company that supports our communities other than through giving good prices… ‘

. . . .

[E]book downloads already take nearly a third of the market and Waterstones will not spend a lot online to make its own website more competitive because, says Daunt, its losses mean it must ‘stick to its knitting’. So, given how radically the book market has changed, does he see yet more tech surprises coming?

‘Why don’t you ring Mr Bee-Zos?’ he teases, giving the Amazon founder an exaggerated first syllable, ‘though he might not tell you. Maybe the blinking Google Glasses will shove it through your eyeballs.’

He doesn’t care, as he believes ‘the pleasures of the physical book’ will keep customers hooked. Really? Surely competition for readers’ attention can only ramp up? That’s for certain, he agrees, but books will still be treasured.

Link to the rest at Management Today

Can Sponsorship Save Small Bookstores?

23 February 2015

From The New Yorker:

Earlier this month, Alan Beatts, the owner of a science-fiction bookstore in San Francisco’s Mission District, announced that a minimum-wage increase recently passed by the city’s voters, from less than eleven dollars an hour last year to fifteen dollars an hour by 2018, was going to put him out of business. Not long afterward, I met Beatts at his shop, Borderlands Books, and he seemed utterly defeated; Borderlands is barely profitable, and the minimum-wage increase would all but guarantee the store a significant loss. The difference was too large to make up for by reducing other costs, like rent or utility bills. In a piece on Borderlands’s closure, I wrote that, while Beatts planned to hold a meeting to hear thoughts from customers about how he might keep his store open, he doubted that it would bring to the surface any usable ideas.

By the time the meeting came around, on February 12th, Beatts’s announcement had gone viral. To those who oppose higher minimum wages, it was a vindication: if a business owner in a liberal city like San Francisco was upset about a minimum-wage increase, it must be bad. To those who support minimum-wage increases, Beatts was cast as a traitor to the cause. Concerned that some of his critics might show up at the meeting to heckle him, he asked a friend who planned to attend, and also happened to be a cop, to keep an eye out, in case anyone got aggressive.

The hundred or so people who showed up mostly had support to offer and ideas to share. One was to sell memberships to people who were willing to be charged simply to have Borderlands continue to exist. This notion had occurred to Beatts, but he had dismissed it as too much like asking for a handout. But, at the meeting, people seemed amused—even intrigued—by the idea. Based on their comments, and on e-mails received over the following days, it occurred to Beatts that, to his customers, something like a membership might seem not only like an opportunity to help Borderlands but also like a genuine business transaction: they would be paying for the continued existence of what, to them, was an important gathering place for science-fiction readers.

. . . .

[T]he Borderlands staff made its own announcement—in the form of a blog post on the store’s Web site. In short, Borderlands might not be closing after all. “Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store,” the staff wrote. Each sponsorship—Beatts and his staff opted for that name in lieu of “membership”—would cost a hundred dollars annually and would include a number of perks that wouldn’t cost anything for Borderlands: the ability to rent, at cost, the Borderlands café; invitations to exclusive events; access to preview sales of rare and collectible books; and so on.

If Borderlands sells three hundred sponsorships before the end of March, it will stay open for the rest of the year; next year, Borderlands will sell memberships again, with the same end-of-March deadline and the same plan to close up shop if it can’t meet it. Within a couple of hours after the blog post went up Thursday evening, more than sixty memberships had been sold; when I spoke to Beatts on Saturday morning, he reported that the figure had passed two hundred and thirty, and seemed on track to clear the goal of three hundred.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Dave for the tip.

You Can Burn the Paper, But the Stories Live On

15 February 2015

From Hazlitt:

A bearish shopper approaches Imran Siddiqui’s stall, carrying a ripped bag full of freshly cut meat, and asks for two books. Parked 500 metres away from a butcher shop in Karachi, Pakistan, his tables are full of volumes about cricket, children’s fiction, and sports magazines. “What kind of book do you want?” Siddiqui asks. The impatient man balances his ground beef and chicken legs in one hand, grabbing the first two books he sees in the other, wraps the pages around the raw meat, pays, and walks away.

Watching people treat the texts carelessly is difficult, but these are moral compromises he needs to make. Idealism is a luxury he can’t afford, with four children and an income of approximately 6,000 rupees a month. But his weekly chats with customers such as Sadia, a Master’s student studying English and closet poet who regularly reads her work to him, keep him going.

Although Siddiqui can’t read or write, years of serving Karachi book lovers has given him a respect for the written word. In a city where conventional book stores are few and far between, open-concept book stalls like Siddiqui’s can be found at beaches, outside hospitals, and in front of movie theatres and cafes. The owners are nomads-by-trade, moving frequently to unconventional areas. The majority of these book stalls are nameless; they take on the identity of the owner. Some of the books they sell are imported from Dubai or Singapore, shipped with costume jewelry and silks, while others are stolen from burnt-down or abandoned libraries; there’s a small group of men whose life’s work is to smuggle these texts and sell them to street vendors in a sort of literary black market. Like the origins of the books in which they traffic, they keep their identities secret.

The largest city in the country, with a population of over 23 million, Karachi has fewer than a dozen bookstores, most of which are located in isolated areas and are often poorly stocked. Ordering books online is not always reliable, and delivery can take a long time. Siddiqui and his peers provide many of the citizens of Karachi with their main source of reading material. The stalls themselves are mobile and easy to assemble, allowing their owners to move wherever business might be good, supporting themselves and their families in a country where poverty and unemployment burden many.

. . . .

A rusted steel weighing scale, traditionally used for fruits and vegetables, sits on the floor next to Zayer’s book stall. Magazines and newspapers all have a standard price, but books—most of them old and, in some cases, quite rare—are sold by tola, a South Asian unit of measurement that works out to less than a pound, for as little as one dollar. A several-hundred-year-old copy of The Royal History of England, with hand-painted borders and diagrams, can sell for less than a set of Harry Potter books. Early copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and collections of Shakespeare’s works are wedged between Pakistani gossip magazines. Zayer’s tea is always cold—he puts the cup down every few minutes to chat with passers-by or regular customers, some of whom are women carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, men driving Mercedes. They have been coming to him for years. He remembers the names of their children and their favourite authors. They greet him with a smile and sometimes bring treats for him to take home, an attempt to get what they need faster and in better condition.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Zayer can read and write. His father taught him at his own book stall when Zayer was six. Growing up in a low-income household, books were an escape on the nights when there was no dinner, when the roof leaked in the monsoon season, or when violence broke out in his neighbourhood. “It’s funny when I think about it,” he says. “The people who write these books have wild, beautiful imaginations, but I’m sure they never imagined that their work would be the life force of a man, like me, living in Karachi.”

Link to the rest at Hazlitt and thanks to Dave for the tip.

New Magical Bookstore Opens Its Doors In Romania

14 February 2015

From BoredPanda:

Cărtureşti Carusel, also called “The Carousel of Light”, is a monumental XIX century edifice that was transformed into a wonderful architectural jewel. It is located at the very heart of Bucharest, on a long vibrant street, in an area with coffee shops and pubs. Surrounded by the bohemian, traditional and luxury clothing stores, this bookstore will surely blend in with its innovative and elegant style.

The bookstore has 6 floors, where you can find over 10,000 books, 5,000 albums and DVDs. There is a bistro on the top floor, a multimedia space in the basement and a gallery dedicated to modern art on the first floor. This space will also host numerous cultural events and concerts.

. . . .


Link to the rest at BoredPanda and thanks to Jeanne for the tip.

America’s Largest Christian Bookstore Chain Files for Bankruptcy

13 February 2015

From Gleanings:

Family Christian Stores (FCS) has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Yet the ministry assured customers yesterday that it “does not expect” to close any of its more than 250 stores or lay off any of its approximately 4,000 employees.

. . . .

With 266 stores in 36 states, FCS is the nation’s largest chain of Christian stores as measured by locations, not sales. (For comparison, LifeWay Christian Resources has 185 stores in 29 states.) In 2014, FCS generated $216 million in gross revenues, notes Randall G. Reese at Chapter 11 Cases.

. . . .

“Our customers will not see any change in operations during this process,” stated Bengochea. “After the court approves the sale, we can begin to reinvest in our stores and bring our customers products and services that will help us better fulfill our mission.

. . . .

FCS has no plans to ditch “brick and mortar” stores for an online-only presence. “Some could say that ‘brick and mortar’ retail is not relevant, but our new management believes differently,” states its FAQ. “Our plan is make the necessary investments to our stores, diversify our product lines and craft a strong retail strategy that properly places the emphasis back on delivering a warm and positive customer experience.”

Link to the rest at Christianity Today and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Minimum Wage, Maximum Concern

11 February 2015

From Shelf Awareness:

At the American Booksellers Association members town hall meeting yesterday afternoon during Winter Institute 10 in Asheville, N.C., booksellers took the floor to discuss a range of topics, particularly the rising tide of minimum wage in parts of the country.

. . . .

Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., was the first to raise the question of what indies can do to survive increases in the minimum wage. The minimum wage in D.C., he said, is mandated to go up to $10.50 per hour this summer and will reach $11.50 per hour next year, and he noted that in some cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, the hike in minimum wage will be much steeper. “I’m wondering if the board has looked at this issue for all of us as a whole,” Graham proposed. “Is there anything we can do to try to address this together?”

. . . .

The majority of bookstore owners, he pointed out, were in the tricky position of “philosophically being in favor of paying people as much as humanly possible,” but as small business owners, have to make payroll work and stay in business. Also, booksellers do not have the luxury of being able to charge more for their goods, as prices are printed on the books themselves. The ABA board has, he continued, talked to publishers about possibly finding ways around that, so but so far little has resulted from the effort.

. . . .

“Educating local government and the public about the issue, so they don’t have a knee-jerk response is really the first step,” suggested Betsy Burton, board member and co-owner of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. The key was to make sure that others in the community understood what cost increases like that mean for small businesses and, especially, indie bookstores.

Michael Tucker, co-owner and CEO of Books Inc., which has a dozen stores in the Bay Area in California, compared San Francisco’s  incremental increases to the minimum wage with “boiling frogs.” The minimum wage in the city will rise to $12.25 per hour in May, and will then increase by a dollar each year until it hits $15 per hour; after that, it’ll increase by a percentage of the cost of living. “It does present some real issues,” Tucker said. “The biggest issue is the ripple effect of what it raises for everybody else. If you have minimum wage at $18, what about supervisors and managers?”

“When you pay people more money, they can afford to live and shop in your community,” said David Sandberg, owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., who made the point that the shopping local movement and the movement to increase the minimum wage are fundamentally linked. If the minimum wage goes up, he said, more money will stay in town. Although it was an “imposition” on a small business, it could also be positioned as something that is “fundamentally an issue of locality.”

. . . .

And something that took her completely by surprise, she added, was suddenly “being the bad guy in the room.” The very loud, very vocal group of workers who supported the increase in minimum wage–most of them fast food workers–“didn’t care if it put us out of business,” said Taylor. “We’re not usually on that side of the room.”

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

Israel’s book-pricing law, one year out

7 February 2015

From Melville House:

When we first reported on the growing tensions in Israel between publishers, retailers, and authors, it was 2012. The two national bookstore chains, the older Steimatzky and the brash young Tzomet Sfarim, were in fierce competition. Both chains had recently merged with major publishers, and each were engaged in a series of deeper and deeper discounting and bundling moves to outflank the other in market share.

Later that year, a bill began making its way through Knesset that was ostensibly designed to break the two chains’ duopsony/duopoly, by outlawing any discounting below the publisher’s retail price for the first 18 months of publication, with a few exceptions. The bill also regulated royalty rates paid to authors, a move supported by a Authors-United-type coalition of writers. We spoke with one writer, who was hopeful that the bill would at least partially address the downward momentum of the Israeli publishing industry.

Finally, in early 2014, the bill was signed into law, with the lofty name “Law for the Protection of Literature and Authors in Israel”, that implemented the 18-month price freeze. The Jerusalem Post reported:

The legislation also requires stores and publishers to reach agreements on what kind of discounts can be put on books, and those discounts can be only on books that are over 18 months old. That includes “buy one, get one free” and similar sales, and an exception will be made for Hebrew Book Week every summer.

During those 18 months, Israeli authors will receive at least 8 percent of the price (minus VAT) of the first 6,000 books sold and 10% of the price of book 6,001 and up. The bill also regulates authors’ royalties after 18 months.

. . . .

If you regulate the discounts charged by the retailer, then you would in theory reduce their swagger in the market, if that’s been the main tool by which they reduce competition with publishers and remaining independents.

However, that still means that prices would rise, deterring consumers and effectively putting the major chains and publishers in the same sinking boat. The law also effectively bans co-op, so that no publisher has a financial advantage when it comes to display and shelf space. Which is all well and good, until you consider what that entails for publishers with small list and less stock to display. Though the law is meant to be anti-anticompetitive, the competition it expects will happen is…what? That publishers will start publishing better books with lower retail prices? That booksellers will smile more?

. . . .

Haaretz recently reported that the expected drop in retail prices has in fact not happened, and that publishers are increasing their price to compensate for swiftly dropping frontlist sales. As expected, neither of the chains are very happy with this, and are demanding deeper discounts from the publisher, something which is only vaguely addressed in the law. In a Haaretz op-ed subtly titled “The folks who destroyed Hebrew literature”, Nehemiah Shtrasler argues that the law has forced publishers to slash their frontlist and publisher fewer debuts, and that despite the provision for author royalties has hurt authors by reducing demand for their books.

Link to the rest at Melville House and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Borderlands Books to Close in March

2 February 2015

From Borderlands Books, a San Francisco bookstore:

In 18 years of business, Borderlands has faced a number of challenges.  The first and clearest was in 2000, when our landlord increased our rent by 100% and we had to move to our current location on Valencia Street.  All of the subsequent ones have been less clear-cut but more difficult.  The steady movement towards online shopping, mostly with Amazon, has taken a steady toll on bookstores throughout the world and Borderlands was no exception.  After that and related to it, has been the shift towards ebooks and electronic reading devices.  And finally the Great Recession of 2009 hit us very hard, especially since we had just opened a new aspect to the business in the form of our cafe.

But, through all those challenges, we’ve managed to find a way forward and 2014 was the best year we’ve ever had.  The credit for that achievement goes to the fine and extraordinary group of people who have come together to work here.

. . . .

Overall, Borderlands has managed to defeat every problem that has come our way.  At the beginning of 2014, the future of the business looked, if not rosy, at least stable and very positive.  We were not in debt, sales were meeting expenses and even allowing a small profit, and, perhaps most importantly, the staff and procedures at both the bookstore and the cafe were well established and working smoothly.

So it fills us with sorrow and horror to say that we will be closing very soon.

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco — Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

Many businesses can make adjustments to allow for increased wages.  The cafe side of Borderlands, for example, should have no difficulty at all.  Viability is simply a matter of increasing prices.  And, since all the other cafes in the city will be under the same pressure, all the prices will float upwards.  But books are a special case because the price is set by the publisher and printed on the book.  Furthermore, for years part of the challenge for brick-and-mortar bookstores is that companies like have made it difficult to get people to pay retail prices.  So it is inconceivable to adjust our prices upwards to cover increased wages.

The change in minimum wage will mean our payroll will increase roughly 39%.  That increase will in turn bring up our total operating expenses by 18%.  To make up for that expense, we would need to increase our sales by a minimum of 20%.  We do not believe that is a realistic possibility for a bookstore in San Francisco at this time.

Link to the rest at Borderlands Books and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Independent Authors? How to get your books on our shelves

2 February 2015

From Dulwich Books:

So you’ve written your novel. After weeks, months, years, of writing it’s finally finished, you have your novel printed and you’re ready to share it with readers. But how do you get your independently published novel onto the shelves of Dulwich Books? Or any bookshop for that matter?

Well, to make this process easier we have created a quick guide to help you on your way…

. . . .

  • Ideally we would like to be emailed, it gives us time to think about your proposal, it gives us time to chat to our colleagues, and it gives the opportunity to deal with the request within our normal day.

. . . .

To help us make our decision you should include the following information on your proposal:

  • A quick synopsis of the book, two or three sentences is perfect.
  • A couple of lines about who you are.
  • The sales details:
    • How much your book retails for.
    • How much you are selling it to bookshops for. A discount no less than 40% should be offered.
    • The format (Paperback/ Hardback) however always with a spine & a 13 digit ISBN.
    • Returns information (all stock should sale or return as standard).
    • Think about payment terms and the length of time the bookshop should have the stock for sale.

. . . .


  • Be competitive regarding the pricing of your book, a standard paperback is around £8.99 yours should aim to be the same or less.
  • Look at the production quality, a well presented finished product speaks volumes, below are examples of a plain paperback that will disappear in the shelves and a well finished product that is more likely to catch the eye.
  • Pick your time of year carefully, the majority of new writers are launched in the beginning of year, if you release too close to Christmas your book will get lost on the shelves, if you come in February or March time we have the space to display your book where it has a better chance of selling.
  • Never ever send an Amazon link in your proposal to a high street bookshop.
  • Think about how you might promote your book and direct people to the bookshop for sales. We send our sales information to Nielsen/Book Scan so if we sell a lot of copies your book will get noticed around the book industry.

. . . .

How Dulwich Books picks books to stock  

Our small bookshop holds a maximum of 6000 books including multiple copies of bestsellers and event stock. We pick most of our stock through meeting with publisher sales reps, the ones we see cover around 130-150 different publishers (this figure doesn’t include imprints of bigger publishing houses such as Harper Collins). We also work from catalogues and on average are sent 100 proof copies for review a month.

Link to the rest at Dulwich Books and thanks to Diana for the tip.

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