Saturday, June 21, 2008

Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch

Bottom Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 Words Or Less):
In a
Random House/Zogby poll released May 29, queried about their habits over the past year, 77% of respondents said they’d bought books online, 76% said they’d bought books in big chain bookstores, and percentages ranging from 16-39% named other outlets, such as supermarkets, drugstores, airports and big box stores. In other words, respondents were just as likely to buy books online as from a big chain bookstore. Asked to specify the single retail outlet from which they’d made most of their book purchases, 68% named retailers other than big chain bookstores. The breakdown is: online – 43%, chain bookstore – 32%, independent brick-and-mortar bookstores – 9%, other retail outlets – 16%.

If you’re an indie author who’s invested considerable time, money and effort trying to get your books into Borders or Barnes & Noble, or has paid higher production costs to a publisher in exchange for listings with these two chains or Ingram’s catalog, you might want to rethink your strategy. If you’re an as-yet unpublished author who has avoided self-publication primarily because the publishing mainstream has you convinced big chain presence is critical, and you know those chains are averse to stocking self-published books, it's time to reconsider.

Go On An’ Run Yo Mouth, I Ain’t Got Nuthin’ But Time Version (Can’t Promise It Won’t Go On Forever):
If you’re still focusing significant efforts on raising your visibility in Borders or Barnes & Noble, or if the difficulty of getting your self-published book into these chains is a major reason for your refusal to self-publish in the first place, the results of a
Random House/Zogby Poll released May 29 will be a real eye-opener.

When asked to name the one type of retailer from which they most frequently bought books in the past year, 43% of respondents said online, 32% named chain bookstores, and 9% specified small, independent bookstores. A specific breakdown isn’t provided for the remaining 16%, but that 16% definitely aren't buying most of their books in chain bookstores. Some quick math on these numbers shows that 68% of respondents buy the majority of their books from outlets other than chain booksellers. Conversely, only 32% of respondents buy the majority of their books in chain bookstores.

In the same poll, respondents were asked to name all the places they’d bought books in the past year. Outlets most often named were online retailers (77%), chain bookstores (76%) and independent bookstores (49%). In other words, respondents were just as likely to buy online as in chain bookstores, and nearly half are also buying from independent booksellers—retailers generally more receptive to carrying indie books. Drug stores, supermarkets, warehouse clubs, big box stores and airports were also named, in percentages ranging from 16-39%, but retailers such as these usually only carry current bestsellers, discounted/remaindered titles, and gift books, so they’re not typically receptive to carrying self-published works. Parse these figures any way you like, but the truth is unavoidable: chain bookstores no longer dominate the bookselling landscape, and in fact are losing ground all the time. None of this should be surprising, and in fact it’s just a case of retail history repeating.

Do you remember precisely when you stopped going to chain music stores like Musicland, Licorice Pizza and Tower Records, and why? For me, a music fan with eclectic tastes, most often looking for artists not represented on Billboard’s charts, the birth of online retailer CDNow (later absorbed by Amazon) was the beginning of the end. No brick-and-mortar store could hope to match CDNow’s selection or prices, and if I wanted something really obscure, I knew I’d sooner find it at an indie/used record store than a chain store. For people seeking chart-toppers, the widening selection of music available at discount stores, big box stores and warehouse clubs like Target, Best Buy and CostCo sounded the music chains’ first death knell.

Department and discount stores couldn’t match the selection of a dedicated record store, but it didn’t matter because their customers were only interested in the most popular current albums, greatest-hits collections and compilations of past hits. Not only could these retailers easily offer a good selection of these low-risk offerings, they could price their titles lower than those in dedicated record stores. Record stores responded by diversifying their product mix with the introduction of videogames, VHS movies and eventually, DVDs, but it was a hopeless strategy built on an already failing business model. There were simply too many other places to get these same items more conveniently, at a lower cost, and in the case of online retailers, with a wider selection. By the time digital downloading became a mainstream phenomenon thanks to Napster, the iPod and iTunes, it was merely the last nail in a coffin already built by other powerful market forces.

Compare this death of an entire industry to chain bookstores’ current situation. Greater selection of books can be had online, at lower prices? Check. Bestsellers, gift books and discount books can be bought more conveniently at other stores, for lower prices? Check. Obscure and out-of-print books can only be found online, or in indie/used bookstores? Check. Attempts are being made to diversify product mix by introducing DVDs, CDs, toys and other products, but none of these products are being offered at lower prices or in a wider selection than through other, pre-existing retail outlets? Check.

Now, explain it to me again: why do publishers and writers continue to believe big chain bookstores still have the power to make or break careers in authorship? Why do indie authors invest in catalog listings with companies like Ingram, or choose to work with higher-priced self-publication outfits on the basis of that outfit’s ability to get catalog listings? True, without the listing your book won’t be accessible to the big bookstore chains’ corporate purchasers, nor those of any other major chain retailer that is not an Amazon affiliate (i.e., Best Buy, WalMart), but none of them were ever likely to stock your book anyway. Most of an indie author’s sales will be from efforts and outlets that aren’t in any way dependent on, nor even necessarily helped by, catalog listings. Worse yet, paying for catalog listings or working with a costlier publisher typically forces an indie author to raise the retail price of his book. This makes the book less attractive to all potential buyers while forcing those who do buy the book to subsidize the cost of its exposure in retail markets that are both small and generally outside the indie author’s reach anyway.

The bottom line is this: even if you succeed in getting a big chain bookstore to carry your self-published book, the maximum market segment you can possibly capture there now stands at 32%, and it's shrinking all the time. Does it really make sense to let 32% of book buyers dictate your choice of whether or not to self-publish, or your choice of publisher, or if you've already self-published, claim the bulk of your promotional resources?


Iceage said...

Hi April,

I just came across your website and must say it's a very refreshing read. Well done.

A lot of 'writers' are very much against POD. I myself have only just started writing again after a 10 year break. Back in the days when you mailed in a query and chapters direct to Publishers, and the odd agent. Then came the agents. And now comes the Indie.

I think it's the next step in the Evolution of not only books but media in general.

I also wonder if vendors are actually reading for it... What do you think? Will Amazon become flooded by any old thing people put together. Maybe a couples 8 year old drew some pictures and they decide to POD it. Or of a lesser extreme what of the really crap writers out there on POD. I know there are some crap mainstream books too. But at least they get reviewed in the mainstream quite well. What of POD. Time for a new online book review site I think?!

Either way its happening.

I look forward to your further blogs, I will RSS this.

Zoe Winters said...

I think these are really good points. I can't get over how many people act like being stocked in a bookstore is magic. A book sitting on a store shelf isn't marketing. It's not necessarily moving the book. Because bookstores won't accept books without a returns policy a book isn't really "sold" once it's on a bookstore shelf. So I fail to see what's been accomplished there.

With VERY rare exception (like in the case of personal journals, which I like to touch and feel first before buying), I buy all my books online at Amazon. They're less expensive, you can get super saver shipping, and the whole thing gets conveniently delivered to your door. What's not to love.

As opposed to getting out, getting in traffic, driving to a store with no guarantees they have what you want. Too much freaking hassle.

I'm not at all surprised by those percentages.

Floyd M. Orr said...

Your points are well taken. Iceage mentioned online book review sites. I recommend PODBRAM. Look us up at Google. We're quite easy to find. Thank you.

Alan said...

I missed this post originally, April. Glad I found it now - interesting stats!