Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The return of the independents

by Jane

When Barnes & Noble announced a couple of weeks ago that they were for sale, the incredible irony of the potential results of such a move struck me. Almost immediately, I saw the very positive ramifications for our industry.

The incredible proliferation of the chain bookstores over the last twenty or so years has wreaked havoc on our business. The chains first and in a very dramatic way caused some of the greatest independent bookstores in our country to go out of business. It was in these individual stores that word of mouth about first time authors and their books would begin to build and spread outward. Many of these independent stores were responsible for creating bestsellers and successful writing careers.

But then the chains came in and knocked the independents out with their discounting and other mass merchandising methods. And these same chains because of their tremendous influence also dictated to publishers which books they should publish. When a chain “passed” on ordering a book, that title died—there was simply no place for it to go.

And then came Amazon, first slowly and then it exploded. Ordering electronically definitely put a crimp in the chains’ style and cost them dearly.

And this, of course, was followed by the development of e-readers and the new era of electronic publishing; the chains were becoming more and more irrelevant as places for books to be bought.

Now, Borders is barely surviving—they just laid off a bunch of staff at their headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And, Barnes & Noble might just be bought by its former owner Len Riggio who, undoubtedly, will take it back to being a much smaller, simpler operation—and continue to sell many items other than books simply because for a chain of any size, books are not as economically attractive to carry as they once were.

But the corner bookstore—and I actually have a wonderful one a block away from my home in New York City—is going to become more of a force. I don’t know yet whether the independents will multiply and grow as they once did—but I am counting on them wielding far more influence on what their customers read than they have in recent years. If this happens, then reading will benefit greatly whether books are sold in hard copy or electronically.

I am really rooting for the return of the independents and look forward to hearing what you think of all of this.

9 comments:

  1. There is a certain amount of logic in what you say. Independents could fill the void with the demise/downsizing of the big chains. But my gut tells me neither will work long term. The paper book as we know it today is likely a form on the way out. Ordering online, reading through e-readers. All available through electronic media will eventually will first spell he end of bricks and mortar stores and then books made of paper. What may survive are used book stores for a time before they too fade away. Old paper books will eventually be sold in antique/collectible stores who cater to the bibliophiles who quaintly collect them.

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  2. Amen! The end of the "too big for their breeches" chains, and the resurgence of the Indies. Got to love it.

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  3. I am so glad to read this analysis. When I was in Santa Fe last year, I was disheartened to not find the bookstore in downtown Santa Fe where I'd normally shopped when visiting. Then, lo and behold, I found it bigger and better a few blocks over. My friends who live there said members of the Santa Fe community formed a chain to move the books from the old store to the new. That kind of passion for what a bookstore can be is another reason I hope for their revival. But it's nice to know that there may be an upside for the market, as well. Thanks so much for this post, Jane.

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  4. What a wonderful, positive post. Thanks. I needed to hear something hopeful today. Maybe the days of "too big to fail" are fading, and we'll move back to the independent business paradigm that was once the soul of democracy.

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  5. I think independent bookstores that specialize in a certain genre -- like San Diego's Mysterious Galaxy or another local bookstore that specializes in used cookbooks -- will thrive in the coming world of ebooks, while large mass retailers languish. While ebooks will be great for mass-market paperbacks and general reading, people who love the feel of books, or who return to them time and again, will flock to these specialized stores with their great customer service, special events and knowledgeable staff. I think this is because ebooks are really just licenses -- licenses to read a book in electronic format on your chosen device. You can't share these books with friends, you can't transfer them to other devices (like from a Kindle to a Nook) and there are certain places you wouldn't want to use an ebook (like in the kitchen). I think it's a bit premature to ring the death knell for printed books -- there are certain times when a physical book is the only thing that will do. Besides, not everyone will be able to afford an ereader (or may choose to not use one), no matter how low the price point drops.

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  6. Those independent bookstores better put in a couple of comfortable chairs and sofas because I usually spend hours in B&N choosing what I'm going to buy. If I get tired of standing up, then I'm out of there! (Just something for them to think about for us Senior citizens!)

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  7. You know what big chain stores had that little independents didn't? Sizable genre sections. It used to be hard to find sf/f, for example, because the independents thought those books were beneath them.

    The chains don't care. They fill long aisles with genre titles good and bad because people buy them. And I never had a clerk in an chain store laugh aloud at me when I bought a book there.

    Independent stores? Oh, yeah.

    I'll be happy to see independent stores return, as long as they aren't the *same* independent stores.

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  8. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I hope the small independent bookstores will be able to make a comeback.

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