From Book Browser to Published Writer

From Publisher’s Weekly:

For 16 years [my mother] recommended the perfect books to people and shared her love of reading with others, spreading that joy the same way she blessed me with it.

Whenever my mother and I drove through our little downtown in Madison, Ct., we always stopped at our local bookstore, RJ Julia. It was a ritual for us, a bit of magic.

Each visit was special, but I can remember a particular instance so vividly: I step in the door in a Spice Girls T-shirt and cargo pants. At 10 years old, I’m young enough that girls’ clothes still had pockets. My goal is to empty those pockets of hard-saved allowance on what this store has to offer.

There is a buzz of excitement walking into a bookstore that all book lovers know so well: the delicious smell of paper and ink, coffee wafting from the café as people chat about their latest reads.

I make a beeline for the stairs to check out the children’s books section. It’s like stepping into a toy store, only better: in a toy store I wouldn’t be able to buy everything I wanted, but in my family, when it comes to books, there’s no self-control.

That’s because we’re a family of storytellers. Be it through books, movies, songs, jokes, or exaggerated anecdotes, storytelling is our first language. As soon as I realized I could make up my own worlds, I did—constantly. I’d build upon the stories I read and fill crinkled notebooks full of my own fantasies and walking daydreams. It made my own world make more sense.

Sometimes fiction felt more honest than reality—that one story, one scene, better at evoking everything stirring inside me. The stakes inside my 10-year-old brain were more perfectly explained by the epic battles and quests and magic than homework or chores.

Every night I’d fall asleep thinking about the chapter I’d just read and dreaming up new stories. When I finally realized in my early 30s that I was neurodivergent and was eventually diagnosed, a lot of this started to make sense. Stories always flowed through me. On one level, they entertained my overactive mind with fun adventures, and on another level, they spoke to the unnamed emotions within me and helped me understand myself and the world around me.

. . . .

My mother ended up working at RJ Julia when I went off to university. For 16 years she recommended the perfect books to people and shared her love of reading with others, spreading that joy the same way she blessed me with it. All these many years, many jobs, many countries later, and that passion has stayed with me. Life took so many twisty turns to get me here (have I told you about the monkeys in Guatemala?). But here I am, living halfway around the world, and RJ Julia is still there in Madison—but now with my books on its shelves.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Waterstones warehouse system ‘now stable and effective’ as chain tackles backlog of books

From The Bookseller:

Waterstones’ new warehouse system is now “stable and effective” but the chain needs to clear a backlog of orders before the “painful process” is over, chief operating officer Kate Skipper has said.

The retailer has been battling problems since July, when it upgraded its stock distribution technology. Although it initially said it aimed to resolve the issues by the end of August, problems have persisted, causing a build-up of orders to bookshops that have left authors, customers and publishers frustrated.

Waterstones said it has been working with Blue Yonder, the company providing the new system, to resolve the problems after installation. In an email seen by The Bookseller, Skipper apologised and thanked clients for their “forbearance and support”, and said the company believes it is now on the “home stretch” in terms of resuming normal service. However, she said “a significant volume of unfulfilled orders needs to be worked through” and excessive levels of stock in the chain’s Hub are “hampering efficient operations”.

“We are now processing significant volumes, both inbound and outbound, with the level at about that we would normally expect for this time of year,” clients were told. “The backlog, however, both requires that we achieve higher levels and simultaneously hampers our ability to achieve this. In consequence we remain some way from getting our stock, both in the Hub and in the shops, back to normal and for this to be supported by a regular flow of stock from the Hub.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that James Daunt, the CEO of Waterstones, is also the CEO of Barnes & Noble.

What Do We Lose—and Gain—As Book Tours Move Online?

From The Literary Hub:

When I was young, in a distant century, there was an odd feature of the literary community: celebrated authors writing essays for magazines or newspaper book sections chronicling the horrors of their tours. Usually amusingly, sometimes just trying to be. Laments about arriving at a bookstore to find many people waiting, but no copies of the book. Or many books but no people, because someone had forgotten to promote the event (or there was a playoff game in any relevant sport that night). A reading for five people, two of whom were the mother and father of the bookstore manager, under orders to look attentive and enthused. Or, airline chaos with a luggage follies subplot. Hotel booking failures, weather events. Interviewers confusing the author for someone entirely else. (This is real, by the way, happened to someone I knew well.)

The lede buried in all of this, for today’s writers (and readers) is, of course, that there were book tours once. All over. For so many authors. There used to be a joke that in October you couldn’t go through an airport without colliding with a writer on tour. I went cross-Canada from the start of my career, and down into the United States, at a time when I was barely known. And in most cases there were actual people gathered for a reading and signing, besides the manager’s parents. An author coming into town could be an event of sorts, back when.

Sometimes a colossal one. One older friend had a launch in Toronto one night. I went with a third, mutual friend. The bookstore was… flat-out mobbed. Buzzing. Hundreds of the city’s best and brightest had gathered. The author was well known and well liked in the legal community and word had definitely gotten out. No slackness on the part of publicists or bookstore at all. People were lined up holding three, four, five copies of the new book to be signed.

I got in line with two copies (the mutual friend elected to mingle and chat). When I finally arrived at the signing table the author leaped up and we embraced. I said, “X, this is amazing!”(His name isn’t really X, by the way.)

X said, “Guy, you understand nothing!”

I said, “Always a possibility. Why, in this case?”

“Because tonight, tonight, I will sell three quarters of all the books I am ever going to sell of this title!”

But he did sell them. (And the book is still in print, decades after. Just checked.)

For my own second book, as a callow thirty-one year old, I remember arriving in a city for two days allocated to media and a signing. The local publicist met me and handed me a printout of my schedule. I looked at it and blinked. There were ten events. Five radio gigs, two television, one magazine interview, one newspaper interview, and the bookstore signing that night. Plus what I always call “drive-by signings,” when you drop into a store to sign their stock and head off into the midday sun, or whatever, tipping your hat.

. . . .

Is a tour really the best way to allocate budget and time? Will it be a painful experience? Awkward for everyone? Might email or telephone interviews with whatever media exists in a given city not be smarter? While aggressively going the online route: magazines, blogs, social media? Or, more recently, Zoom conversations with an audience logging in and asking questions? One rarely loses luggage en route to one’s computer, after all.

What’s been lost in the transition is the personal. The direct connection with readers. If you’ve spent, as I do, years writing a book at your desk, brooding and swearing, but then find yourself in a library’s reading room, church hall, bookstore, literary festival, to encounter those who have come out to express their affection for your work… that’s profoundly rewarding.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

A Bookshelf for All Ages

From Publishers Weekly:

Hey, old people, do you remember the song “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News? Of course you do. Young people: find the video, you might like it.

I bring it up because after nearly a decade of hearing “I like it, but I don’t know what shelf it goes on” about my book Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I want a new shelf. One where parents aren’t nervous wondering what to do. One that makes us read like families used to do. Okay, enough with the song.

Here’s a revelation for some people: the age of the audience is not a genre. When I was pitching Kiya and the Morian Treasure, I spoke with famed science fiction agent Cherry Weiner. Off my pitch, she had requested a full manuscript, which she liked enough call me.

“This is not sci-fi,” she said.

Not sci-fi? It’s Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. How can that not be sci-fi?

She continued: “It’s not sci-fi, and you don’t want it to be. It’s YA.” She also said she didn’t represent YA, so she was passing on the manuscript. I was devastated for about 30 minutes. That’s when Emmanuelle Morgen called. She also liked it, but saw it more as middle grade. After a round of changes to age my narrator down, we went out with it. Some editors saw it as YA, others saw it as middle grade, depending on whether they identified with the narrator or the subject of her narration. They saw this as a problem. I disagreed.

Target marketing by age has been around long enough that most people think it’s the only way to sell books, but if you take a longer view of commercial art, you’ll see that excluding the majority of your potential audience is a new concept. And by “new,” I mean since the turn of the previous century.

Before radio, movies, television, and the internet split audiences into tiny chunks, there were basically two markets: children and adults. Even at the beginning of these technologies, artists had to create work that would satisfy whomever might receive the signal from the air. Going back even further, when books were expensive to print and buy, one book had to entertain the entire family.

Look at Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers. Look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Look at anything by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Twain. They all contain elements that today would get an author the dreaded “I don’t know what shelf it goes on” rejection. These elements include the following:

● Characters of various ages, or the entire lives of characters, not just kids

● Sex being left to what anyone might witness in public

● Age groups being targeted by beats within each story, not the entire work

I said that Kiya and the Morian Treasure is unapologetically Xena: Warrior Princess meets Star Wars. I worked on Xena and saw the numbers: they were equal across all ages. In some markets, the show aired on Saturday afternoons for kids. In others, you could catch it Saturday at midnight for the college crowd.

Publishing might think this is an outlier, but anyone like me, who has worked in film and television since Huey Lewis was big, can tell you it’s typical 8 p.m. programming. If you’d like a trip down memory lane, you can find loads of network TV schedules from the past. Scan them and you’ll also find titles that have become franchises, stories enjoyed by people of all ages—and they aired before 9 p.m.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Trade facing industry-wide burnout, Bookseller survey finds

From The Bookseller:

Publishing is facing “industry-wide burnout” according to a survey conducted by The Bookseller, which revealed 89% of staffers responding to the survey had experienced stress during the course of their work over the last year, while 69% reported burnout.  

The survey also found a significant number of employees are working more than their contracted hours each week, with many unhappy at the state of their work-life balance.  

With more than 230 responses, heavily dominated by publishing staffers (87%), the survey found 64% of people working in the industry felt their work had impacted their mental health in the last year. Many attributed this to unsustainable workloads and an “always on” culture, worsened by the pandemic. 

One editor, who has worked in the industry for seven years, said they are required to do “entire strands” of their job outside of contracted hours, to the extent they feel unable to start a family and are “seriously considering” leaving the industry. 

In total 63% of respondents said they worked more than their contracted hours each week, with some saying they worked up to 20 or 30 hours extra. Nearly three quarters (73%) agreed that their workload had increased in the last year, while 37% said they were not satisfied with their work-life balance. 

One senior desk editor who has been in the industry for nine years said working from home during the pandemic had “definitely” promoted a culture of working extra hours. “Work-life balance is a joke! I’ve heard editorial assistants not taking their lunch break and even cancelling training sessions as they felt they had to continue with their work,” they said. “Morale has severely decreased since the pandemic, lots of colleagues have left (either to other publishers or out of the industry) as they did not enjoy their jobs and were not valued as staff or compensated well enough.” 

The survey showed 38% of respondents wanted to leave their job. An assistant editor, who has worked in the industry for four years, said they “love” their job but were working more than two extra hours a day “not to even catch up, but to fall behind less”. They said: “I have had to work weekends. I am constantly stressed about the deadlines I am missing, as they impact my colleagues. This should not be the workload of a junior staff member. And, quite frankly, the workload and the pay do not add up. This is not worth it, and I am making plans to get out of the industry.” 

. . . .

 “Junior members of staff are often doing enough work for two people but are only in rare instances offered external help such as being able to freelance certain tasks out. There is an expectation from senior leadership that the company will continue to buy more and more books, but no corresponding communication re hiring more staff to help with this. People have been stretched beyond their limits over the last two years particularly and that’s why we’re seeing a mass exodus from the industry.” 

A marketing executive, who has worked in publishing for seven years, agreed. “There’s been a huge change in focus over the past two years, driven by the pandemic, to look at backlist titles and perennial sellers as well as more focus on e-books and audio, but the expectation that teams can do that on top of their pre-existing workload is going to lead to workforce-wide burnout.” They added: “My line manager recognises the issue and is understanding but there seems to be limited appetite higher up in the company to take steps to address the issues.” 

Another assistant editor, working in the industry for five years, said they had “not known burnout like it was in November” due to supply chain issues. They said: “We’re all exhausted and we know everyone else is exhausted, as an editor you don’t want to give marketing and publicity more because you know they are overworked too so it’s just this cycle of piling more on your own plate and drowning in it.”

They said their manager also felt the same. “It’s industry-wide burnout and change needs to come from the top, I can’t expect my mid-level manager to be able to solve this.”

A former publishing staffer, who recently switched to agenting, said they experienced “horrific” working conditions as an editor. “My last year as an editor I took only five days of holiday because I didn’t have an assistant and there was no one to cover even the basics of my day-to-day when I was away, so going on holiday meant a month of working through the weekends to make up for it.” 

They said they “love” being an agent now, because it has made them enjoy books again. “I see my friends who still work as editors continuing to struggle while their line managers refuse to give them anything approaching help or support. The bright, hardworking young people who work in publishing because they love books leave to go to better industries—as I nearly did—and nothing changes. M.d.s and c.e.o.s need to have a hard look at the workloads they place on their junior staff and start making real and consequential changes.” 

However burnout is not limited to publishing staffers. A number of booksellers also reported issues with stress due to working conditions. An archives assistant, who has worked in the industry for 10 years, said: “Rotas would be provided with only a week or two notice at times, trying to secure holidays was always a protracted affair, trying to speak to management about any HR/pay issues was always impossible, trying to view payslips was a convoluted affair, working hours would regularly be unsociable—you were supposed to be on a pattern of lates and earlies but management would just put you in for what suited them, so you would regularly be working weeks of mostly late shifts, you’d be lucky if you got weekends off, and you’d be expected to just accept very last minute changes to your rota.” 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

A Bookstore Revival Channels Nostalgia for Big Box Chains

From Bloomberg:

When the final Harry Potter installment was published on July 21, 2007, bookstores across the U.S. celebrated with midnight release parties — some with booze, befitting a series whose earliest readers were now in their 20s. These parties took place at thousands of bookstores at a time that was, in retrospect, Peak Bookstore.

“That era, 1997 to 2007, was truly a sweet spot for readers,” Jenna Amatulli reminisced in HuffPost in 2017. “They watched the fandom bloom from nothing, lined up willingly outside of a physical store — oftentimes without a celebrity-sighting incentive — and read without the fear of a push-alert or Twitter spoiler.”

Turnout for the same release today would be lower, because of Amazon.com Inc., because of dying malls, because of J.K. Rowling’s support for gender essentialism — and because there are simply fewer bookstores. Between 1991 and 2011, the U.S. lost 1,000 chain bookstores. A story in The Bulwark checking in on Borders locations 10 years after its 2011 bankruptcy revealed that some had become Books-A-Million, but many more of their “medium-box” locations now sold food, furniture or clothes.

Even so, that HuffPost story, now five years old, may have played taps for the chain bookstore too soon.

. . . .

Plenty of Millennials who grew up with a Waldenbooks, a Crown or a Borders have the same nostalgia for those chains that they feel for the malls that once contained them. At the same time, Gen Z is taking to TikTok to talk about books — driving billions of views as well as sales for authors’ backlists — and staging those videos at Barnes & Noble. B&N’s green-and-cream decor persists as an accessible symbol for books and, in a country recently starved for social interaction, a place where one day we will browse together again. Trends may come and go, but wooden shelves and squishy chairs will always mean, “Curl up with a book.”

The last of the major chains is betting on that rebound: Barnes & Noble, which once said it would whittle itself down to 450 stores by 2022, started the year with 625 — and plans to add 20 to 25 more in 2022. James Daunt, who took over as chief executive officer in 2019 after hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. acquired the company, has been refurbishing existing stores and empowering store managers to use their local knowledge. Book sales have boomed during the pandemic, up 13% year over year, and at least 172 new independent bookstores opened in 2021. Some of those indies have even taken to the mall.

Chain box stores were big businesses, sure, but they were also a crucial third space for casual hangouts and serendipitous run-ins that metro suburbs, smaller cities and rural places often lack. As literary critic Adam Morgan tweeted in January, “I grew up in post-boom textile mill towns in North and South Carolina; we had no independent bookstores, so Barnes & Noble was the only literary space I knew until grad school … It felt like New York to me. That forest green and warm polished wood was like walking into another world I didn’t want to leave.”

Why do we have nostalgia for these shops that were, by many rubrics, worse than the bookstores we have now? More generic, more plastic, less curated, less authentic. Because those bookstores were never just about books — they were about access, and freedom. The chains reached deeper into America, and brought books to a wider demographic, than today’s approximately 6,000 stores can. Yes, we have Amazon now. But it will never be the same as sitting on the carpet in some under-trafficked aisle and reading your first Sweet Valley High, your first Stephen King, or your first biography of The Great One.

. . . .

“The big-box store was a glorious thing while it lasted. To people in many parts of America, they were a kind of Aladdin’s cave,” Wharton management professor Dan Raff told All Things Considered in 2011.

The chain stores were pick-up joints without the alcohol, teen hangouts without the style pressures of the mall, opportunities to explore identity.

Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1986, setting off a race to be the biggest national bookstore chain, with the various stores adding software, music and standalone kids shops. But the downfall of the mall spelled trouble for both Borders and B&N, leading to bigger and bigger locations, selling more and more items that weren’t books. The stores added cafes, whimsical children’s sections and big comfy chairs, expanding to multi-level spaces of the type satirized in the 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail.

. . . .

It’s not until you add the coffee shop to the chain bookstore, circa 1990, that it becomes the best illustration of sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place.” The chain stores were pick-up joints without the alcohol, teen hangouts without the style pressures of the mall, opportunities to explore identity both socially and via reading material out from under the thumb of parents and teachers. As with the malls and shopping centers that often support a bookstore, these private enterprises offered accommodation to a broad range of people, in terms of class, race and age.

“Nowadays you look at a Best Buy, a Ross, and you shop and you get out,” says Daniel Gerber, regional director for Barnes & Noble in the south. “But with the cafes, people would go in there and spend five and six hours. It was a pick-up place, the antithesis of the bar scene.”

Readers found platonic community in the aisles as well. “Romance readers know where they are welcome,” says Sarah MacLean, bestselling romance author, co-host of the podcast Fated Mates, and one-time Cranston, Rhode Island, Borders employee. “They know they can get their books at a supermarket, at Costco, at Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million and they can get them without judgment.”

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

PG suggests that basing a come-back business plan on nostalgia may be a little risky, but his type is definitely not in the business plan for any big box store, so what does he know?

How this ‘booktender’ has kept the family bookstore going through thick and thin

From The Deseret News:

In 1959, four years before he was born, Richard Frost’s destiny was already set in place.

That was the year his grandmother and grandfather, Zelma and Joseph Frost, following a successful career in the construction industry in Colorado, moved to Utah and Zelma opened a bookstore in Foothill Village in Salt Lake City.

She called it Frost’s Books.

Her motivation, according to her grandson: “She wanted a business where her children could interact with interesting people.”

More than six decades later, Richard is living proof that his grandmother’s goal was met, and then some.

He is sitting behind the counter at Frost’s Books, holding court, as it were; a third-generation bookseller — the family business passing down from his grandparents to his parents, Clarence and Rosalie, to him — who is as much a fixture as the bookshelves.

Customers walk in and he’s there if they need him. But there is nothing intense or high pressure about him. He’s like the bartenders you see in the movies: clearly approachable, but on your terms. A booktender.

. . . .

“If I have a quality it’s probably being able to interact with people in a way that makes them feel valuable, or listened to,” says Richard. “That’s something my grandfather and father were good at, just being interested in people. I’m generally a curious person, so whatever someone is interested in or whatever they’re doing, I have an interest in it, and it’s not because they’re a customer, it’s because I’m interested. Anyway, I think that’s worked well for me.”

Not only has curiosity kept Frost’s Books an enduring presence on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley — an independent bookstore, no less, that has weathered the internet storm and is still standing — but it has given Richard a chance to meet an unending stream of interesting people.

“I throw everybody a softball,” he says of his benign approach to starting a conversation, “and I let them hit it just as far as they can.”

If people want to pontificate, they have the floor.

“I enjoy chatting and people sharing their feelings and what their thoughts are, even political rants,” he says. “I’m a very conservative person, but I know of at least 20 people who think I’m a raging liberal; not because or anything I’ve said, but just because I’ve listened to them without arguing.”

Sometimes it gets very personal. “I have anywhere from two to five significant conversations throughout the day, that might last 10, 15 minutes,” he says. “One customer calls me her therapist, and she does as much therapy or counseling for me as I do for her.”

Of course, at some point people have to buy something.

That’s where the true book lovers come in — those folks who choose to spend their disposable (and sometimes not disposable) income on the printed word over all else.

“The lifeblood of a bookstore is having 50 people who spend $100 to $200 in a visit,” says Richard. “Vegas would call them whales. Then you have to have, what, 200 other people who are regulars, and then you count on new people to come by and hopefully replace the old people who died or moved or whatever. But, really, you gotta have one whale a day. I don’t know if we should refer to my best customers as whales, but it just makes all the difference.”

Link to the rest at the Deseret News

The Mom-and-Popcalypse

From Slate:

To visit Philadelphia’s Joseph Fox Bookshop in the last two weeks of January was to attend a wake.

Tucked away on a narrow one-way street in the heart of Center City, the 71-year-old institution held a special magic. Its neatly curated selection of hip novels, architectural tomes, and children’s literature was framed by pleasantly tasteful interior decor and soothing lighting. Everyone behind the counter knew their stuff and would gladly recommend a gift, even if you were only half-sure about the recipient’s favorite novel.

So when rumors began to spread on Twitter that the beloved staple might soon close, a story soon confirmed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the reaction was dramatic.

. . . .

“I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of emotion,” says Michael Fox, 69, whose father opened the shop in 1951. “People were crying outside the book store, people were bringing us presents and food. There’s been this extraordinary outpouring of affection and sadness.”

Joseph Fox was thronged in those last weeks of business, its narrow rowhouse confines bursting with grieving loyalists. While locals mourned for one Philadelphia icon, however, there were also dark murmurings about a potentially much greater malady.

Is Center City experiencing a retail meltdown? Nearly two years into the era of remote work, are Philadelphia’s downtown, and other central business districts around the country, finally collapsing? The relatively high-end commercial corridors of Walnut and Chestnut streets—both hit hard by the shutdown and looting and property destruction in 2020—are still pocked with vacancies. Their counterparts on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, and Manhattan’s SoHo all saw vacancy rates of 20 percent or higher in 2021.

“Walnut Street used to be this vibrant, thriving, amazing community of stores, all these big chain clothing stores—and they’re just not reopening,” says Fox. “At six o’clock when we close, there’s no one on the street. That’s a real indication that something changed. People are not in town, they aren’t working.”

. . . .

This is very specifically a downtown problem. At the macro level, the national retail market is proving resilient two years into the pandemic, with many of its weaker performers already culled by the “retail apocalypse” of 2018 and 2019. For the first time since 2014, the real estate analytics company CoStar Group tracked more store openings than closings last year.

Buoyed by unprecedented amounts of federal support for households and businesses in 2020 and early 2021, paired with increased savings due to inactivity earlier in the pandemic, Americans pounded down the doors of national retailers last year.

“Retail sales blew through the roof at a much higher rate than we would have ever expected and consumption hit all-time highs,” says Brandon Svec, national director of U.S. retail analytics with the CoStar Group. “The consumer was unleashed back into the world with vaccines in their arms and a couple extra trillion dollars in their bank accounts.”

That larger truth obscures inequities. The booming metropolitan areas of the Southeast and Southwest are outperforming more stagnant counterparts in the Northeast and Midwest. Rural regions continue to suffer from a dearth of retail activity, while suburbs are outperforming urban cores especially in older, denser cities like Philadelphia.

Michael Fox isn’t imagining things when he laments reduced foot traffic and boarded up storefronts. By the count of Philadelphia’s Center City District, a third of downtown consumers are still absent. In 2019, an average of 428,000 people walked the streets of central Philadelphia every day. In 2021, there were only 267,000—a gap almost entirely explained by the continued prevalence of remote work.

Link to the rest at Slate

Bookstore Sales Rose 28% in 2021

From Publishers Weekly:

Riding strong gains in the second half of the year, bookstore sales increased 39% in 2021 over 2020, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales were $9.03 billion, compared to sales of $6.50 billion in pandemic-ravaged 2020.

The rebound was not quite enough to bring 2021 bookstore sales back to 2019 levels, falling 1% below 2019 sales of $9.13 billion.

Consumers apparently did buy books early and often in the fourth quarter of 2021. December bookstore sales increased 33.6% over December 2020, rising to $1.20 billion from $900 million in December 2020. The December increase followed sales jumps of 53% in October and 43% in November.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

When Is It Okay to Let a Bookstore Die?

From Book Riot:

Readers love bookstores. Even the most devoted library power user, audiobook aficionado, or ebook devotee enjoys wiling time away in the aisles. There’s perhaps nothing more romanticized in the bookish world than a secondhand bookstore brimming with stacks of books precariously balanced on every surface. They make for great Instagram pictures — but do they make for a good business model?

Speaking of romanticization, books are often conferred a certain status that almost no other object is. Reading isn’t just a hobby; it’s a lofty pursuit. Books aren’t just widgets; they’re sacred objects. Reading and books aren’t just associated with status and education. They’re also often associated with a kind of moral weight. It’s not unusual for everyone from BookTokers to booksellers to say they promote literacy, which certainly sounds like a noble pursuit.

Getting people to read (or buy) more books isn’t the same thing as promoting literacy, though, if we’re being completely honest. Increasing literacy would involve teaching people (whether kids or adults) the skills of reading, from the most basic phonics and decoding knowledge to more intricate strategies, like spotting motifs and themes, critically engaging with a text, and recognizing bias.

Convincing someone to pick up a random book doesn’t necessarily achieve any of those goals, and yet it still feels like a victory. Bookstores have an air of improving society, of being ethically superior to other businesses. When that veneer is scratched away, though, you’re left with a business that needs to make money. Apart from a handful of not-for-profit or communist/anarchist bookstores, they function in much the same way any other business does.

But while it’s fairly common for independent bookstores to do GoFundMe-style crowdfunding campaigns or to simply ask customers to place orders to keep the lights on, it’s unlikely that a local soap and cosmetics store or a boutique fashion location doing something like this would be received similarly. After all, they’re businesses. If they’re not profitable, why should they stay open?

. . . .

When I started working for a used bookstore, there were piles of books on the ground, and nothing was catalogued online. It was exactly the kind of ~aesthetic~ used bookstore you might see on Instagram. People would come in and exclaim at how lovely it was…and often those same people would leave after 15 minutes of looking around without buying anything. Because the stacks were overwhelming, they trapped dust, and they blocked shelves.

. . . .

Since then, the store has expanded (hooray!) and changed locations. There are no more piles on the floor, and everything is catalogued online. The booksellers there still have people come in and say how they miss the charm of the old store, and specifically that they miss the piles of books on the floor. The staff who had to spend hours moving piles of books around, lugging tubs of books up stairs without an elevator, and searching through the 18 places a title might be shelved largely disagree.

There’s a vision of used bookstores as tiny, cramped spaces filled from floor to ceiling with books in very little order at all. Tucked away in a corner is someone reading, who is likely cranky and will criticize your reading taste. They do not have the newest releases. The idea of finding a treasure in those piles is enticing, but it’s just not a sound business strategy most of the time, and it’s no surprise that these shops have largely disappeared. And that’s okay.

. . . .

Bookstores are not inherently morally superior to any other business, though, and sometimes they just aren’t a good fit. Maybe it isn’t run effectively. Maybe there aren’t enough customers or the rent is too high. Maybe the staff is condescending or unhelpful. Maybe there’s too much competition. I don’t think readers have an obligation to support every physical bookstore. Sometimes, it’s their time to shut up shop.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG isn’t certain exactly what the author of the OP is trying to demonstrate other than bookstores have a past.

PG agrees that “bookstores are not inherently morally superior to any other business” even though he enjoyed physical bookstores in the past.

The problem with physical bookstores today is entirely financial. After the rise of Barnes & Noble and Borders, only a relatively small group of people made much money owning/operating an independent bookstore. Long before Amazon showed up, a typical independent bookstore could expect an annual profit margin of 1-2%.

The widespread shutdown in the United States during the Age of Covid was disastrous for physical bookstores.

From the Open Education Database (PG thinks in 2002):

  • Today, there are around 10,800 bookstores in the U.S.Though it might seem that bookstores are closing at a rapid pace, there are actually still an impressive amount of bookstores in the U.S.; about 10,800 in all, ranging from small, independent retailers to major chains, according to census data from 2002. Yet that number is considerably lower than the number recorded in 1997 when there were 12,363 stores, a 12.2% drop.
  • There are more bookstores today than there were in 1930.

. . . .

  • E-books have captured $3.2 billion of the market.E-books offer readers convenience and the chance to save money on buying books, but they’re also causing bookstores to take a major hit. In 2011, e-books captured $3.2 billion of the bookselling market, and by 2016 that number is projected to grow to nearly $10 billion. That estimate could be pretty close to reality based on past trends; between 2010 and 2011 alone e-book sales rose by 210% and comprised 30% of all sales of adult fiction. Prior to the introduction of the Amazon Kindle, the e-book market was fairly insignificant. Now, with nearly 28% of Americans owning an e-reader device, it’s not uncommon to see sales jump exponentially from year to year.

Link to the rest at Open Education Database

PG notes that the stats listed above are twenty years old.

From The United States Census:

According to data from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns . . . the number of U.S. Book stores . . . dropped from 12,151 in 1998 to 6,045 in 2019.

Link to the rest at The United States Census

PG suggests that sales from physical bookstores were under siege a long time before Amazon was founded in 1994. You’ll recall that Barnes & Noble and Borders put a large number of independent bookstores out of business during their rise to the top of the traditional bookstore market.

From The New York Times (October 15,2020):

The signs started appearing in bookstore windows this week.

“Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.”

“Amazon, please leave the dystopia to Orwell.”

“If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there.”

The message: Buy from these shops, or they won’t be around much longer. According to the American Booksellers Association, which developed the campaign, more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the pandemic began. Many of those still standing are staring down the crucial holiday season and seeing a toxic mix of higher expenses, lower sales and enormous uncertainty.

Even though book sales have been a bright spot in an exceedingly grim national economy — they rose more than 6 percent so far this year compared with last year, according to NPD BookScan — most of those purchases are not going through independent stores.

. . . .

Still, local independent stores have hustled and reinvented themselves during the pandemic. Mailing books to customers, which used to be a minuscule revenue stream for most shops, can now be more than half of a store’s income, or virtually all of it for places that are not yet open for in-person shopping. Curbside pickup has become commonplace.

Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., sends personalized URLs to customers with a list of handpicked recommendations. Green Apple Books in San Francisco raised $20,000 selling T-shirts, hoodies and masks that said “Stay home, read books.” Other stores have pleaded for customers to donate money.

All that still may not be enough.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Boy, you must be raking it in with all the online business you’re getting,’” said Christine Onorati, an owner of Word bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J. “It makes me laugh.”

Bookstores across the country face different challenges depending on any number of factors, including their local economies and how they have been affected by the coronavirus. But some broad trend lines have started to emerge, perhaps most of all that bigger, right now, is not better.

Take Vroman’s Bookstore, a 126-year-old institution in Pasadena, Calif. It has more than 200 employees, 20,000 square feet of space and the rent to go along with it. In a normal year, it hosts anywhere from 300 to 400 events, bringing in authors for readings and signings, along with customers who buy books and maybe a glass of wine from the bar. But none of that is happening this year.

Like many other stores, Vroman’s is hosting online events to promote new books, which can attract attendees from all over the country but generally bring in almost no money. Last month, it emailed customers, imploring them to come back.

“Our foot traffic and sales are improving, but still down almost 40 percent, which will not keep us in business,” it said. “If Vroman’s is to survive, sales must increase significantly from now through the holidays.”

At McNally Jackson Books, which has four locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn along with two stationery shops, sales are “unimaginably bad,” according to its owner, Sarah McNally. All six shops combined are now bringing in less than its SoHo location would in a typical month.

. . . .

Allison K. Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, said the group surveyed its 1,750 members in July and received responses from about 400 of them. Of those who answered, about a third said their sales were down 40 percent or more for the year. But another 26 percent said their sales were flat, or even up. The organization plans to do another survey in January, and Ms. Hill said she expects that positive number to have eroded.

. . . .

Even at stores where sales have held on, profits are often down, Ms. Hill said. In the best of times, the margins at a bookstore are paper thin — traditionally, a successful shop hopes to make 2 percent in profits — but operating during a pandemic is even more expensive.

“We’re working harder for less this year,” said Kelly Estep, one of the owners of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky.

Mailing a book to a customer requires more time and labor than ringing it up at the register. Some stores are offering hazard pay to their employees or have dedicated a staff member to greet people at the door, making sure they’re wearing masks and sanitizing their hands before they start running their fingers across the books.

. . . .

“If someone told me this time last year I would be spending $20,000 on postage and shipping materials and P.P.E. and extra cleaning for the stores,” said Jamie Fiocco, an owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the board president of the American Bookseller Association, she wouldn’t have believed it. “We just didn’t have those line items in our budget, or if we did, they were inconsequential.”

Hanging over all this is the holiday season. Ms. Fiocco said her store does about 30 percent of its business in the last eight weeks of the year, and there are days in December when she sells more in an hour than in a normal day. But this year, customers won’t be able to freely swarm the store at the last minute, so booksellers are trying to encourage early shopping.

Perhaps most worrying is that the supply chain has been under strain. There have been issues with shippers, limited capacity at warehouses and backlogs at printing companies, where books delayed from the spring are running up against releases planned for the fall. Among those is a new memoir by former President Barack Obama, which is scheduled for publication Nov. 17 and expected to be the biggest book of the year.

“There’s a Hail Mary here where the holiday season could really change things,” said Ms. Hill. “To have a book like that come out right at this critical time, it could make a huge difference.”

Many store owners are afraid the printers won’t be able to keep up with demand, or that publishers won’t prioritize indies if supply gets tight, so they’re placing large orders up front for some of the biggest books of the season, like a new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. (Mr. Obama’s book has required other adjustments: At 768 pages, it will weigh 2.5 pounds, said Matt Keliher at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn., so the store had to raise shipping fees or else it would lose money on every sale.) Because the demand has been so enormous, Mr. Obama’s publisher Penguin Random House will be sending orders out in batches for stores across the country, from little indies to the big boxes.

“If we could sell 1,000 copies between November 17 and the New Year, that’s going to make a huge difference in us being viable, so we need those books,” said Gayle Shanks, an owner of Changing Hands Bookstore, which has locations in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. “We’re really trying to get the message out, to help customers understand that not just for bookstores but local retailers and local restaurants, if they want them to be there when the pandemic over, they have to support those businesses now.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

From Kirkus Reviews (14 October 2020):

Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, according to a news release from the American Booksellers Association.

Link to the rest at Kirkus Reviews

From The Los Angeles Times (5 October 2020), a piece written by Allison K Hill, President of the American Booksellers Association:

On the side of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena is a mural of a red and black typewriter with a painted piece of paper bearing the words, “I will forever be in love with you. And that’s not fiction.”

When I commissioned this piece in November 2019 as the store’s CEO, it didn’t seem far-fetched to think that Vroman’s, a Pasadena literary institution since 1894, would be around, if not forever, then for a very long time.

Now the store has said it may not make it through the year.

Anyone who has wandered Vroman’s two stories of curated books and gifts, caught up with a friend there for coffee or wine, or met a favorite author at a book signing, knows the shop’s value to the community. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt it — and many other beloved independent bookstores across the United States — an unexpected blow.

I left Vroman’s in February to become CEO of American Booksellers Assn. It’s a dream job for me; I love bookstores and I know that Vroman’s and the other 1,745 independent bookstores that we support across the country are heartbeats of their communities. They are run by individuals who love books and are known for their community support, customer service and curation. Recommendations are made by booksellers, not algorithms; displays are inspired by individuals, not corporate planograms.

In my new job I witness on a daily basis what it takes for indies to do this in an industry not known for its financial robustness. As the joke goes: “How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a large fortune.” Independent booksellers are creative, resourceful, hard-working and resilient, and they’ve needed to be during the pandemic.

Since March many independent bookstores have found themselves having to depend on e-commerce and forced to pivot to curbside pickup. They’ve had to replace live events with virtual ones and enforce social distancing, if their stores are open at all. A July American Booksellers’ Assn. survey of 400 member stores found that many have seen sharp sales declines over last year, and results suggest that some 20% of those surveyed may not survive until January 2021.

This statistic mirrors the Small Business Majority’s survey results from August. The group found that, without additional funding, 26% of small-business owners across the United States may not survive past the next three months, and nearly 44% say they may be unable to survive another six months.

If these businesses close, COVID-19 will be listed as the cause of death, but the preexisting condition for many will be Amazon, whose packages have become ubiquitous in apartment building lobbies and on porches across the U.S. Amazon has been boxing out local bookstores and other small businesses all across the country, resulting in the loss of local jobs, local sales tax revenue, and a sense of neighborhood personality, community and tradition. People may not realize the cost and consequences of Amazon’s “convenience” until it’s too late.

. . . .

The COVID-19 crisis has been heartbreaking on so many levels. People have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses. People have lost hope. On a good day I contemplate all the things I’m grateful for, but like all of us there is so much that I miss from my pre-COVID-19 life, particularly browsing the bustling aisles of my favorite bookstores. The Vroman’s announcement was a jolting reminder that on the other side of the crisis we will have lost many of the things we take for granted.

With this realization comes an opportunity for action: Now is the time to create the post-COVID-19 world we want to live in.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

WH Smith’s ‘bestselling’ book charts filled with titles publishers have paid to feature in rankings

From Inews UK:

Book lovers are unwittingly paying for titles which appear to be the top-selling releases of the moment, when in some cases a publisher has paid the retailer to feature them in its “bestseller” charts, multiple industry figures have claimed.

Rankings displayed at shops such as WH Smith, as well as those compiled by online retailers, are determined partly by whether a book has been boosted in a deal with publishers, industry insiders say.

The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.

“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.

. . . .

[T]he chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed.

“Often… our area manager would come in and rearrange the chart so certain books [would] appear higher,” Mr Pierce added.

True bestseller charts based on figures from Nielsen BookScan – which collects point-of-sale data from more than 6,500 UK retailers – are widely regarded as the most accurate reflection of the top selling titles and authors.

The admission has prompted astonishment from readers and authors, but industry figures, who backed up Mr Pierce’s claim, maintained that such agreements have long been part of the way publishers and retailers do business and should not come as a surprise to the book-buying public.

James Daunt, managing director at Waterstones, the UK’s largest bookshop chain, said it was commonplace for other retailers to exchange spots in their charts for money.

Waterstones itself previously accepted millions of pounds each year from publishers to position titles in its “bestseller” charts, but Mr Daunt said he put an end to these deals as soon as he was appointed.

“Since I took over in 2011, Waterstones has never taken one penny to place books [on shelves]. The year before, Waterstones took £27 million [from publishers],” Mr Daunt said.

Link to the rest at Inews UK and thanks to H for the tip.

The question that occurred to PG was, “If a publisher was ethical in its business practices, would it pay for phony best-seller rankings.”

PG is certain a publisher would respond that this was just a time-honored method to increase sales and, thus, profits.

Inquiring minds might ask if calculations of the amount of royalties owed to authors were ever subject to this sort of “publishing industry practice.”

Barnes & Noble Unveils Union Square & Company

From Publishers Weekly:

Approximately one year after Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt tapped Emily Meehan to reinvent the retailer’s publishing operation, Meehan has unveiled a new name for the press as well as a host of new initiatives.

Union Square & Co. is the new public-facing name of what has been known as Sterling Publishing. Meehan explained that the underlying business will still be called Sterling Publishing, but that all books will be released under the Union Square & Co. and Union Square Kids imprints, plus two existing imprints: Sterling Ethos and Puzzlewright. Books bearing the Union Square name will roll out this fall, while the publisher’s website and email addresses will be updated January 10.

Meehan said she is keeping the Sterling Ethos and Puzzlewright names because they are so well known in their categories of magic and mystic publishing and pencil-and-paper puzzles, respectively. Meehan said Puzzlewright accounts for about 10% of Union Square’s revenue, and she sees more opportunity to grow both that business as well as the business of Sterling Ethos. Specifically, she plans to take hit titles within those imprints and expand them across a variety of formats, including calendars and journals, with the goal of reaching not only existing fans but also a wider audience. Kate Zimmermann is heading up Sterling Ethos and Francis Heaney is leading Puzzlewright.

The launch of the Union Square brand is in keeping with Meehan’s previously announced strategy to broaden the types of books that the group publishes for both adults and children. She believes Union Square is well positioned both to help authors who are looking to reboot their careers and to assist new authors with launching theirs. She said Union Square will be looking for authors who are writing on subjects that reflect shifts in the culture.

“We will be placing bets in the areas where we believe we have a good chance to grow,” Meehan explained, noting that she has no intention of going head-to-head with the Big Five on a regular basis. “We’ll act on books in categories where we want to put a stake in the ground.”

Meehan said a good example of the type of author and book Union Square will focus on is a new untitled interior design book by Carmeon Hamilton, the winner of HGTV’s Design Star: Next Gen and star of the Reno My Rental show. Hamilton “wants to move design in some new ways,” Meehan noted. The author was signed by Amanda Englander, who joined Union Square from Clarkson Potter and who will oversee the publisher’s lifestyle efforts, which include the decorating, food and drink, and health and wellness categories.

Growing Union Square’s fiction list is another Meehan priority, and to that end she signed the Wolf Den trilogy by Elodie Harper. The first installment, The Wolf Den, was a U.K. bestseller, and the series has been touted by B&N’s U.K. sister company Waterstones. Meehan said Union Square will use Waterstones’ merch team as a sounding board when looking to sign other U.K. authors.

. . . .

Accompanying changes to Union Square’s editorial approach, Meehan has made changes to its sales operations, with an eye to improving the publisher’s sales across the entire trade. To that end, Elena Blanco has joined as director, trade sales, and her duties include expanding Union Square’s outreach to independent booksellers. 

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG checked out Union Square’s website and found a word salad of tired clichés.

We focus on making publishing a partnership. Through collaboration and a team approach publishing is made easier and more profitable while providing business skill and global reach.

We combine industry-best experience with business creativity and expertise, then collaborate to help realize the possibilities you created from the first moment you set pen to paper.

. . . .

Authors become part of our Algorithms for Success trademarked Ecosystem which establishes the best future for the author and title.

PG is certain that a great deal of research went into what authors really want – an Algorithms for Success trademarked Ecosystem.

PG wondered if this new collection of English majors who couldn’t get work elsewhere had ever created an algorithm.

Perhaps they started off with “How to Create an Algorithm” with MS Word 2010 on a PC.

Of course, every talented contemporary author who recalls the first moment you set pen to paper will, without a doubt, be thoroughly enchanted.

PG can barely restrain his enthusiasm. His first moment produced something like “Acme Construction (hereafter “The Party of the First Part”)”.

Just how big in media does Apple want to be?

From The Economist:

AS VIOLINS PLAY mournfully, Jon Stewart, an American comic, makes a mock-emotional appeal to viewers. “Every year thousands of hours of high-quality content go unwatched,” he says seriously. “Because good, hard-working people…don’t know how to find Apple TV+.”

The world’s most valuable company can afford a few jokes at its own expense. In the past year the tech colossus has raked in $366bn in revenue, a third more than in 2020. On January 3rd its market capitalisation briefly exceeded $3trn (see chart 1). The mere billions that it is investing in media, including a new television show hosted by Mr Stewart, represent pocket change to the Silicon Valley giant.

Yet some 300 miles (480km) away in Hollywood, where executives used to snigger about the dilettantes from big-tech land up north, Apple’s dabbling in media is no joke. Though it lags well behind Netflix and the like, Apple has enough money to ride out the increasingly expensive streaming wars, which threaten to bankrupt other players. One question keeps its rivals awake at night: just how big in media does Apple want to be?

Apple became a big noise in music when it launched iTunes almost exactly 21 years ago. It took a cut of songs’ sales, and shifted hundreds of millions of iPods for people to play them. Later iTunes sold movies, too, and the firm hoped to make the same model work in television, where the market is an order of magnitude larger than music. But paying for downloads was superseded by all-you-can-eat subscriptions, pioneered by Spotify in music and Netflix in TV. Unlike downloaded music or films, subscriptions could be easily transferred between platforms. So Apple, seeing little opportunity to lock consumers into its devices, sat out the streaming revolution.

Today it is back in the media game, and a bigger force than Mr Stewart’s joke implies (see chart 2). Apple Music, launched in 2015, is the second-largest streamer after Spotify. Apple TV+, now two years old, is the fourth-largest video service outside China by the number of subscribers, according to Omdia, a data company. In the past couple of years Apple has made smaller media bets including Arcade, a subscription gaming package, News+, a publishing bundle, and Fitness+, which offers video aerobics classes. There is talk of an audiobooks service later this year.

Like Amazon, another tech giant with a sideline in media, Apple has been able to roll out its offerings more quickly in more countries than most of its Hollywood rivals, which have had to build direct-to-consumer businesses from scratch. And it can afford to be generous with free trials: less than a third of Apple TV+ subscribers pay for the service, Omdia believes. It has had some hits, notably “Ted Lasso”, which won a string of Emmy awards in September. But it lacks a back-catalogue, leading to high rates of customer churn. Smaller competitors like Paramount+ (part of ViacomCBS) and Peacock (from NBCUniversal) have limited new offerings but decades-old libraries.

. . . .

Apple’s renewed interest in media is best explained by the transformation in the company’s scale, which radically changes the calculation of which side-projects are worthwhile. Fifteen years ago, when Netflix started streaming, the billions involved in running a film studio would have represented close to a double-digit chunk of Apple’s annual revenues. Back then, Silicon Valley executives would fly down to Los Angeles, thinking “We’ve got a big chequebook, we could go and buy a bunch of content,” says Benedict Evans, a tech analyst and former venture capitalist. “And they would go and have their first meeting in LA. And the LA people would tell them the price”—at which point the tech people would go home. In 2021 Apple TV+’s estimated content budget represented 0.6% of company revenues: “play money”, as Mr Evans puts it.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Reading through the OP, PG thought it might be very interesting if Apple got into the book business. It could afford to buy any New York (or London, Paris, etc.) publisher it fancied with a few days worth of profits and could then give Amazon the first serious competition it’s had in the book business for a long time. Amazon pioneered the model and Apple could copy what worked.

By purchasing an established traditional publisher, Apple could also lock up a whole lot of non-Mickey-Mouse intellectual property for its video business. Amazon is too big in books to do that without getting caught up in significant antitrust issues, but Apple could play the anti-Amazon card to capture more than a little sympathetic noise from the book business.

PG also bets that Apple could buy Barnes & Noble at a very nice price and turn BN’s retail locations into Disney bookstores.

PG is just whirling his brain cells and hasn’t devoted any serious consideration of potential Disney antitrust issues that might arise. That said, PG thinks serious competition on this scale would sharpen up Amazon’s book business quite a lot.

PG is a big fan of Amazon for indie authors, but in his excessively-humble opinion, Amazon’s indie and commercial publishing arms haven’t done a whole lot of Amazon-brainy things for some time.

Exhibit A would be the difference between the POD backends of the Zon and Draft2Digital. Exhibit A.1 would be the limited and clunky POD templates Zon provides compared to D2D’s much more sophisticated looks.

E-Commerce Needs Real Store Locations Now More Than Ever

From The Wall Street Journal:

After losing ground to e-commerce, bricks-and-mortar stores are back in style.

Retailers this year are expected to open more stores than they close for the first time since 2017, according to an analysis of more than 900 chains by IHL Group, a research and advisory company. Most of the growth is coming from mass merchants, food, drugs and convenience chains.

Department stores and specialty retailers, which experienced the biggest shakeout over the past five years, are still closing more stores than they are opening. But the pace of closures has slowed from record levels.

Behind the shift are changing views about the value of physical stores, industry executives and analysts said.

Stores have become integral in fulfilling e-commerce orders. They serve as distribution hubs and convenient places for shoppers to pick up and return online purchases—services that will be key this holiday season as orders once again threaten to overwhelm shipping carriers.

As the cost of acquiring customers online has skyrocketed, stores also are a less expensive way to attract new shoppers. And as landlords have become more willing to accept shorter and more flexible lease terms, retailers are less likely to wind up locked into unproductive locations, the executives and analysts said.

“Five or six years ago, there was lots of discussion about whether e-commerce would gobble up bricks-and-mortar retail,” said Toni Roeller, senior vice president of in-store environment and visual merchandising at Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. Instead, she said, the online and store experience became more closely linked, which translated into a need for more stores.

The stores that retailers are opening today are different. Some are smaller, and more of them offer experiences beyond browsing.

Dick’s is adding to its fleet of more than 800 stores by opening newer concepts that include House of Sport, Public Lands and Golf Galaxy stores that have interactive features such as batting cages, rock-climbing walls and putting greens. It also has added some of those features to its namesake Dick’s stores.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Supply Chain Grinch

From Writers Digest:

I started drafting my YA rom-com I’m Dreaming of A Wyatt Christmas the day my world stopped. It was March 2020 and my three children were home on their first day of spring break. At the time, we didn’t know that they wouldn’t be back in the classroom until September 2021.

Wyatt Christmas was written in the scraps of time I stitched together between figuring out if I needed to wipe down groceries and quarantine mail, where to buy toilet paper, and how to entertain and prevent a school-less preschooler from interrupting his brothers’ virtual classes. I wrote from 10 p.m. to midnight, from 3 a.m. until whenever my then three-year-old woke up and came looking for me.

In order to keep myself awake enough to write at 3 a.m., I had to really love this story—really love this world—and I do. I filled this book with all the warmth and Christmas feeling I could cram into the chapters. Working on it was an escape—one I hope translates to the readers. And like so many books written during the early pandemic months, my cozy Christmas book was about to make its way to bookstores.

At least I thought it was. Like so many in the publishing industry, I’ve gotten a crash course in supply chains these past few weeks. Wyatt Christmas was supposed to hit bookstore shelves October 5. It didn’t.

This is not my first pandemic release. I’m typically a book-a-year author, but I’m Dreaming of a Wyatt Christmas will be my third release in the past 18 months. The last two books in my Bookish Boyfriends series came out in May 2020 and January 2021. While launching without in-person events hasn’t been fun, I thought I knew how to make it work. I bought a ring light, signed up to embarrass myself on TikTok, and made a virtual escape room for school visits. But publishing has always been a roller coaster—you never know if the next drop is going to leave you elated or nauseated—and I was about to encounter one more loop on the track.

Who knew back when we all giggled about the boat stuck in the Suez Canal that it was just the beginning of what we’d be learning about shipping and supply chains? Not me! Dangit, karma!

A few weeks ago, my publisher emailed me with the news: Wyatt Christmas wasn’t going to arrive in time for its original release date, and they gave me a new one: October 26. I took a deep breath and made some corrections to my planner. We all agreed that this was fine. This was good, even; my Christmas book would come out closer to Christmas.

I made graphics. I filmed Instagram stories. I decided to proceed with the virtual launch event I had scheduled on October 5 with author Jen Calonita at Doylestown Bookshop. It wouldn’t be a “launch” event for me, but Jen’s middle grade novel, Heroes, the final book in her Royal Academy Rebels series, was coming out that day, and I could use our talk to encourage preorders.

Ninety minutes before the event started, I got an email from the bookstore: their preorder link was down. While Doylestown Bookshop pivoted to accepting phone and email orders, and I sent frantic emails to my publicist, we realized it wasn’t just a one-store issue. The buy links didn’t work on any of the bookstores I checked. It didn’t work on IndieBound or Bookshop.org, or on Barnes & Noble’s website. The book was unbuyable, due to complications with the on-sale date change.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest

Yet one other reason to stay away from traditional publishers.

That said, an innovative organization would have improvised a strategy to launch the book in a different way.

Book sales were way up during the Covid lockdown. These were, of course, virtually all online.

An innovative organization might have organized an online launch for the ebook and a POD hardcopy.

As it is, when the supply chain is worked through, there will be a zillion other book launches because traditional publishing can’t figure out how to launch a book without their highest-cost/lowest-profit sales outlet – the traditional bookstsore.

Pandemic sparks union activity where it was rare: Bookstores

From The Associated Press:

Britta Larson, a shift leader at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, has been with the store for nearly 12 years but only recently thought about whether she wanted to join a union.

“With the pandemic going on, we all were just weary of the constant dismissals we got when we raised concerns about staffing and workload to upper management,” said Larson, noting that the staff had been reduced when the store shut down for a time and was “stretched extremely thin” once it opened again.

“Before the pandemic, I’d say we would have kind of just thought ‘Things aren’t great’ because it was all we had ever known. The pandemic forced us to do some things differently and we learned from that.”

Labor action has surged in many industries over the past two years, including in bookselling, a business where unions had been rare. Since 2020, employees have unionized or are attempting to do so everywhere from Printed Matter in New York City to Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and Bookshop Santa Cruz in California. In Minnesota, workers at four Half Price Books stores have announced plans to affiliate with locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

“I think COVID-19 was a rude awakening for bookstore workers, and really anyone who works with the public,” says Owen Hill, a buyer at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California, which unionized earlier this year. “We were given no say regarding safe working conditions, even though we were risking our health by showing up for work. We had to organize in order to be a part of the conversation around worker safety.”

The publishing world has not a magnet for those seeking to get rich. Bookselling, especially independent bookselling, has a long affinity with liberal politics and a long sense of mission that transcends the desire to make a profit. Larson told The Associated Press that she and fellow Half Price staffers would rather unionize than quit because of their “enjoyment of books and love of our jobs as booksellers.”

But when workers organize, even the most progressive-minded owners might object.

Moe’s Books was co-founded in 1959 by the cigar-smoking Moe Moskowitz, a longtime activist and agitator known in part for letting his store serve as a refuge for anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Moe’s is now run by his daughter, Doris Moskowitz, who has spoken of the store’s egalitarian atmosphere and tradition of valuing dissent and social consciousness.

But when the staff announced in March that it was affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, Moskowitz acknowledged mixed feelings, telling the digital news site Berkeleyside that the “decision to unionize, which I deeply respect from a political perspective, has left me very sad and confused.” In September, workers picketed the store and alleged unfair labor practices (denied by Moskowitz), though Hill says the situation has since improved.

“After lots of ups and downs, and major disagreements, the parties have come together,” Hill said. “We’re zeroing in on a contract, and both sides are negotiating in good faith. I expect that we will be voting on a new contract just after Thanksgiving (fingers crossed). I think management realized that both sides are committed to keeping the store open — we’re such an important part of the community.”

. . . .

Half Price Books also has its roots in the anti-establishment. It was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre, a former executive at the Zale Corporation who in middle age wanted to make a living more in line with his ideals as a pacifist, environmentalist and civil libertarian. A 2003 article in PR Week, published a year after Gjemre’s death, described Half Price as “forgiving and generous to its unconventional workforce, which is peppered with aging hippies and liberal-arts majors.”

Half Price has grown from a former laundromat in Dallas to more than 100 locations around the country. In response to a request for comment on the current labor action in Minnesota, Half Price Books executive vice president and chief strategy officer Kathy Doyle Thomas said in a statement: “Half Price Books strives to provide competitive benefits and good working conditions for all 1,900 employees across the country. We understand there is a movement to organize workers, and we respect the right of employees to vote. We are committed to following all procedures required by law.”

The company sent a different message to employees. In a statement posted for a time in some of the Minnesota stores, workers were told that Half Price would oppose unionization “with every legal means available to us.” Forming a union, the company added, was “a very serious decision, one that could affect your working future, and the future of those that depend on you. We believe that, once you get all the facts about the union, you will decide that our future will be better without a union.”

Link to the rest at Associated Press

France is trying to protect booksellers from Amazon. Is it a decade too late?

From Quartz:

French lawmakers are coming to the defense of booksellers who continue to lose business to major retailers like Amazon with a law that would set a fixed minimum delivery rate for books.

The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers, who face competition not only from Amazon, but also French online retailers such as Fnac and Cultura.

“Small booksellers face costs that are far away from those of major retailers,” Géraldine Bannier, the law’s sponsor, said before the National Assembly. In the age of Amazon, she argued, booksellers have to make a choice between eating the cost of delivery themselves or charging their customers, in which case they may risk losing a sale.

French bookshops have for years been protected by a 1981 law that mandated books be sold at a fixed price, and not be discounted at more than 5%. The National Assembly passed another law in 2014 forbidding online booksellers from giving a 5% discount or free delivery to customers, though Amazon fought back by setting delivery fees at just 1 cent.

. . . .

Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied how bookstores remain resilient despite Amazon competition, says that independent sellers tend to do well by “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation.” This has proven challenging for stores during the coronavirus pandemic, and some French sellers have suffered for it. The iconic Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune closed its doors in May.

No matter whether France’s law passes, Amazon will continue to take risks that independent booksellers cannot, Raffaelli says. The retailer is willing to be a “loss leader”—that is, sell products at a loss—because it can bring in revenue across other categories.

This approach paid off for the company between 2008 and 2018, when independent booksellers’ retail sales declined by an annual average of 3%, whereas e-commerce sites including Amazon and Apple boosted book sales by 5.6% and captured 16.5% of the French market, according to the SLF.

Still, Raffaelli says the latest French tactic is different from similar anti-competition lawsuits brought by US booksellers against Amazon because the legislation is underpinned by the belief that bookstores are not just a form of commerce, but a cultural product. Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed the same belief after the law was passed by the French Senate in June, saying “a book is not a good like others.”

“When you think about a bookstore as a cultural product, that creates a different rationale for why you would protect an industry,” Raffaelli says. “If you truly believe that bookstores are a form of art and culture, then you can potentially approach how you regulate it differently than if it’s just about transaction and free trade.”

Link to the rest at Quartz

How can independent bookstores begin to pay their booksellers a fair and living wage?

From Literary Hub:

We love indie bookstores. Even people who don’t read books love them. Insofar as movies and TV are a technicolor mirror of public perception, indie bookstores are wonderful and pure, quaint and charming—no one who works at (or owns!) an indie bookstore could be anything but a selfless and thoughtful champion of truth and beauty (even if they’re mean and sarcastic on the outside they most definitely have a heart of gold on the inside).

The problem with this widespread and rose-tinted version of independent bookstores is that it makes it easy to forget that to be a bookseller is to work an often thankless retail job for barely living wages with little to no benefits except for free books and the occasional opportunity to introduce local teens to the stories of Breece D’J Pancake or the early work of Anne Carson.

So how do we make bookselling—which, if we understand books as central to the ongoing attempt to puzzle out humanity and its complexities, is a worthy job—a better, longer-term career option for those who are most passionate about books?

This is one of the central questions at the heart of an upcoming two-part event called “Reimagining Bookstores.” Don’t let the title alarm you, this is not an app-based attempt to “disrupt” bookselling—in fact, the open forum is being co-hosted by a who’s-who of some of this country’s best bookstores, including Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, San Francisco’s Booksmith, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and Seattle’s Third Place Books.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

PG doesn’t usually include multiple excerpts from the same source on the same day, but he was surprised to see the OP’s topic.

The unfortunate reality is that almost all bookstores are marginal businesses.

PG doubts that anyone who thinks much about a career that will allow her/him to support a family in the absence of a wealthy spouse would seriously consider employment in a bookstore as any sort of long-term solution to anything. If PG’s unsystematic assessment of the few physical bookstores he has entered during the last year or two is correct, many people who work in bookstores would not be likely candidates for any sort of work that could support a middle-class lifestyle.

PG lives in an area that includes a couple of large universities and occasionally sees a college-student type in a bookstore. Still, primarily, the employees strike PG as more of the drop-out, need-a-job-now types who worry that waiting tables in a restaurant would be too much work. At least, when you go home after your shift in the bookstore is finished, you don’t smell like french-fry oil.

Given the existence of Amazon, even bookstores in smaller communities where they’re the only bookstore in town don’t have much real pricing power. If they can sell pastries from a local bakery or even a local grocery store, they may earn higher profits from those sales than from books.

This situation is not just a reflection of the Amazon effect, however. When PG first learned that bookstores could return unsold copies of books to the publisher (via the distributor) for full credit, that was his first clue that the book business had significant built-in problems.

PG would be happy to know if any other class of retailers can routinely return as many unsold goods as they wish to the manufacturers without paying anything for the privilege of doing so after the goods had been handled, picked over, etc., by a significant number of prospective buyers.

A Mystery Writer’s Ode to Bookstore Romances

From CrimeReads:

Let’s face it, all readers have the same dream—to own a bookstore! Ah, the images it conjures. Spending our days with books, reveling in the aromas of paper and ink, tingling with anticipation when we think of the fictional worlds waiting for us inside the covers of books

. . . .

The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs

Natalie Harper inherits her mother’s financially strapped bookshop and also becomes the caretaker of her ailing grandfather. When Grandpa’s health declines, Natalie decides to sell the shop and the aging building that houses it. There’s only one problem: Grandpa owns the building and he refuses to sell. Enter Peach Gallagher, a contractor hired to handle repairs. So begins Natalie’s journey of making new connections and discovering the truth about her family, her future, and her own heart.

Bookshop by the Sea by Denise Hunter

The responsibilities of raising her siblings have meant that Sophie has had to put aside her dream of owning a bookstore in Piper’s Cove. Now, her sibs are all grown up, and Sophie’s going to make her bookshop dream come true. A wedding reunites Sophie with Aiden Maddox the high school sweetheart who walked out on her without a backward glance. Can she trust Aiden to stick around and help her get the shop up and running? And while she’s at it, can she trust him with her heart?

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Thea Mottram’s husband walks out on her just when her uncle passes and she inherits his antique book collection. She travels to Scotland to check sell the books and comes to love the town of Baldochrie and its quirky residents. The only person she can’t win over Edward Maltravers, the bookstore owner she’d like to sell her uncle’s collection to. Somehow bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Publishers, Amazon Move to Dismiss Booksellers’ Antitrust Suit

From Publishers Weekly:

In separate motions this week, Amazon and the Big Five publishers asked a federal court to dismiss the latest iteration of a potential class-action price-fixing claim filed against them on behalf of indie booksellers.

According to court filings, the booksellers’ Amended Complaint, which was filed in July, accuses Amazon and the publishers of illegal price discrimination under the Robinson-Patman Act. But in their motions to dismiss, both Amazon and the publishers insist there is no illegal agreement to fix or otherwise restrain prices, and that the amended complaint is legally deficient and must be tossed.

“The Complaint recites that Amazon is a leading book retailer, takes issue with ordinary price competition, and tries to illogically and conclusorily claim that Publisher Defendants conspired with each other and with Amazon to confer a monopoly on Amazon, despite Publisher Defendants resisting Amazon’s growing position in the market for decades,” reads the publishers motion to dismiss. “This is simply not plausible. After realizing its originally pled Sherman Act conspiracy claims had no basis, Plaintiff tried to repackage them in its Complaint and bolster them with a price discrimination claim under the Robinson-Patman Act. The Complaint, however, is fatally deficient under either statute and must be dismissed.”

In its motion to dismiss, Amazon lawyers also insist that there is no conspiracy with the publishers, no evidence of illegal collusion, and that its bargaining for lower print book prices is simply good business—and good for consumers.

“Bargaining between buyers and sellers is one of the most commonplace, precompetitive actions that can occur in any market,” the Amazon brief states. “As the Supreme Court has stressed repeatedly, it would do great damage to competition and consumers alike if the [Robinson-Patman Act] were misconstrued as having outlawed competitive bargaining.”

The suit was first filed in March, 2021, when Evanston, Ill.-based Indie bookseller Bookends & Beginnings teamed up with the law firm currently leading a sprawling class action price-fixing suit against Amazon and the Big Five publishers in the e-book market to file an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of a potential class of booksellers accusing Amazon and the Big Five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House) of a conspiracy to restrain price competition in the retail and online print trade book market.

Similar to the claims made in the in ongoing e-book price-fixing case, the initial complaint turned on Amazon’s use of Most Favored Nation clauses in its contracts with the Big Five publishers, which, lawyers for Hagens Berman claim, have “the intent and effect of controlling wholesale prices of print trade books and preventing competition with Amazon in the retail sale of print trade books.”

But in their motion to dismiss, Amazon lawyers note that the factual basis for much of the booksellers’ initial complaint—the use of MFN clauses—simply does not exist. And, Amazon lawyers insist, the price discrimination claims in the amended complaint are ill-conceived.

“The premise of Plaintiff’s Complaint was that [the use of MFN] clauses prevented other retailers from competing to ‘gain market share’ by negotiating better wholesale prices for themselves,” the Amazon motion notes. “Plaintiff withdrew its Complaint after Defendants demonstrated that there was no factual basis for Plaintiff’s core allegation: those agreements do not and never did contain any such MFN clauses. Rather than dismiss its claims, however, Plaintiff pivoted dramatically to allege effectively the opposite theory, that Amazon violated [The Robinson-Patman Act]…by negotiating for discounted wholesale prices and passing those savings along to consumers by charging ‘comparatively lower retail book prices’ to improve its market position…Plaintiffs new theory, in other words, attacks the very essence of robust and healthy competition that the antitrust laws overwhelmingly seek to promote. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is baseless and should be dismissed.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Englishman trying to save American bookstores from Amazon

From FT Magazine (June 2, 2021):

On a bright Tuesday in April, the car parks at Fosse Park, an out-of-town shopping centre south of Leicester, are packed. Recently eased lockdown rules have allowed shops to reopen, and many people are enjoying their freedom. Eager customers line up in the sunshine.

One of the visitors is Oana Bacos, a 26-year-old who works nearby. Today, Bacos is giving herself a treat in a newly opened outlet of bookshop Waterstones. She stands by the shelves, holding a paperback of Convenience Store Woman by the Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata. “The bookseller recommended this, and we had a nice chat about what she enjoys, what I enjoy and all the books we have in common,” she says. “I love being here and browsing. It’s so different from ­looking online.”

Before the pandemic, Bacos was a regular at the Waterstones in the centre of Leicester, one of 286 stores run by the UK’s largest book chain. Her presence in Fosse Park is an omen: more retailers are now moving out of town. “People are happy to return to shops but bookstores are special,” says the store’s manager, Louise Walker, who joined a chain in 1987 that was later taken over by Waterstones. “They are so pleased just to be here, they talk about it like a lifeline. They want to touch the books, even smell them.”

The future of this precious experience is far from assured in the age of Amazon, ebooks and the pervasive strain on physical retailers of all kinds. A great deal depends on the benign dictator of English-language bookstores, James Daunt.

The 57-year-old executive is well known in the UK for founding Daunt Books, a quirky but much-loved group of nine shops, 31 years ago. In 2011, as the might of Jeff Bezos’s juggernaut shook publishing, Daunt was called in to rescue Waterstones from threatened extinction. Now he is attempting to repeat the trick.

In 2019, the investment fund that owns Waterstones, Elliott Advisors, purchased the ailing Barnes & Noble and its 607 US bookstores for $638m and put Daunt in charge. Then the pandemic struck.

While many stores suffered during lockdown, book sales rose sharply as people sought diversion. “I’m optimistic that people have enjoyed reading books, and they’ll continue to do so,” says Daunt, sitting by a tome-piled table at his own chain’s first store in London’s upmarket Marylebone district. “The big question is, will they find it most pleasurable to buy them in places like this?”

Another pressing question is whether Daunt can conquer the larger and more diverse US market using a formula honed in the UK. The number of bookstores in America fell from 11,200 in 2004 to 6,200 in 2018, and some doubt whether anything can halt the decline.

“If his mission is to turn Barnes & Noble into a ­successful chain, it can’t be done,” says Mike Shatzkin, a veteran New York-based analyst. “It’s impossible. The best strategy for the owners is to take out cash as long as they can, and then sell the bones.”

Daunt knows that failing would hurt more than his reputation. It would jeopardise the distribution infrastructure that supports thousands of independent bookstores across the US, with knock-on effects in UK books. “If we go bust, our world is pretty much screwed. You end up with only Amazon and the publishers,” he says. “Amazon is the predator that has culled the weak in this business and left only the strongest. If we relax for a second, it will eat us.”

When Daunt arrived in New York to take charge of Barnes & Noble two years ago, he attended a party held by Madeline McIntosh, US chief executive of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher. Editors were eager to meet the new B&N boss, but McIntosh thought Daunt seemed distracted. “He kept on looking around at my bookshelves,” she recalls. “When he was leaving, he said, ‘I hope I can come back to browse. That’s what I’d really like to do.’ So he’s a book nerd, like us. That’s why we like him.”

This bookishness is not an act. But it is easily misread as softness, especially by Americans. Daunt is, in fact, distinctly determined, sometimes ruthlessly so. As he puts it, “Don’t assume good fortune. Do whatever is necessary to get through.” His first step at B&N was to halve the staff at its New York head office, and he later laid off 5,000 employees. “Behind his cool exterior, there’s an emotional intensity. He’s incredibly committed and driven,” says Tom Weldon, who heads Penguin Random House in the UK.

. . . .

The iron entered his soul when he set up his first bookshop in an Edwardian building on ­Marylebone High Street in 1990. He soon discovered that it was not an easy life. He had to sit on a lot of expensive stock, which took a long time to sell. He needed large spaces in desirable locations with high rents, and he required a lot of knowledgeable staff.

“I found,” Daunt says, “that the economics of a bookshop are ­terrible, like shit.” He spent his first four years ­fearing bankruptcy. Sometimes he did not pay ­creditors because he was short of cash. ­“If there were two men in suits in the queue, I knew the ­bailiffs had turned up,” he says.

. . . .

Amid this struggle, Daunt developed his distinctive style: ­recommending books that he and his staff had actually read and enjoyed, rather than publishers’ favourites, and displaying them artfully with their covers face out, sometimes with handwritten notes of recommendation. Most retail chains now grasp the importance of creating an enticing atmosphere in stores, but he mastered it early. He understood bookshops work best if they feel like clubs in which dedicated readers can consult expert curators.

Despite the scale of the operations over which he now presides, Daunt retains the manner of his early years. He gets around his London shops by bicycle. When we meet in Marylebone, he sports a plaster on his forehead, having hit himself by accident while pruning an apple tree at his home in Hampstead. (The family also has a second home in Suffolk.)

His spartan habits extend to holidays. The family bought “a wreck of a house” on the Scottish island of Jura four years ago but have yet to refurbish it, and instead stay with old friends on their annual visits. “It’s a big, wild island, a magical place,” Daunt says. If you walk up the west side, there are some wonderful beaches. You carry a tent or stay [overnight] in a bothy, but the most fun is to sleep in a cave.”

Daunt’s distinctive personality, his charm married to deliberate reticence, can puzzle some US executives. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is this because you’re James or because you’re British?’” says Jackie De Leo, B&N’s vice-president for bookstores. “I have to pull out what he really means. He doesn’t give you all the answers, but I think there’s a method there.”

Link to the rest at FT Magazine

A good time for magazines, a great time for books: Publishing Pandemic Roundtable

From What’s New in Publishing:

Few retailers are more important to specialty magazine publishers than Barnes and Noble. The Publishing Pandemic Roundtable (Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, and me) met with Krifka Steffey, the Director of Merchandise for Newsstand and Media, to talk about the chain’s recovery in 2021, and the fresh, innovative product she’d like to see.

Since we last spoke, Barnes and Noble has closed two of their New York offices, the one on 6th Avenue and the 5th Avenue office where magazine publishers have been accustomed to go for their meetings.

The majority of the Barnes and Noble personnel will have their offices in the location above Union Square, along with new office space in Clifton NJ.  While Krifka expects to be in the office many days, others she will work remote or from one of the stores.

She’s taken advantage of this time to visit the stores. While the chain was already moving in the direction of refreshing and customizing their stores by location, that change was accelerated by the temporary closings and shorter hours of the COVID lockdown. One of biggest changes Krifka finds is that the cookie-cutter approach of former years is now gone. Each of the individual stores in the chain are molding themselves into unique bookstores. The look and feel of the stores, the books set out front, the hand selling, the books recommended—all are now individualized.

Bo: I think the direction you’re taking is one hundred percent fabulous.

Krifka: It’s a work in progress, changing a direction that had been set for years.

Joe: What difference do these changes make in the product buying?

Krifka: For magazines, we’re still doing it the same; but, for example, with trade books, headquarters will do the initial distribution, and then there are district-level replenishment buyers and store managers who will make local decisions. When something is regionally focused, an author from an area, you’ll see it reflected. It’s a big shift to more local control.

Sherin: Where each store is operating almost as an independent bookstore.

Krifka: Right. On our newsstand, the way we’ve always bought has been individualized. Our work with magazines is highly curated. It’s nice that the book side is starting to mirror that.

Joe: Is store traffic increasing?

Krifka: Yes, overall. New York City has shown a slower recovery than elsewhere. But everywhere we’re seeing positive year-over-year growth week after week. We’re also comparing to two years ago and seeing positive trends even against pre-COVID sales levels.

Sherin: It’s the same with our products. The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Guide has grown dramatically. Comparing to 2019, we’re through the roof.

Krifka: Yes, we’re seeing nice growth in Home and Garden. And we’re seeing a switch from digital back to physical. Our customer likes the experience of print copies.

Bo: Are you seeing an influence from Book Tok?

Krifka: Anything that does well on Book Tok sells like crazy in our stores.

Bo: It’s at almost ten billion views.

Krifka: And they’re the right age group, young adults turning into loyal customers. Manga, for example, is huge, and we’ve got a great assortment. Outrageous food trends are big.

Joe: How are things developing in the magazine world?

Krifka: We’re not seeing a lot of surprises. Customers are following their former patterns, buying what we’d expect them to buy. There aren’t many new launches or big things pending. I’m seeing some missed opportunities. We should have seen some publications on outer space, that could have been big. Post-COVID, they’ll be a lot of people struggling to get back into new routines; where’s the product for that?

Publishers need to dig in, to ask, what are people going to need from us, what are they going to use? People are moving back into schedules. Hotel bookings are up, people are moving around more; we need to see those publications for drives, for traveling. There are holes in our assortments, and we need fresh, new, relevant product. I can get the customers back into the store, I can get the magazines out on the shelves, but if I don’t have exciting new product sales are not going to improve.

Link to the rest at What’s New in Publishing

‘Hot vaxxed summer’ fizzled, but ‘hot books fall’ feels like a safe bet

From The Los Angeles Times:

What was it like seeing book sales explode during the coronavirus pandemic? Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president and CEO, couldn’t help quoting Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“A lot of people had extra time at home and they turned to books,” Karp said. Virtual sales and appearances, meanwhile, “made it easier to reach readers directly.”

Still, it’s been a rocky 18 months for U.S. publishers, whose jobs are defined by predictability: They work on monthslong publishing schedules, orchestrate book tours and promotional plans and calibrate printings based on expectations.

As COVID-19 swept across the world last year, they had to throw many of those plans out the window — canceling tours, delaying books and having their media rollouts drowned out by breaking news. Nevertheless, fueled by online sales and the demand of the quarantined and bored, total unit sales for print books in the generally flat industry rose 8% between 2019 and 2020, according to NPD BookScan.

This fall promises something almost as valuable as a boom year: a return to some semblance of normal.

“This year, we’re not letting the pandemic dictate our decisions,” said Reagan Arthur, publisher and executive vice president of Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. “The pandemic’s been with us longer than some of these books have, and so we scheduled them having a much better sense of how we would publish them, whatever the current climate was.”

It’s been a strong 2021 for adult fiction, led by Amazon bestsellers such as Kristin Hannah’s “The Four Winds,” Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” and Laura Dave’s “The Last Thing He Told Me.” This fall is equally promising, with new titles from crossover literary stars including Richard Powers, Anthony Doerr, Jonathan Franzen, Sandra Cisneros and debut thriller novelist Hillary Rodham Clinton (with Louise Penny).

. . . .

The pandemic fueled some surprising — and perhaps temporary — areas of growth. George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” is among Amazon’s top 20 bestsellers of the year (so far). And last March, just as the state was preparing for its first shutdown, Albert Camus’ “The Plague” was flying off of the shelves of local stores.

. . . .

Tobi Harper, deputy director at Red Hen Press, has noticed an uptick in reader interest in dark fiction. (Dystopia has certainly dominated critical attention.) Last fall, even before the rise of phenom Amanda Gorman, it was poetry. “Any time of extreme political turmoil,” Harper said, “there’s a noticeable jump in poetry sales.”

Sales of Japanese manga skyrocketed 243%, according to NPD BookScan, making it the largest adult fiction category in the U.S. Those sales are expected to decline as people return to offices and schools and reading habits revert to the mean.

. . . .

Whatever normal looks like, it’s clear to publishers that we aren’t there yet.

Last year, after book tours were canceled, authors took to virtual platforms to promote their books, wiping out a major source of revenue for bookstores. Though online sales have buoyed publishing, they tend to help those with established platforms. Bricks-and-mortar shops, which operate through hand sales, recommendations and word of mouth, remain an important avenue for up-and-coming authors.

“An author who has a strong presence or following can certainly sell a lot of books at virtual events,” says Burnham of HarperCollins, “but it’s harder for newer voices to get the kind of sales that you might get from in-person events versus virtual, because there’s so much competition for people’s time in the evenings.”

Going into the fall, many writers are doing hybrid events — while keeping a close eye, day by day, on the surging Delta variant.

. . . .

The country’s varying reactions to the health crisis have posed a major challenge in planning tours and readings.

“Every state responds differently, counties respond differently, and that certainly impacts artists that want to be connecting with the world,” Lewis said.

Harper at Red Hen said they’re not counting on a fully open country this fall.

“We’re trying not to depress our authors by saying things like that quite so intensely, but basically we’re saying, ‘If you want to do an in-person event, let’s talk to the bookstore and see how they’re living,’” Harper said.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

As PG has mentioned before, he thinks more than a few authors dislike book tours. Moving from city to city to present your speil at a new bookstore every night might sound fun at first, but, for an introvert, that experience can be pretty stressful. If attendance is light, the experience can be downright depressing.

Certainly, a great many traditionally-published authors want so seem cheerful and upbeat to encourage their publishers to put lots of money and effort behind new releases, but PG wonders if, five or ten years from now, whether one of the many unexpected consequences of Covid is the end of the book tour.

Barnes & Noble Climbs Back

From Publishers Weekly:

A little more than a year ago, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt used the forced closure of nearly all of his physical stores to begin refurbishing the interior of each location, as well as to review each store’s title selection. Daunt had planned to remake the stores over an 18-month to two-year span, but the retail lockdown, coming less than six months after Daunt took over as CEO following the acquisition of B&N by Elliott Advisors, forced his hand.

While Daunt appeared confident B&N could weather the Covid storm, others in the industry were not so sure how much time the new owners would give Daunt to turn around the bookstore chain at a time when the viability of physical retail was being called into question. However, as bookstore sales have bounced back from the depth of last year’s slump (bookstore sales were up 30% in the first half of 2021 over the comparable period last year), publishers say B&N has been performing well. Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp credited Daunt with “revitalizing” the retailer, while HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray praised Daunt’s decision to remake the stores during the pandemic and for his ability to convince Elliott to keep investing in the business, adding that HC’s sales with B&N are up.

Daunt said total B&N sales are up about 5% to 6% so far this year, compared to 2019, with book sales up by double digits. The pandemic has continued to hurt B&N’s café and newsstand results, but books and other core areas, such as educational games, puzzles, and workbooks, have done well, Daunt said. Urban areas are having the hardest time recovering from the pandemic, and New York City in particular, Daunt said, has been “a drag” on the overall rebound.

Unlike his first few months on the job, Daunt said trends now seem to be in B&N’s favor. Book sales have remained resilient during the recession, interest in reading is up, all B&N stores have undergone at least one round of refurbishing, and rents are down. The most important change Daunt has made to B&N—giving local store managers more control over what, and how, they sell in their stores-has kicked in. Daunt acknowledged that most stores will carry many of the same titles, but where the books are placed, and in what quantities they are ordered, is now left to managers. “Managers are in charge of the way the titles are presented,” Daunt said. The goal is to make sure books that are selling well have the necessary quantities, and books that aren’t working are returned quickly. Resupplying stores is a “central focus,” Daunt said, and the company has invested in its distribution centers and people to make its internal supply chain operate more efficiently. Lowering returns has been one of Daunt’s priorities since he took over B&N, and while progress has been made, he said there is still room for improvement.

. . . .

Staying out of the way doesn’t mean more change isn’t coming, however. The stores are still adding new fixtures and are beginning to get ready for the fall by adding such things as new cash wraps. This spring, Elliott bought the stationery and gift retailer Paper Source and put Daunt in charge. Daunt said he will use B&N’s “stable mate” to create better, though not necessarily bigger, stationery sections. At the other end of the spectrum, Daunt remains committed to B&N’s Nook business; earlier this year B&N introduced a new Nook tablet in partnership with Lenovo, and he expects sales for the device to build.

B&N has opened six new stores since Daunt took over, and he said he expects to open eight more over the next month. B&N will also continue to close underperforming outlets, and Daunt expects to finish the year with about the same number of locations—about 625 stores—as B&N had at the start of the year. (“Sometimes staying even is moving ahead,” he said.) In 2022, however, Daunt hopes to open new stores “in decent numbers” and to have a net gain in outlets. “We make good tenants for landlords,” he said.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG wonders how much of this is happy talk.

How American retailers have adapted to the Amazon effect

From The Economist:

After reeling from the shock of the pandemic, America’s consumers came roaring back early this year, fuelled by vaccines, stimulus cheques and their instinctive bullishness. Now their enthusiasm is starting to ebb. Retail sales in July were 1.1% lower than a month earlier and a consumer-confidence survey by the University of Michigan suggests that shoppers lost more of their swagger in early August. The Delta variant has played on their nerves while price spikes and supply-chain glitches have dulled enthusiasm for buying some products such as cars—sales of which dropped by 3.9% last month, compared with June. There is now a sense that the rate of growth in consumer spending is returning to a more pedestrian pace after 18 giddy months of wild shrinkages and splurges.

Yet even as normality beckons it is ever clearer that the pattern of spending has been transformed. One change is well-known: a lift in the level of e-commerce. The other is less familiar. An industry that was supposed to have been annihilated by Amazon has bounced back.

In 2017-19 all the talk was of a “retail apocalypse” and “retailmaggedon”. The fear was that a steady rise in e-commerce and Amazon’s relentless expansion into new products would drive traditional retailers towards extinction, just as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital-photography revolution and eventually went bust.

. . . .

Things have turned out rather differently. The pandemic has certainly sped up the shift towards e-commerce sales, which have risen from 14% of the total in 2018 to 20% this year according to JPMorgan Chase, a bank. Although the pace of growth has slowed in the past few months there will be no return to the past.

Meanwhile the industry’s structure is starting to look different. Amazon has thrived: its market share of e-commerce stands at about 40% overall and is far higher than that in some categories, such as books. Shopping centres have struggled to attract the same numbers of visitors as before, and some have defaulted on their debt. Nonetheless, the health of the non-Amazon retail industry looks better than it once did. At $2.5trn, for example, the market value of American listed retailers is 88% higher than at the start of 2018, while their total net debt burden has been easing since the end of 2019. The number of people employed in the retail trade is only 4% below its post-war peak in 2017.

Behind these numbers there are three types of fightback. First, the biggest retailers have embraced the digital world. This week Walmart predicted that its global e-commerce revenues would reach $75bn for the full year (about 13% of the firm’s total sales). It has made a big push in hybrid types of shopping that involve online activity but harness its stores, such as “click-and-collect” and online memberships. Target has promoted a similar service and digital sales now make up almost a fifth of its total.

The second fightback is from digital-only alternatives to Amazon. Although the veteran marketplace eBay has struggled over the years, Shopify, which helps merchants sell online and fulfil orders, has seen its share of American online sales reach 9% and its market value soar to $188bn. Many other digital firms are operating in lucrative niches, from Instacart in grocery delivery to Etsy in interactive shopping for artisanal goods.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG has checked out Walmart’s ecommerce interface and found it to be less sophisticated and well-designed than the ecommerce offerings of many much-smaller etailers, but perhaps he’s missed something.

Hot People Unlearn Fatphobia and Stories+Spells for the Dog Days – the latest from Bookshop.org

From Bookshop.org:

Bookshop.org Reaches $15 Million Earned for Independent Bookstores in Support of the Fight Against Amazon

Bookshop.org, the ethical online marketplace which supports independent bookstores, announced today that it has generated $15 million for its affiliated stores since the site launched in January 2020.

The platform financially supports over 1,200 indie bookstores across the US, with an additional 26,000 non-store affiliates contributing to the impressive results by offering online shoppers an ethical alternative to Amazon that supports local businesses. With a 17% year-on-year growth, Bookshop.org has demonstrated the value of the young start-up not only during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as the bookstores, and the local communities they serve, face the ever-growing threat of Amazon.

Booksellers using the platform have reported the many ways in which Bookshop.org has been a financial lifeline in a particularly challenging time, with the additional income allowing many to survive the challenges of the pandemic, pay rent, create corporate orders for e-gift cards, and even open new stores.

Fawn Fernandes, Owner of Curious Capybara Bookshop (Hendersonville, TN), said: “I opened my children’s bookstore in September 2020 – right smack dab in the middle of a world-wide pandemic. I did it because I believed our area needed a children’s bookstore, now more than ever. And I was right! But of course, with the struggle of opening any new business, let alone a bookstore, let alone during a pandemic – well, it’s not been easy. We received our semi-annual Bookshop.org funds at a time when I wasn’t sure we would be able to make rent. And while it may not make a huge impact on some of the larger stores, for my small start-up it was literally a game-changer. But it gave me more than funds in my bank account. It gave me hope. It gave me encouragement that not only could I make this work, but I had a huge network of people – other bookstores, the staff at Bookshop, people who SHOP at Bookshop.org – that had my back, that loved books as much as I did, that wanted me to succeed with my little shop. These funds mean more than money. It means community to me. And for that, I will be forever grateful.”

In addition, Bookshop.org has been offering more than just financial support to booksellers: it’s been strengthening their online presence, helping them with social media exposure, enabling them to reach wider audiences, expanding their offer and inventory, allowing them to share personalised lists and recommendations with customers, and creating a sense of community.

Link to the rest at Bookshop.org via Midas Public Relations Ltd.

PG will be happy to hear contrary opinions, but primarily positioning your company as fighting against one of the world’s most-admired companies seems to be a marketing proposition that’s much more attractive to the PR firm’s client than it will be to the general English-speaking world of readers and other book purchasers.

PG doesn’t doubt that the owners of most physical bookstores don’t like Amazon, but how much further does that attitude extend?

PG is willing to agree that most of those working for traditional publishers don’t like Amazon, even though Amazon is their largest customer, miles larger than whoever is #2 this month.

That said, as regular visitors to TPV will know, PG is of the opinion that most employees of traditional publishers are there because they can’t get a job anywhere else (excluding the fast food industry), so what would you expect?

Do most people who buy books really dislike Amazon?

Do most people who don’t buy books right now, but might consider doing so in the future really dislike Amazon?

UPDATE: PG just went to Bookshop.org to check out what the purchasing experience was like.

One of the site’s featured books was How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith.

The following editions of Mr. Smith’s book were on offer:

  1. Hardcover English$26.68, marked down from $29.00
  2. Hardcover English – Large Print$28.52, marked down from $31.00
  3. Compact Disk English – $36.80, marked down from $40.00

A quick online trip to Amazon revealed the following editions of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America on offer:

  1. Kindle – $14.99
  2. Audible Audiobook – Free with Audible trial, $29.65 otherwise
  3. Hardcover English – $17.84

All three editions of Mr. Smith’s book were ranked in the top five of Amazon’s best-seller list for African-American Studies/African American History and Historiography, which likely generated additional sales of the book.

Bookshop.org’s Bestsellers of the Week list did not include any of Mr. Smith’s books, although PG is pretty certain that Bookshop.org has a lock on the market for audiobooks on CD.

Additionally Bookshop.org’s other bestseller lists did not include any of Mr. Smith’s books. For your general information, other than Bestsellers of the Week, Bookshop.org’s bestseller lists which PG was able to find were as follows:

  • Queer Books by Black Authors
  • Special Abilities
  • Staff Picks, Summer 2021
  • The Natural World
  • All We Can Save: More Nonfiction from the Climate Anthology Contributors
  • stories + spells for the Dog Days
  • Ancient Greek Myth Retellings
  • Kristen Radtke’s Must-Read Graphic Novels for 2021
  • 100 Books Every Teacher Needs to Read 2021
  • Hot People Unlearn Fatphobia (PG’s personal favorite category)
  • History
  • Immigration
  • Pen Parentis Writers – Books adapted for the Screen and Stage
  • Celebrate National Foreign Language Month with Your Child!
  • In this Week’s Newsletter

PG finds some of these bestseller lists to be . . . whimsical . . . although he certainly knows where to go for all his fatphobia reading needs.

See even more at Bookshop.org

Will Barnes & Noble’s Next Chapter Be Its Last?

From Forbes:

Barnes & Noble’s Chief Executive James Daunt is leaving behind the strategy that, decades ago, made it a bookselling behemoth.

Instead of focusing on maximizing economies of scale and simplifying the in-store shopping experience—tactics that once fostered success but, in the age of Amazon, are now leaving stacks empty—Mr. Daunt is looking to empower individual store managers to curate their shelves based on local tastes. In doing so, he is letting go of those who supervised large groups of stores and firing nearly half of the company’s New York-based book buyers who once decided which titles to put on shelves.

Personally, I think this is a really smart strategy, yet the question remains: will this turnaround effort be enough to save the bookselling giant in a post-pandemic world?

When I first read the news of Barnes & Noble’s seismic shifts, I’ll admit, I was shocked.

Yet as I thought about it more, I came to realize that in a time when purchasing the latest bestseller can be done with just a few clicks from the comfort of one’s own home, Mr. Daunt’s new approach may not be so far-fetched.

Barnes & Noble has suffered from seven years of declining revenue as Amazon’s dominance in online retail grows. By giving store managers more autonomy to make decisions based on their knowledge of the local market, Barnes & Noble may be better able to tailor what it does within its individual stores to give shoppers the experience they’re craving.

Rather than just being a place where you could buy a book, what if Barnes & Noble could become a place where you could discover a book? I spend a fair bit of time in Duck, North Carolina where our family loves Duck’s Cottage—a charming book and coffee store that has a very well-curated selection of titles. We have all bought a number of books from there, almost entirely based on the owner’s handwritten recommendation notes.

As we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and start the long process of recovery, what will bring shoppers through Barnes & Noble’s doors may not be the desire to simply purchase a book, but the desire to be a part of something in the community. I would suggest that is something shoppers will remember, talk about and that will bring them back.

. . . .

The prior operating model for this 50+ year old business did not have a strong balance between local autonomy and standard processes across all locations, which meant clients did not have a consistent experience. This created an operational management nightmare—a challenge when trying to delight clients—and allowed competitors to find easy ways to chip away at their market share. Fast forward to the introduction of one national set of processes and the permission for local leaders to do what they thought necessary to appeal to their market, and the results were transformed.

. . . .

Contrary to a lot of decisions coming out of corporate HQ, consumers across the nation are looking to support their local businesses during the pandemic. We are seeing more and more “Buy Local” campaigns targeted to smaller communities, whether through Facebook or other platforms, and there is strong support for the local service provider or restaurant owner who remembers our usual order. Fundamentally, the team who manages every local Barnes & Noble store knows what their community is talking about, what they are interested in, what the local issues are and who the influencers are.

Link to the rest at Forbes

In many places large enough to support a Barnes & Noble store, there are are independent bookstores that really know how to do local very well and which have (for PG) a more welcoming quirky little bookstore feeling than the bland corporate design that characterizes every BN store that PG has ever entered, even in college/university towns where one might expect more local touches.

While PG has some good memories of quirky bookstores with a local flavor that he last entered a long time ago, no particular memories of any Barnes & Noble store come to mind (even some where Mrs. PG did author signings during ancient days and PG came along to provide unskilled labor for a couple of hours).

And it’s not just the small size of memorable unique bookstores that PG remembers. He still has clear recollections of going to the giant Powell’s Books mothership in Portland, wandering around their immense stacks and talking to a couple of employees who would probably not have been anxious to work at Barnes & Noble.

There’s also the fact that PG doesn’t think Daunt has a lot of money to throw around to remake the physical design of Barnes & Noble stores everywhere. This is a company that went bankrupt a few years ago and hasn’t really turned around anything since.

PG suspects that a great many BN store managers who could get work elsewhere have already done so. Plus, Covid has taken down retailers with much more savvy people running stores than BN has.

Finally, although Daunt is very good at getting press for himself, PG questions how many smart people are left on BN’s headquarter staff to put Daunt’s visions into actions. What sort of person would go to work there or stay there if they had other viable options?

BN is owned by a hedge fund (approximately $41.8 billion in assets) that didn’t buy it out of bankruptcy because the hedge fund partners all loved books. This private ownership means that the general public will only hear the Barnes & Noble financial performance information that the hedge fund wants the public to hear.

Bookshop.org Continues to See Strong Sales

From Publishers Weekly:

Online bookseller Bookshop.org is on track this month to surpass $15 million returned to independent bookstores since the company began in 2019. That figure is in addition to the $250,000 it donated to Binc’s “Survive to Thrive” campaign. “It is a milestone we are anticipating surpassing by the end of July,” Andy Hunter, CEO of Bookshop.org, said.

Sales have reached $29 million this year, including tax and shipping, and are up 17% for the first half of 2021 compared with 2020. That increase comes despite an expected decline in sales compared to a year ago since April, when most bookstores around the country began to reopen form normal business. In the April-June period, sales were down 20% from the comparable time in 2020, less than the 30% drop that Hunter had been expecting. “Last year, June was very busy for us, particularly with the huge sales of antiracist books with the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the country. This year is more like a normal June.”

The site currently hosts 1,100 bookstores, with 400 using Bookshop exclusively for their e-commerce and another 700 that use it in addition to their own e-commerce solutions. Notably, among the top 10 highest earning bookstore sites on Bookshop, six are Black-owned bookstores, Hunter said. Of the sites top-selling books, several are multicultural and diverse titles, including How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith (Little, Brown), Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford (Flatiron), Yoke by Jessamyn Stanley (Workman), and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Knopf), The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris(Atria) and Long Division by Kiese Laymon (Scribner).

“Our bestseller list does not look like the typical list,” Hunter said. “It reflects the diversity and iconoclastic nature of the community we serve.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly