March 23, 2011
So What Is the Bookseller For?
Last week I got all hysterical about the ebook market, so this week I thought I’d talk myself back to earth to some degree.
I am not, and will never be, an ebook convert, but as Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler point out in this rather widely circulated interview, some people will always prefer the paper product and that’s okay: there ought to be a niche market for that. And there will, no doubt. After all, even within the paper book market there’s great a variety of technologies and processes in use. You have publishing giants producing perfect-bound paperbacks for cheap and disposable use (like Bantam), literary presses producing nice books for a global market (like Anansi), artisanal presses producing for the smaller trade market (like Gaspereau), and private craft presses who produce books using every technology ever known to man, from hand-crafted papers to letterpresses to calligraphy (like the Aliquando Press). The existence of Bantam hasn’t made a scrap of difference to Aliquando, even if they offer more books at a fraction of the cost. It’s a different market.
But to say that books of both kinds can live happily side by side is not to say that all will be well in the world of a book-lover, and it certainly means not all will be well for the bookseller. Our market is most likely going to evaporate. Bookstores who specialize in the first two types of books – mass market fiction and literary fiction – are likely to vanish first, as these are the texts which appeal most to “just readers” who don’t care as much about whether paper is involved or not. Booksellers who have a more narrow focus or specialty might fare better. A customer looking to contribute to a library of, say, books on architecture for reference in his firm is not going to be very well served by an eReader, especially not the current grey scale, small-screen ones. And there’s always the Collector.
This leaves the bookseller in a tight spot. You might be lucky enough to be a niche seller anyway. You might also, as some American independents are trying to do, diversify your business into ebooks. You might see if the big ebook providers are hiring buyers – after all, someone still needs to sift through publishing (or self-publishing)’s offerings and decide what to put on the front page of the website. (Though I even question the necessity of the buyer in the digital world – why not carry everything? Who needs discrimination? Space isn’t a factor anymore, and search engines hide from view everything that isn’t what you asked for anyway!) Would it be worth the rent to have a video-store-style bookshop, with bookcovers and tags in display, redeemable for ebooks at the cash register? Would the presence of a bookseller – someone to recommend and to consult – pay for the costs associated with meat-space?
I think it’s a fair assessment to say that tomorrow’s print-booksellers will become like today’s rare book sellers. They are out there, and some make a very good living. But they are as scarce as their product, and in big, expensive cities like Toronto often don’t feel they need to keep an actual open shop when a den and an internet connection does just as well.
I do wonder what I will be doing in ten years. My bookstore is niche, to some extent, so the realities of ebooks haven’t touched us yet. We have a customer base who are, often, buying books to build libraries rather than to read casually. We don’t deal with front-list fiction, except in so far as we feel like dabbling in it for our own sakes. Our best-selling publishers (university presses) produce books of a high physical caliber at a higher cost, which has never been a deterrent to sales. We’re doing pretty well these days. But can it last forever?
It has occurred to me that what I’m doing with all my print-book advocacy and paranoid blogging is promoting the product which I know my livelihood hangs on. I sell print books now, and I will still be selling them, with any luck, in ten years. The size of the market I am selling into, and thus my chance of staying in the business long-term, depends on how well I can sell you guys on the value of the printed book. I know, and I have always known, that ebooks are a great product for a certain kind of reading. But those books aren’t my product, nor my interest. I do something different, and would like to continue doing what I do.
So that’s my position, but I wonder about yours! Many of this blog’s readers are front-list fiction readers rather than collectors, and publishing industry employees too. A lot of you have eReaders and are reconciled to, if not happily accepting of, the ebook revolution. But you are also lovers and supporters of independent bookstores. I wonder, how do you see yourself reconciling those two stances? What is your ideal relationship with the independent bookseller when you have an eReader? What services to they provide you that you’d pay the premium for?