Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

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?

13 thoughts on “So What Is the Bookseller For?”

  1. Steph says:

    I’m in the first category of bookseller you mentioned, I think, likely to be out of a job first. I feel it. I hear about it every single day out loud (both from customers and staff) and all the backroom whispers, and it’s nerve-wracking. I’m not really worried too much about the books themselves; you can’t really get old, OP, or even just backlist on e-readers, I don’t think, and someone has to offer those. So at least second-hand bookshops will exist, or maybe our indie will remain if we carry everything Chapters doesn’t (because that’s what killing us in particular here). Who knows.

    I am with you in the market, I will never have an ereader, and like you, ebooks aren’t my product or interest. I too would like to continue doing what I do, and I would love to meet more people who wish us to do so, as well.

    I think my own main struggle is financial. We aren’t in a good way. I can’t afford an ereader even if I wanted one, so that’s not the issue. But when I see books I want that are far cheaper than what my 20% staff discount offers, knowing my book-buying habits (I’m a collector more than a reader, as I wrote recently), I have to try and reconcile my fierce feeling about buying local and indie and our financial situation.

    What I’ve been doing is simply not buying and putting aside books in piles at the store for when I can get one or two. I really would prefer to buy from the place that pays my wages! But I hate that struggle of knowing I can get the same one cheaper elsewhere. And that is precisely what our issue as an indie is. So you see my dilemma.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I have to go for lunch so this is a quick reply – but I get all my books at cost (more like 40% off) and Amazon still manages to offer a better price than the one I get!!! It’s stupid – either they’ve bullied a bigger discount and are only making a percent or two, or they’re selling at a loss. Either way, how is ANYONE supposed to compete?

      My personal challenge is to keep buying books at indies I don’t work at, paying full price even though I know I could order it myself for cheaper. But I want to support them, so I pay an extra 40% out of good faith or stupidity (not sure which). ;)

      1. Steph says:

        Good faith, of course.

        I actually have a trip planned to the newly reopened indie Furby House Books in Port Hope (I’ve never been, it’s about an hour or so away), and I look forward to buying a book, even at full price. I admit there’s a feel good feeling to that, too, even though there’s also one when I can buy a bunch of books for almost half off. I wish we had more second-hand shops about; if they carried the books I want for cheap, I’d shop there instead of Amazon or Costco or wherever.

  2. Robin Spano says:

    Hey, so unlike Steph, I’m all for this ebook revolution. Partly it’s environmental, and partly its the way ebooks level the playing field dramatically for new writers starting out – their books are accessible in a way they’ve never been before.

    BUT, as with any revolution, I think it’s important to look at the casualties. Indie bookstores are the first people I think of. I’ve said this to Steph, but if Canadian Indies got together and put forth a solid business proposal to the government, outlining the steps they plan to take to weather the economic storm, and the concessions they’d need in the meantime, my guess is it would be well-received.

    If I owned a bookstore, I’d seriously think about turning it into a bookstore/wine bar, with frequent author events and profits from the booze sales. But that’s a lot more work, so maybe easier said than done.

    And the title question: what is a bookseller for? I think (1) great recommendations & (2) creating a live book-loving community. (1) can be accomplished online, but not (2) – so again, if I owned a bookstore now, I’d work on turning my store into a community meeting point however I could accomplish that.

    I wouldn’t rely on people paying more for their books because they felt it was the right thing to do to support indies. It’s just not human nature.

    Interesting post. Thanks!

    1. Steph says:

      Robin: I thought I might find you here! :)

      My husband was just saying something similar to me the other day when I lamented that I had lost my dream of Biblio, that bookshop tearoom I imagined opening. Working at an indie has turned me off (it’s a long story as to why). He insists, however, that it’s because all we offer is books, whereas my idea, to sell coffee and tea and small eats and host luncheons and tea parties and author and community events and so on (it’s a giant plan), just as you describe, would work. You have to offer more than books, he says, because books alone aren’t attracting people. There is truth to that, as I’m bored stiff for the most part and business is terribly slow. Obviously, offering only books isn’t our only issue but it probably contributes to the overall problem.

      At the same time, we can’t afford to expand the store to include a little coffee bar or whatever. There’s financial reasons to think of but also the logistics. And in general, getting people to come out to events, I’m learning, must really depend on your location, because here it’s harder than pulling teeth. Whereas once I was gung ho excited about organizing events, a few at which I ended up apologizing to authors and embarrassed have utterly discouraged me. Even for Stuart McLean they didn’t come out (there were TWO and they had to call in family to save face)…I feel at a loss.

      I did go to Furby House Books in Port Hope on Saturday, and I did buy two books at full price, even though I could have ordered them at my own store and got 20% off. It’s just that I don’t want to shop only at my store because it’s not fun to do so anymore since I’m there every day. But at the same time, we were in Costco the other day and I figured out a book I wanted was cheaper still than what I get with my discount so I bought it. I think you’re last point about not relying on people to pay more for their books because they want to support an indie is very true.

      1. Steph says:

        Wait! PS. I also vowed not to leave Furby House Books empty-handed because I wanted to support them, not just because I wanted to shop elsewhere than where I work. And I should say, it’s a gorgeous store. Although the stock is very limited.

  3. Robin Spano says:

    Wow, I look forward to being a customer in your literary tea room. I think you’re dead on about needing the right location, with a community of book lovers to make your efforts worthwhile. Maybe a theater town, like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford, would be a good location. If you advertise your lit events to theater-goers, it could give them another activity while they’re in town (something much cheaper than a play, but equally culturally relevant).

    1. Charlotte says:

      My sister (who is an artist) always wanted to start a book store/chocolate shop/art gallery with me. :D The idea always reminded me of one of my favourite Charles de Lint short stories, Mr. Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery

      1. Steph says:

        Oh, that sounds…delicious, in more ways than one! I’d frequent it!

      2. Robin Spano says:

        Me too! You’d have at least 2 customers.

    2. Steph says:

      Yes, exactly. I can see it working elsewhere (er, especially in England, where their market seems impervious to saturation!), especially if there are other things on offer.

      On another note, I just got asked, AGAIN, if we sell ebooks. And last week I had a customer asking for a book because she wanted to check it out to see if it was worth downloading on her ereader. I was a bit appalled at that, to be honest, when she told me after I had offered to order it in for her.

      1. Charlotte says:

        Customers are selective like that, which is part of why I wonder if adding a cafe to a bookstore really does anything. I mean, Toronto is chalk-a-block with cafes already. What about a coffee is going to make a customer want to pay an extra 10% for a book? They can just come for a coffee & a sit-down while ordering a book from someone else via their iPhone. Is it just to generate some income to underwrite the books – in which case you have the books why, exactly?

        Events are a bit iffy too, if you ask me. Unless you’re talking about a SUPERSTAR author that you can sell tickets around, it’s unlikely you’ll get many people to show up to a reading, and if they do come, they *still* won’t necessarily buy the book.

        I guess it seems to me that the question has to be not “how do I get people in the store?” but “how do I get the people in the store to buy this product?”

      2. Robin Spano says:

        Ouch! Especially when most ebooks offer the first chapter free from the sites that sell them…

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