On the future of books
December 30, 2008
Hugh McGuire at The Huffington Post has written a fascinating essay on the state of book publishing and his hopes for its future. He asks, "What would happen if, tomorrow, every publisher, and every book store, went out of business? What would you do?
Soon these big book stores were everywhere: Barnes & Noble and Borders in the US, Chapters and Indigo in Canada (now merged, but with separate branding to create the fiction of competition), Waterstones in the UK, and others elsewhere. They invested massive amounts in real estate, getting huge commercial spaces in prime locations in major cities, and bigger spaces in the suburbs. They stocked their stores with a dizzying array of books. Boon or Bust? But things started to go a little sour early on. The first indication that the new book behemoths might be bad for the long-term health of the book ecosystem came quickly, when the little guys started going out of business. Economies of scale and and pricing clout meant that the big stores could charge less than their smaller competitors; and because of their size, their selection was always bigger. Following their in-store caffeine partners, Starbucks, they liked to choose their locations near existing successful independents. The little guys couldn't compete, and went out of business, or got bought up, and absorbed into the book selling borg. So now, there are precious few independent books stores left even in big cities. The indie stores weren't the only ones complaining. Because of the volume that goes through these stores, they could squeeze the publishers, on cost of books and return policies. They could charge for prime shelf-space. Small publishers found it harder to get the attention of the readers. But even the big publishers complained about the policies of these stores - and a little later, the other behemoth on the scene, Amazon. Then there's that odd feeling of being in a book store staffed by people who don't know much about books. Any inquiry about a more obscure title more often than not ended up in front of a terminal. It seemed as if book stores, if their hiring policies were any indication, no longer cared much about books. More: as time went on, it turned out that book sales weren't really the most profitable kind of business these stores could do. Solution: reduce the shelf-space for books, increase the shelf-space for candles and trinkets. In Canada Chapters/Indigo has reduced book shelf-space from 75% to 60% (with Canadian fiction losing, and publishers cutting their lists in consequence). If the trend continues, books will be the minority in bookstores, and we might consider renaming them smelly candle stores that carry books. The book business has stopped caring much about books.This is a topic that has always been close to our hearts here at 800-CEO-READ and our sister company, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, which has served the Milwaukee community since 1927. We find ourselves in a constant state of conflict; we want to see our small businesses thrive and continue doing the good they do in our communities, but we see the industry failing and recognize the need to adapt to societal realities, the new Information Age that is clearly here to stay. We have to decide what we care most about--is it the continued importance and presence of books in peoples' lives? Is it the employment of smart and passionate people in our local businesses? Can it be both? Why or why not? If there's a crossroads, when will we meet it? McGuire offers analysis of the motivations behind these bookselling behemoths and ends with a charge to "the rest of us, readers and writers and lovers of books, entrepreneurs and technologists, those of us really interested in the voracious appetite of the powerful and relatively affluent group": we are "going to have to come up with new and different ways to get books written, published and in the hands of readers." Check out the article. It's great food for thought. www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-mcguire/what-if-the-book-business_b_153692.html