ATG NewsChannel Original: Is the Digital Transformation Making the Indie Bookstore Irrelevant?

Nancy HertherBy Nancy K. Herther

(This is Part 1 0f a 2 part article.  Here is a link to Part 2.)

In the past few years we have heard headlines about the death of print, the death of bookstores, and the rising dominance of online, ebooks and ereading. The same has been said about CDs, DVDs and other media.  However, it now seems apparent that the future is more nuanced than many of the predictions have claimed. This is nowhere as apparent as in the role of independent bookstores.

In a recent WIRED feature, Davey Alba assured his readers that “Amazon is powerful, but physical bookstores are still here. The book is not immune to the powerful digital forces that have re-shaped so much of the rest of the world. At the same time, books have been able to resist the forces of change because books really are different.” In fact, Jeff Bezos has now announced that more brick-and-mortar bookstores are planned by Amazon in the future.  So, what happened to the digital transformation?

Ye Olde Bookshop

In the book, The Rise of the Modernist Bookshop: Books and the Commerce of Culture in the 20th Century, (2015, ISBN 97814722446992, Ashgate, p. 1), Huw Osborne reminds his readers that “when we enter bookshops, we engage in a social and spatial act on the threshold of commerce and culture, one that activates material, aesthetic, political, personal and communal affiliations and commitments. Through this act, we stake claims on the place of art and reading in a capitalist economy, we shape the towns and cities in whichmodernist bookshop we would like to live, and we connect our private literate reflection to public consumption and exchange. The interests of commerce and culture, however, are not easily reconciled, and bookshops have long operated within the fraught space formed in these twinned and competing forces. They are charged social spaces that open up the field of cultural production in ways that are both intimate and expansive…. The opening of a door leads to the opening of books and the opening of ideas. The opening of the physical space of ideas leads to the opening of communities and to the opening of the communication that sustains a literary culture.”

Bookshops have not only figured into the commerce of our culture, but also into the very culture itself.  Think of some of your favorite movies, I’m sure you’d find many have bookstores as a critical scene:  The Desk Set, When Harry Met Sally, The Big Sleep, Funny Face, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, You’ve Got Mail…and so many others. Goodreads has posted a list of over 120 books about bookstores as well. These cultural institutions have been under attack in recent years as many have suggested that bookstores have become vestiges of another time, another era, replaced with online blogs and digital texts. Or…maybe not.

What Happened to the Digital Transformation?

With everything going digital, it seemed only natural that books and other printed matter would follow along.  Digitization efforts and e-only book plans for libraries have been just one example of how libraries have embraced the opportunities to save space, increase access and deal with decreasing budgets. However, the all-or-nothing approach to 21st century publishing has found itself at odds with research showing that the transformation may be far more nuanced that predicted. Beginning in 2012, ebook growth began to stall and growth has flat-lined in the past four years.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP), in coordination with major publishers, produces their annual AAP StatShot which “estimates the size of the US publishing industry through a breadth of sources, including more than 1,500 publisher submissions, plus methodology to determine the total size and revenue of the market. The reports cover all four industry sectors—trade, professional and scholarly publishing, higher education, and prek-12 education.” However, AAP doesn’t track self-published books or some smaller venues  which many believe significantly skew their data.

Nielsen Bookscan, considered by manyone of the publishing industry’s key metrics service, providing book sales numbers for the US, UK, Australia and other countries, is criticized for only tracking ”print, and only from top accounts, and only in terms of units. In this regard, Bookscan represents the ‘inverse’ of the AAP.”


Digital Book World’s Daniel Berkowitz notes that a third measure, PubTrack Digital “only covers ebooks, and was originally started by Bowker, though is now run by Nielsen. These figures are delayed by three months and only account for unit sales, not dollars. As far as historical reference goes, the figures are great, but they are “not useful as a live data set.” Self-published authors have their own data, the Author Earnings report which collects information from authors themselves in order “that writers can make informed decisions” about their craft.

However messy the current situation is for data collection, these measures have been in play for many years and represent the only solid sources we have to track the industry. Although controversial, they describe an industry that is far more complex than prognosticators have presented it to be. All of this has left Publishers Lunch founder, Michael Cader, to suggest that what we have is a “really, really complex marketplace.

“Part of what complicates trend spotting when comparing ebooks to physical books is what readers tend to voraciously consume on digital devices depends largely on genre, “ Davey Alba noted in his WIRED story. “Popular fiction titles, romance, and young adult bestsellers (think The Hunger Games) do better in digital than print…. while general nonfiction, children’s books and yes, adult coloring books, obviously sell more in print. In general, really popular new books may do better digitally, which makes sense if many people are opting for a quick download in order to keep up with water cooler conversation.”

“I do not want to argue which formats are better than others, as that argument is long dead. There is going to be a place for both print and ebooks in the foreseeable future. It is not digital versus print, but rather digital and print. The physical book is a great device, and for many purposes it will continue to be the best format,” Sanj Kharbanda writes to the DBW blog“But if we believe the digital transformation in book publishing is almost complete, we will soon find out we are wrong.

There are many new technologies on the horizon that will impact what and how we read. At the recent F8 (Facebook Developer Conference), Mark Zuckerberg shared his 10-year plan, including many ideas about his vision for virtual reality and chatbots. Do publishers have a 10-year plan? Are publishers prepared for what is here or almost here?”

So, Where Does This Leave Bookstores?

Amazon remains a key force in the book business.  When ebook sales began to plateau, Alba noted that “the company seems to have taken a sideways approach. It’s focusing more of its energies on the self-publishing market and its own imprint. It’s also pushing its Kindle Unlimited program, a Netflix-like subscription service for ebooks model that has stymied startups.” However, Cader believes that Amazon itself sees a role for the bookstore. “The idea of a bookstore has not been significantly experimented with or revised since superstores became popular in the pre-digital era 20 years ago. And as big bookstore chains have shuttered (Borders) or faltered (Barnes & Noble), there’s new space for experimentation.”

Amazon book display 3

With Amazon’s rich data on book sales, Peter Hildick-Smith, founder of the Codex Group believes that Amazon’s growing metadata could be leveraged in order to create stores that could be “very customized to the local taste.”  The figures back him up. At BookExpo America last week,  the American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced that for the seventh year in a row, membership increased to 1,775 members operating at 2,311 locations, up from 1,401 members operating in 1,651 locations in 2009. The majority of these member stores are independents. “In the UK by contrast, the Booksellers Association recorded 894 independent bookshops in 2015, a decrease of 3% from 2014. A decade ago, there were more than 1,500.

“Independent bookselling in the US is continuing not just to grow, but to thrive,” the ABA announced at Book Con. Chief executive Oren Teicher attributed the growth to the localism movement, “which is exploding, and we are benefiting from that”; booksellers “getting smarter at using technology”; publishers’ increasing acknowledgment that “customers discover books in bricks and mortar locations [so] our colleagues in publishing have figured out that they need bricks and mortar stores as much as we need their books”; and the “growing role of the bookseller as curator, in a world flooded with new titles.

“The state of independent bookselling in the U.S. remains strong,” Teicher continued. “This is the seventh year in a row I’ve been able to report on an increase in numbers. Importantly, we continue to see new stores opening, established stores being successfully sold to new owners, existing stores opening additional locations, and a new generation coming into the business.” He also noted that 2015 proved to be “an exceedingly strong year for the indie channel. Overall sales in our channel are up more than five percent in the first four months of 2016.”

In receiving the 2016 ABA Association Indie Champion Award, as chosen by independent booksellers nationwide, Richard Russo explained that “search engines haven’t replaced hand-selling. The technology itself and the terminology is revealing. You search for something that you already know the existence of. You search for your car keys. Their existence isn’t in doubt, just their precise location. An engine is a mechanical thing, efficient and helpful but thoughtless. Booksellers are human beings, and they alert readers to what’s new, emerging writers, like Richard Russo 30 years ago, whose existence most readers did not even suspect. By which I mean to say that the relationship between writers, publishers, independent booksellers, and readers is even more vital today than it was 30 years ago. Amazon, Google, Apple — they all sell a lot of books, but they’re not in the book business.”

Interior Common Good bookstore[3]

“The noisier the culture gets, the more we crave quiet, stillness,” Russo continued. “Because beneath the noise and the sheer velocity of life, there is still a conversation going on, the conversation of the democracy. And that conversation is still taking place in the form of books, books written and read. And it’s because it’s still important that we strain to hear that conversation. We need to know who’s saying what and what things ring true and authentic. When we press books upon one another — authors on their publishers, publishers on booksellers, booksellers on readers — we are doing what we’ve always done and always for the same reason. You’ll like this, we tell each other. This is worth your while. This will cheer you up. This will break your heart. This will help you understand. Here, right here, is your new best friend, this book.”

“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”

Research is still needed that focuses on the local context of bookselling rather than assume that the industry has some uniform conditions; and certainly questioning the assumption that bookstores – and print – are destined for decline. For example, is the plateauing of ebooks a pause in an upward trend or is it indicative of ebooks being just another option for acquiring and accessing information, with print continuing as a solid, popular format? We know that today most people who read ebooks also read printed books, would this continue or may preferences change as consumers become more accustomed to electronic reading and advances are made in the look-and-feel as well as the operation of electronic texts? Certainly the fate of digital rights management presents another murky area for prediction.

So far, indie bookstores have not faced as much disruption as book chains and mass merchandisers have experienced.  Is this because large bookstores compete more directly on price with online sellers of printed books or are other aspects of the indie marketplace responsible for their ongoing successes? Ebook have certainly cannibalized the sales of some printed books, but isn’t it possible that the reasons for this are more complex? Indies have been fighting the big-box chain bookstores, mass merchandisers and online sales channels for many years. Is it possible that, at this point, ebook sales are more an incremental factor in the printed book marketplace?

The future of the independent bookstores ultimately will depend on the complex matrix of consumer tastes and how new technologies work to enhance the ebook reading experience. At the least, the plateauing of ebook sales would suggest that people still enjoy the printed page, the idea of local sourcing and as a recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives notes, “the book industry are struggling to achieve a new market equilibrium in a time where their industry is facing severe technological disruption and illustrates the hazards they face in attempting to manage the transition to that new equilibrium.” (Gilbert, Richard J. “E-books: A Tale of Digital Disruption.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 29.3 (2015): 165-184)

Independent Bookstore Day

Last year on May 2nd, bookstores across the US decided to celebrate their resurgence by declaring that day as Independent Bookstore Day: “the first national celebration of this surprisingly buoyant industry,” created with the active support and “seed money from the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and sponsorship from publishers.” This year over 420 bookstores participated in Independent Bookstore Day on April 30th, having created a truly nationwide celebration, “with literary parties, promotions, customized merchandise and special events.”

And the data seems to back this up.  A May 2016 British report found that in 2015 printed book sales increased 0.4% to £2.76billion as ebook sales fell for the first time in the seven years the Publishers Association has tracked them, decreasing 1.6% to £554million in 2015. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported last month that in the US, overall sales for consumer books in 2015 were up 0.8% to $7.2bn, but ebook sales decreased 9.5% in adult books and 43.3% in children and young adult titles. American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher calls this the “resurgence of print.”

In an interview in the British Guardian  Teicher explained that “five years ago in the American book business, there was a widespread panic that somehow digital reading was going to replace physical books and they would be a relic of some other time and place. Fast forward to today, and I think digital reading has leveled off and calmed down slightly. It’s going to be a piece of our business, but print books aren’t going away. We’re living in a hybrid world.”

In Part 2 we will look at some specific bookstores and how they are faring, relating to their readers and working to build a solid future for their own businesses, as well as for their readers, their authors and their communities.

Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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