Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bemoaning the fate of traditional booksellers

In this New York Times article, David Streitfeld blames avid readers like himself for causing the demise of the traditional book industry because he buys bargain books online from either commercial or private resellers.

"Book publishers and booksellers are full of foreboding — even more than usual for an industry that’s been anticipating its demise since the advent of television. The holiday season that just ended is likely to have been one of the worst in decades. Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them."
I think this is being a bit simplistic. Publishers have complained about used book resellers for years just as the music industry used to complain about used CD shops. If publishers would stop and think about it, its the physical format of a purchased book or CD that actually facilitates its resale by the original consumer. If the e-book industry finally takes off as expected (see my earlier post) with appropriate digital rights management, the resale problem will eventually disappear (except for hard copy "collectors" who can get their fix with print on demand).

However, the loss of the traditional bookstore is not without regret. I must admit that I occasionally enjoy just browsing the aisles of Barnes and Noble. But, when I want to find a particular book and get the best price, I turn to Amazon. It's a simple matter of efficiency and economics.

I also think I have bought a lot more books using online retailers (mostly Amazon) than I would have if I had to physically visit a traditional bookstore and search the aisles myself, because Amazon uses subtle marketing strategies like suggesting other books by the same author, with the same topic, or bought by other customers who also purchased the book you are considering. This process actually makes me aware of other books I may not have heard about and often a $12 purchase from Amazon turns into a $79 purchase by the time I click the check out button. So, I don't think we can blame online sales for upending an industry that, like the music industry, is digging its heels in when it comes to embracing technology advances. Instead, the publishing industry should reexamine its role in the literary process.

I always think about "value added" as a justification for a service to exist. The most valuable service a publishing company can provide is professional editing (something a lot of authors are saying is being neglected by many publishers now), and marketing expertise. However, marketing approaches need to change to take advantage of the new technologically enhanced exposure venues.

Recently, I was asked by Harper/Collins to review Bernard Cornwell's newest novel "Agincourt". The publisher provided me with links to videos they posted on YouTube in which Mr. Cornwell discusses the writer's craft, research, and the history behind "Agincourt". It is these types of marketing efforts that will yield the desired results in the future rather than expecting a traditional bookseller to displace other books to make way for a newly released book. The following video was my favorite:

Visiting with an author in person is always exciting, but even the most avid reader realizes that more people can be reached using online presentations than shuttling an author from bookstore to bookstore. Another online strategy that I recently enjoyed was an author-moderated discussion forum. Sponsored by GoodReads, the forum's featured author was Steven Pressfield, author of the acclaimed novel, "Gates of Fire", who was promoting his latest novel about Rommel. Forum visitors could pose any question they wished and Mr. Pressfield did his best to provide an insightful answer. Several visitors actually became involved in an ongoing dialogue with Mr. Pressfield about the craft of writing or his interpretation of some of his classical resources. These types of discussions would not have been possible in most book signing sessions - at least none that I have ever attended.

News releases and book reviews are also valuable in bringing attention to a new book. But, as Mr. Pressfield pointed out in his discussion forum, traditional media like online newspapers seem to be shying away from including book reviews in their content offerings. Publishers could reverse this trend with targeted marketing campaigns.

So, I wouldn't feel too bad, David, about buying used books. You're actions are serving as the catalyst to get publishers to refocus their business model on the services they should be providing rather than squabbling over who gets the residual value from bits of paper and cardboard. As for publishers like Houghton Miffin Harcourt no longer ordering "fresh meat", in many moments of crisis throughout history there are those who decide to commit suicide rather than face the changes needed to succeed in a newly defined environment.
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