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1.31.2011

How Will Booksellers Survive?

The title of this post could've of been: "How Will We Survive?" But I'm no longer a bookseller by professional. I had to leave the business after I graduated and then the bills started coming in. I was getting paid $7.75 and working about 25 to 30 hours a weeks (no more, no less, there was a strict budget). An income this does not make.

A part of me feels like I jumped ship at the last minute, leaving the league of booksellers purely due to matters of profit. And since then (July 2010), the bookselling world has become a more difficult place to survive.

Of course, to blame is Amazon. Recently, Amazon updated its app so that you could scan barcodes and then buy the book right on the spot and wait for it to be shipped to you. But of course, none of this would have been possible without Steve Jobs's I-Phone. In a recent article, Nick Bilton gives an example:

"My wife and I sat cross-legged on the floor of a local Barnes & Noble store recently, surrounded by several large piles of books. We were searching for interior design ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.
As we lobbed the books back and forth, sharing kitchen layouts and hardwood floor textures, we snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones. We wanted to share them later with our contractor.
After a couple of hours of this, we placed the books back on the shelf and went home, without buying a thing. But the digital images came home with us in our smartphones."

Among other things, this is a great example of how the marriage institution is evil. One has to question: if Bilton never had a wife, would he being decorating a home? Would he need to use these books? Would these bootleg photos ever be taken?

But another question this raises is what is the physical bookstore in the age of technology?

In an NYTimes article, Vivien Jennings, founder and president of Rainy Day Books says bookselling is no longer a protected business: "...bookselling is hard-core retailing....You have to be extra extra good."

As the recent weeks have shown, big does not mean better.

Case and point: Borders. Despite spreading a nasty rumor that said they might merge with Barnes and Noble (this proved to be false), Borders had been having trouble paying publishers. While it has secured a $550 million financing commitment from GE Capital (don't know what this actually means), Borders still has work to do, perhaps even more cutting.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble fires over 50 important employees and issuing this statement: "We made a small number of organizational changes this week that are designed to better align our resources with our business. Barnes & Noble is a growing company with both our revenues and new hires growing faster than they have in years."

Overall, the problem is sales and question of how to increase sales: that is, how to increase customers.

As author Nicola Griffith has argued, the book industry has to stop looking at readers as enemies. Instead, we need see them as customers. And can one blame a customer for being frugal, even if that means taking pictures with an Iphone at a boookstore to buy it someplace else? According to Griffith: cater to the customer. In the age of expanding technology, stores need to change and adapt:
Booksellers and publishers should be figuring out how to enhance a reader's shopping experience, creating a relationship with them rather than making demands. It's difficult to form a relationship with a potential customer if you view them with contempt (rude, profane, tragic, and self-involved...).
Yet I believe it hard for anybody who works in retail to NOT view nearly every single on of their customer with contempt. As a bookseller, I experienced and seen everything from physical attacks (I thought everything in this store was on sale, *throws books*) to name calling (quote from customer "I don't want a nigger to service. Where's the fat lady who regularly rings me up?"). Capitalism in general--service economies in particular--bring out the worst in people. Discount culture has made consumers expect slashed prices. But what does this do to the value of books? Are books just like toothpaste, despite the individual work that writers put into a novel or a book of poetry or...what have you? Are writers getting paid for the work they are actually doing (some books take a year to write, some take decades): are writers getting paid fairly for the hours they put into a piece of work that at the end businesses see comparable to toothpaste?

No. Or rarely.



Yet we can't forget that without writers you have no product. The problem is not a shortage of writers though.

But without customers you don't have a business.

Booksellers are looking for ways to lure in customers.

Some smaller retailers are looking to incorporate nonbook items like larger chains do. (We called this Key 6 where I used to work). Overall these can range from impulse buys to food to classes. Niche marketing can also work (for example gay bookstores or Urban Lit bookstores).

Some of the bookstores in DC (where I frequent) rely on this nonbook model. Busboys and Poets for example gets most of their money from their resturant Busboys and Poets is actually part of Teaching for Change, a nonprofit). Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe has a crowded book section and then there's their resturant with tiny plates of food and poor service (every time I go there, they always seem to forget I'm there, so I can wait nearly 30 minutes for a check, and an additonal 20 for them to come back with my credit card). Politics and Prose is known for its events and has been trying out the Google Book thing. But the problem with focusing on nonbook products is that you run the risk of becoming say a toystore or a resturant with a book section. Retailers need to ask: how can they make the bookstore something totally unique?

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