Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 6

Last week, we travelled from 1991 to 2010. From the fall of Crown Books to the rise of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Through the demise of independent bookstores to the sudden appearance of the ebook. It’s 2011… Those of us still standing now face a new era. The death of Borders, the coming death of Barnes & Noble, and the power of the ebook are all things that guarantee the rebirth of print…not the death of print.

by Andrew Gifford

The Witch is Dead

Print sales, in the era of the chain stores, came to be measured in the tens of thousands, and the millions for those select few stars and big publishers. The idea of Seymour Lawrence selling a handful of copies here and there across the nation became ludicrous, even if those handfuls added up over time and translated to bestsellers and famous names.

In short, we got lazy. Publishers focused on chains and gladly wrote off the 30% or more returns as long as the chains bought a bunch of books up front. Spend the money, live large, worry about the returns and the debt later on. That’s why you hear stories that don’t make sense – like Scholastic, the US publisher of the Harry Potter books, nearly having to declare bankruptcy. Authors know that story all too well – you get your gonzo advance and spend it all because you have bills to pay and cocaine to buy, but then you don’t see another penny and the book flops and, nine months down the road, you’re living in the backseat of your Mercedes and crying yourself to sleep.

Print sales have always been about grassroots shenanigans. From writing the book, through publishing it, down to selling it, is an intimate experience for everyone involved. There’s no point in the process where the book doesn’t, somehow, enter the bloodstream. Measuring print sales, then, used to be a quiet little thing. Two copies to this store, three to that one, and ten to that one. Tra-la-la. And that’s a good day for a small press. And that should be a good day, because you know that all those copies are going to be displayed, browsed, and purchased. They aren’t camping out in a warehouse and being turned around just to fund some soulless corporate giant. Amazon, by the way, buys copies based on demand, just like most indie bookstores.

What happened that should have woken everybody up is that, as soon as the order trickled down to freeze out Borders, the average percentage of book returns per title went from 33% to 20%. And, as Barnes & Noble struggles and attempts to focus on a future with the Nook and not with their chain super-stores, that percentage goes down even more. Here in the last half of 2011, B&N has sliced all of their purchasing numbers, and I’ve seen maybe 10% returns on my titles, if that. Ten percent is the new worst-case.

We’ve reached the point where I don’t notice returns. When they do trickle in, it’s usually because they were damaged en route. Returns – formally something that felt like rape – has now been reduced to “breakage.” All because Borders and Barnes & Noble are off to the elephant graveyard.

The problem is that the few remaining indie bookstores are much like successful terrorist insurgents. They’ve sort of won the day, but it’s certainly a Pyrrhic victory. They’re limping around the ashes of their stores, missing arms and legs and eyes, shuddering from nightmares of 20 years of war. Small presses, likewise, are all sitting back and trying to take stock of what’s happened. Not just the obscene horrors of the 2000’s, but the rapidly changing world of book publishing as we move into this century’s second decade.

The question is familiar: What’s next? What’s the shape of things to come?

Ebooks will rule supreme. People love gadgets, they love the convenience. And, already, publishers are moving to make ebooks more profitable through the creation of “enhanced” ebooks. As we move through this second decade, enhanced ebooks will soon become the name of the game. You’ll not just download and read a book, you’ll be able to listen to music tied into the text, interact with maps, follow links to “bonus material” on the publisher’s website, and so on. Enhanced ebooks will also push the prices up to something more comparable to the old trade paperbacks. While, meanwhile, a “vanilla” ebook will always be available at the usual low prices. Apple’s homogenization of the ebook revolution has allowed for incredible flexibility and, in the years to come, you’ll soon be seeing multiple versions of each book. The enhanced ebook, the plain old ebook, and god knows what else. Folks juggling an endless parade of DVD special editions know the ropes.

The technology is cheap and approachable. Once small presses overcome their technophobia, ebooks will become a steady and reliable source of revenue. No returns, no inventory or warehousing worries, and fewer distributor costs.

As ebook sales throw money into our strained coffers, small presses can now take stock of how they’re doing things. The opportunities will present themselves where small presses can start piecing together little oddities once again. Chapbooks, and experimental stuff, and new authors. Small presses were, and should be, fertile seedbeds that give rise to great authors. That, alone, keeps print from dying. Print will only die if the experimental crazies die. If publishing becomes like some “current blockbusters only” industry, like ma and pop video stores did during the late 80’s and early 90’s in the face of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, and other chains. Their final holdout was to sell off all the weird shit and just try and make money with the mindless top of the charts fare. And, of course, they’ve all faded from memory.

Publishers who love this business can also breathe a sigh of relief as return percentages plummet. Not only is the money starting to make sense again, but the sales are clearly happening; and the books are again being embraced by booksellers and the audience. Indie bookstores were eclipsed, but now their importance is starting to become clear once again.

Above all, small presses and indie bookstores must learn to get along again, to form that united front. Because these glory days will not last. There will be new enemies, if only in the form of the big name publishers swooping in to gobble up whatever they can. Bookselling, and the making of books, should, once again, return to an intimate and pure path. No more pyramids of fad books at the entrance, no more usury, no more back-channeling.

It is a time to celebrate, but it’s also time to form a union, stronger than ever before. Small presses and indie bookstores should never again be enemies. And, together, we can move into this new era and re-establish a beachhead that’s been lost, piece by piece, since the late 1970’s. People will always buy books, no matter how bad it gets. The big publishers have to worry about the bottom line, and so they’re forced to play to the lowest common denominator. The small presses, however, are free. Most readers are hungry for change, for excitement, for new things, for experimentation. It is just as likely, and just as welcome, to put out some offbeat bizarre book in 2012 and have it raise the freak flag from here to Timbuktu as if it was, once again, the 1960’s or 70’s when houses like Black Sparrow and Graywolf and others were cutting their teeth.

Reintroducing the Wild West days of bookselling should be on all of our minds. Controlled, and tailored to accommodate modern needs, but it’ll be a breath of fresh air for everyone. The readers will come, and they’ll fork over their hard-earned money. And they’ll continue to do it both on their Kindle and at the cash register, virtual or otherwise. The trick is, simply, drawing them in. That’s not done with a shotgun blast in a dark room, or a million dollar PR person, or a pile of books at the door. It’s done with creativity, with a product that’s worth something, and with a little bit of devotion and TLC on the part of the people who love this industry: The gunfighters who run bookstores, and small presses, and believe that we’re doing something very beautiful, and very necessary.

Now’s the time, kids. Now’s when we need to get together and talk. If we miss yet another window because we’re all paranoid, isolationist screwballs who can’t get our shit together, then we will die.

1 comment:

Louis P Solomon said...

I had no idea that you are expressing what I have repeated, time and again, to the few who are willing to listen to my comments about the publishing world. Bravo for your clarity!

Modern technology has forced the ancient world of book publishing into its final demise. I am not suggesting that publishing, per se, is seeing the end of its existence. Rather, all will change, and more rapidly than believed possible.

Further, for both writers and publishers, the new technology will allow all of us to make money from the beginning. We certainly should form some sort of group or collaborative to see how we all think about this new and changing technology.

Thanks again for your comments.