Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not the Merriest Christmas for Book Retailers

You may have heard that the book business is imploding. One customer came up to me last week and quoted Thomas Friedman as saying, “Bailing out the auto industry is like giving a loan to a bookstore after Amazon and the Kindle.” I was incensed, being that bookstores have always supported Friedman’s work. After I read the column, and it turned out the omitted words supporting “loan” were “billion” and “dollar”, I concluded I might not give a billion dollars to a bookstore either.

I can’t blame Friedman. Maybe he’s just feeling hot and flat because if some recent predictions come true, the New York Times and the book business just become online distribution content. In that case, he's going to be competing with a lot of other bloggers (hey, like me!) on a more level (flat) playing field. Now I'm not happy and he's not happy either.

This is the life of a bookseller. We often sell works by authors with whom we disagree. Recently Suze Orman suggested that people not exchange gifts for Christmas (or in her case, as she said she has a tree and a menorah, Chrismukkah). The problem is that for bookstores at least, without Christmas we’re pretty much out of business. The money many stores make in December keeps them in business for the rest of the year. I’m not about to pull her books from the shelves (Suze Orman's 2009 Action Plan goes on sale December 30th; we can hold a copy for you).

Sometimes, what one hand, the other hand taketh away. On one hand, the Oprah Book Club picks, most recently Wisconsin’s own The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. On the other hand, she showers massive praise on the Kindle. And before you call Schwartz to check, no we don’t sell them, and actually can’t. They are a proprietary product of our competitor and I’m not linking to them either. So there.

I still subscribe to a couple of newspapers as well, even though my local paper has had more than one article this fall on how to avoid paying retail for books. According to pundits, pretty soon I might not have a choice as many city papers may not have print editions.

The problem is, like books, the economics of the online alternative don’t work out so well. The cost of the book itself isn’t that much. You’re paying for the distribution to get it to the store, the editor who acquired it, the marketing person who called your attention to it, the accountant who settled the royalties, and the art director who came up with that swell cover, let alone the author and the agent. So say the book disappears. Some jobs go away but some will still have to be there. Will the book still be worth $25? How about $15? I’m thinking you’ll expect to pay a lot less than that, and in fact might expect it to be free or nearly so.

We can bypass the publisher of course; in the mypod (yes, like everyone else, I can't avoid a good Simpsons reference) and online world, many authors already do. When there are hundreds and thousands of books being published in this manner, it’s going to be a lot harder to figure out what to read. Publishers are one sieve, bookstores are another. Maybe social networking is the answer, but in a few short weeks, I’m already getting tired of people writing on my Facebook wall. Oh, except for Danielle Trussoni. She can write on my wall because she asked me for book suggestions.

As an aside (hey, it's all an aside), it's been not the greatest season for memoirs, or perhaps I or my booksellers haven't read the great one yet, so you should go back and read Falling Through the Earth, Trussoni's triple narrative of growing up in western Wisconsin, her father's tour of duty in Vietnam, and her attempt to follow his tour of duty. Hey, I read it two years ago and I still remember what it's about without looking it up, and it was on the coveted New York Times best books of the year. It's great! And yes, in a way this is classic log-rolling, only more transparent.

In the end, it’s up to you, the consumer. If enough of you want bookstores and we can continue to carry the product, some of us will still be around for you. The key word here is “enough.” I know lots of you have told me and my fellow booksellers how much we mean to you. But when you move a good amount of your purchases to some other entity, that could mean the difference between whether a store can make it.

I’m not just speaking for Schwartz here. If you’ve got a bookstore you love, let them order the books in for you that they don’t have. In this economic climate, they can’t support the inventory they had just a year ago.

I close on Roy Blount, Jr’s note on supporting independent bookstores, which has been floating around the net. Here is the source posting, posted on the Authors' Guild Site. You've seen it a hundred times already, but I would be remiss as a bookseller if I didn't link to it; maybe this time you'll actually read it!

Blount's newest book is Alphabet Juice, a collection of essays in the vein of Lynn Truss or Bill Bryson, his language books, not his travel ones. Well, maybe Blount's is as funny as the travel ones. What's not so funny is that there were recently a lot of job losses at Blount's publisher Farrar Straus Giroux, one of many publishers that has had to consolidate jobs due to slow sales. This is a publisher that has a big bestseller with Friedman (see above), as well as seemingly decent sales for their three key literary titles for fall, 2666, Home, and Sea of Poppies.

This is going to be a tough winter!

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