Book sales are up, but bookstores are struggling. It matters where you shop.

An Opinion Piece from The Chicago Tribune:

Two striking statistics recently reported by Publishers Weekly:

  • Print book sales rose 8.2% in 2020 versus 2019, according to NPD BookScan.
  • Bookstore sales fell 28.3% in 2020 versus 2019, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The year-to-year increase in book sales was the largest since 2010, and was led by demand for books to keep children occupied during the period of remote schooling. Juvenile nonfiction was up by 23%, young-adult nonfiction by 38%. But adult books were up as well. By every measure, more books were sold in 2020 than in 2019.

Those gains aren’t reflected in bookstore sales, though, as pandemic-related closures and restrictions kept us away. The worst months for bookstores were April and May, the leading edge of the lockdowns, but even as restrictions loosened, sales remained 20% or so below previous year levels.

. . . .

I want to suggest that books are not merely a consumer product. Instead, I’d like us to consider books as part of a larger ecosystem, which includes writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, and that good books depend on all parts of the ecosystem being healthy. As such, we cannot be indifferent about where we buy them.

Bookstores are a key component in making sure there is an interesting variety of books that connect with readers of differing stripes. If we lose bookstores, we will lose the places where word-of-mouth hits are born. We will lose the places where we may discover something we’d never heard of, simply because we brush past it on a table. We will lose one of the important congregating places where people who value books come together in fellowship. We will lose the place we might stop in after brunch on a beautiful afternoon when we need to walk off a meal and aren’t ready to go home yet.

We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse.

. . . .

Right now, with publishing and books, we could be at peak variety. The somewhat worrisome consolidation in corporate publishing is being offset with a greater thirst for diverse voices and books, not to mention the continuing growth of scrappy independent publishers.

But if we narrow the channels through which books are sold, we will also narrow the kinds and varieties of books that will be sold. Books will still sell, because just like apples, you have to have books, but we will be missing something if we lose that variety.

It is fantastic news that book sales have weathered the pandemic — better news than we could have hoped for — but to revivify the ecosystem as a whole will require us to examine our patterns of purchase. We need to make intentional choices about where we shop to seed the return of bookstores.

Link to the rest at The Chicago Tribune

PG suggests that this is one of the weaker special-favor pleas for traditional bookstores that he recalls reading during the past few months.

The very best place to find diverse voices and for diverse voices to flourish is online.

What about costs for readers of varying income levels?

Ebooks are usually less expensive than printed books. They certainly cost less to manufacture, transport and warehouse.

What about environmental impact? P-books v. E-books = No Comparison.

Ebooks win production, transportation and disposal/recycling hands-down.

Available inventory to allow a customer to buy the book they really want?

Every physical bookstore in constrained in exactly the same manner – it has only so many linear feet of shelf space.

That shelf space must be used to sell books. The fewer copies a book is expected to sell, the less shelf space it will be allocated by the operator of the store.

As a general proposition, having several copies of a given book on the shelf is more likely to catch the eye of a browser than having only a single copy of a book. Several copies on the shelf also means that if someone buys a copy, there are still other copies available to be sold. An employee doesn’t have to immediately recognize that a single book has been sold, then restock the shelf in order for a book to be effectively on sale for customers.

Limited size = limited inventory. Limited inventory = more white-bread, mass market books.

Like many others, PG has enjoyed exploring megabookstores like Blackwells in Oxford, Powell’s in Portland and The Strand in New York. However, giant bookstores are a dying breed. See, for example, Barnes & Noble. And even a giant bookstore has a limit to the number of books it can stock.

Plus, absent a lot of free browsing time, a customer’s discovery experience in a physical bookstore, large or small, can be less than ideal. If you like to wile away the afternoon looking for a good read, go physical. If you prefer to wile away your afternoon actually reading a good book, go online.

Back to inventory, online bookstores can and do stock a much wider variety of books than a physical store. Do you want to allow an author who is a member of an under-represented group in the book business a chance – online is your solution. Would you like to encourage Navajo voices to share their experiences and views with a larger audience off the reservation? Online, baby.

Plus a good online bookstore (like Amazon) makes it much easier for most prospective purchasers to locate a book they will like than Powell’s, even though PG has experienced excellent (for a physical bookstore) customer service in Portland.

There are simply far more methods of locating a desirable book online than there are in a physical bookstore and a much better likelihood of finding a book you will love online.

As one example, one word: Reviews.

Yes, some online book reviews are unreliable, but so are book reviews in newspapers and magazines. At least online, you are much more likely to be able to read more than one review by a single person, reflecting that single person’s class, education, preferences and biases.

Plus, on Amazon, in addition to seeing which books people are buying, Amazon Charts lets you see which books people are actually reading.

Hint for those purchasing gifts, particularly for young adults and children: Seven of the top Ten Most-Read Fiction Books when PG wrote this post were written by J.K. Rowling. The list of Most-Sold Fiction Books was much different.

Comparing the Top Ten Most-Read and Most-Sold Fiction Books, PG noted only two books that were on both lists:

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

and

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Does anyone working in a Barnes & Noble store at minimum wage (or the equivalent of minimum wage for a wealthier community) have that knowledge?

As they say in movies and on TV (but not that often in the courtroom) PG rests his case.

15 thoughts on “Book sales are up, but bookstores are struggling. It matters where you shop.”

  1. a customer’s discovery experience in a physical bookstore, large or small, can be less than ideal.

    If you are browsing in a bookstore about the only thing you have to go on is the blurbs on the back of the book, which we know are usually provided as favors. If you are curious you can pull up the book on Amazon and look at the reader reviews, but then you’ll get yelled at by the bookseller.

    Bah.

  2. Lost in the whole “buy only in bookstores, preferable non-chain” argument is what about the communities that don’t have bookstores?

    That has always been 90% of the country. If not more.
    There is a reason Amazon took over so quickly.

    • Even my local big city, which is pretty big, has been reduced to a couple, very far apart, and three quarters of a Barnes & Noble now is devoted to toys, gifts, music, cafe, and games. The actual book part of the bookstore is minuscule.

  3. We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse.

    Chance Gardner saves bookstores.

  4. I’m fascinated, watching my own reaction. I read the article, nodding and trying to figure how to fix it.

    Then I read your analysis, and realize I was being nostalgic. As a life-long library and bookstore lurker, I miss those days.

    You’re right, of course. Even if bookstores stocked indie and small presses’ books, the shelf space problem is unsolvable.

    Thanks for making me realize how old I am. 😉

  5. Bookstores are a key component in making sure there is an interesting variety of books that connect with readers of differing stripes. If we lose bookstores, we will lose the places where word-of-mouth hits are born. We will lose the places where we may discover something we’d never heard of, simply because we brush past it on a table. We will lose one of the important congregating places where people who value books come together in fellowship. We will lose the place we might stop in after brunch on a beautiful afternoon when we need to walk off a meal and aren’t ready to go home yet. We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse.

    Utter nonsense. Except the part of “stopping in,” maybe to get out of the rain or snow (in Chicago).

  6. Since 1995 there have been no less than four publishing “evolutions” that the pundits in the establishment keep waving off:
    – the (near) infinite shelf space of online
    – the (near) eternal backlist created by online used book sales
    – the (near) frictionless distribution of ebooks
    – the rise of specialty websites with the click-based monetization of reference material and non-fiction (like this one for cameras: http://www.steves-digicams.com/). Youtube, too.

    The market long ago stopped being about front-table and trade press promotion yet most tradpubs and pundits have reacted with…what? Telling people to pretend its still 1995? That it’s all Amazon’s fault?

    Tradpub is a low margin high volume business facing an upfront volume decline as launch window sales are (at best) replaced by long tail sales. What the book sales numbers hide is the shift of sales from new releases to the backlist. Which can’t be supported by B&M. Not even the biggest storefronts can meet consumers’ learned expectations.

    Just this week I ran into a Youtube video from an economics-focused website explaining why Marvel’s WAKANDA is not only a fantasy realm but a pernicious one promoting retrograde policies. The video referenced a well-received 2010 book focused on why those policies in the real world destroy nations. I curiously looked into the ebook–I’m interested in the death and birth of societies–and five minutes later I had it open on my tablet. No B&M storefront can offer that. In ages past I might have spent weeks or months tracking down a print copy. I no longer have the need or patience.

    The withering of B&M might lead to the end of the “everything would be wonderful without Amazon” delusion but I’m not holding my breath. The combined effect of the four evolutions is to make both fiction and non-fiction available everywhere there is internet and home delivery. Usually at much lower prices. There’s no going back.

  7. We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse.

    Independent bookstores are less than ten percent of the market for new books at this point.(I think Mike Shatzkin opined a few years ago that that figure was closer to five.) They’re behind Amazon, chain bookstores and big box retailers. Yet the media continues to pretend otherwise, for no reason I can truly follow.

    • Good points, J.

      I don’t know if it’s simply ignorance of what book retailing really is these days or if some commentators think that the public will be more sympathetic to Meg Ryan’s cute bookstore in “You’ve Got Mail” than they will be to the corporate feel of your typical Barnes & Noble.

      It also may be a New York-centric view that, since NYC has charming indie bookstores, the rest of the country must have them, too.

        • Well, for now Hallmark has a bunch of writer romcoms with nurturing agents and editors and publishers tbat do actual marketing of romance books. Plus bookstores run by cute young ladies.

          No wonder SyFy is withering; all the wild fantasies are on Hallmark.

        • Yes, Hollywood really loved The Shop Around the Corner, but the real message of that film was that, even when you have the media on your side and generate lots of supportive stories, it won’t help as your customers will still head for Fox Books’ superstore (which updated means people will say how much they love the indie bookstores whilst buying on Amazon).

          Also, Elliot and Joseph have both quoted We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse but for the life of me I cannot work out what this actually means: pruning the the books and throwing out the weeds is hardly comparable to selling…

          • Try this:
            If people only buy from the shop around the corner the only books they can buy are pre-approved by the store owner. Preferably the front table books they are paid to feature. Remember, in their world view most people go to bookstores to wander around until something catches their eye or they ask a total stranger what they should be reading.

            They protect culture by limiting access to the worthless “weed” books that clutter the endless online “shelves” so their customers only read boooks that are deemed good for them. Wouldn’t want people reading stuff that is fun intead of educational or, worse, that inspires critical thinking that might lead to questioning the “settled consensus”, would we?

            Think of it as the Bonsai Theory of Bookselling.

      • These Hollywood bookstores fit in well with the novelist trading clever quips with her agent while a harried editor sputters in the background over deadlines.

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