This year’s book industry news has been dominated by two stories: E-readers and the Chapter 11 and reorganization of Borders. Depending upon who’s speaking, the existence of either can be seen as a blessing or a curse. Many assume e-readers mark the death of books and of independent bookstores. Many also assume the death of Borders marks a second chance for the indies. Others see e-readers as another techno-boom that will play itself out eventually and the reading public will settle into its preferred reading styles, probably a blend of electronic and paper. They will source these reading options from places they trust. Many of those places will be independent bookstores and their websites.
Other others understand the demise of Borders as a drag on all of us. Smaller publishers left unpaid by Borders for the last quarter of 2010 have been seriously injured and some have gone or will go under. Larger publishers have behaved in ways I can only describe as panicked: making irrational cutbacks in staffing that result in degraded publishing (poor editing, fewer high quality “mid-list” books, worse deals for their sources, the authors) and compromised service to their showrooms, the indie bookstores. Having previously put all their eggs in the big box store basket, then shifted slightly to include the even bigger online behemoth Amazon, they now find themselves scrambling to get on the e-book bandwagon because the limited production needs and relatively high margins seem like the new black. And even as they speak glowingly of their independent bookstore partners, big publishers are boasting about their shiny new direct-to-consumer websites, as if someone in a executive office said after Borders stiffed them and Amazon started its own “publishing” business, “we don’t need no stinkin’ bookstores.”
This flawed logic overlooks the fact that the biodiverse indies are the healthiest part of bookselling ecosystem. We are the real Amazon, the Amazon rainforest of species, each with our own unique properties and talents. If one indie closes, chances are the cost to a major publisher will go nearly unnoticed because each of us individually is a relative speck in the accounts receivable departments of major publishers relative to an entire quarter of unpaid billables from Borders. And although I know failed indies have stiffed publishers, a larger number of them actually pay their bills before they close.
If one indie closes, another one opens somewhere. In fact, more indie bookstores opened than closed last year. About 200 newly opened bookstores joined the American Booksellers Association last year, a number similar to the number of Borders who closed. Two hundred leaner, more focused, unique and fiscally responsible bookstores.
These stores may not possess the airport-sized square footage of the missing Borders stores, but they do have something more important: owners on the premises. People who have a stake in what they are doing punching the clock everyday. When the person who signed a piece of paper saying he or she would be good for the debt is in the store handselling and handshaking, straightening, counting down a drawer, and working side by side with their staff, he or she is more likely to care about the outcome than a board of directors in another city whose only measurement of success is stock dividends. Owner occupied bookstores are more involved in their communities. We have to be. We have to look you in the face when we don’t get your book on time, or cut you off in traffic later for that matter. These aren’t widgets we are selling, these are collections of intellectual property, works of art that we are curating for our community. We have our livelihoods in mind to be sure, but we see our livelihoods as inextricably connected to the health of our communities overall. We pay our taxes. We buy goods and services from our neighbors. We listen.
With the advent of e-readers, we listened. Indie bookstores brokered a deal with Google and over 200 hundred independent bookstores nationwide now offer Google e-books at competitive prices on our websites that you can download and read on any e-reading device except the one that Amazon sells. We have definitely lost sales this year because you all got gadgets for Christmas and thought the only place you could get content was from Amazon, but we are here to tell you that you are mistaken. And don’t hesitate if you don’t know what you are doing, bring that thing in and we’ll help you get started in e-reading. When you are fatigued from the digital experience, you can count on us to find you something made from renewable resources to read.
Yes, underneath all the doom and gloom stories the media so loves to print, independent bookstores, the tortoise in this race to nowhere, are still moving steadily along. When you need a break from the noise in the industry, stop in or surf over to our websites for an old fashioned human interaction, kind of like the ones you read about in…..books.