Business Section

Publishing Update

The Bookseller Wars

Publishing Update Written by Kathy Casper

Until recently, I wasn't much of a bookstore shopper, although I love books. Before the superstore explosion, I used to visit the local independent bookstores from time to time, but I found them to be cramped, and not usually very well lit. For browsing bookshelves, I much preferred the library. For buying books, I preferred the book clubs and other mail order resources.

When shopping malls began springing up, I enjoyed the chain bookstores quite a lot. They were like mini-libraries, well organized and easy to navigate. Plus, they were bright and colorful. Yet, I still did not spend as much time there as I did the library. It was a place of business, after all - and it had that "store" feeling. So my book-buying became equally divided between the chain stores and mail order.

The superstores may shift the balance entirely for booklovers like me, much to the dismay of independent booksellers. The atmosphere of a Barnes and Noble is so much more like a library, with quiet reading areas, children's entertainment areas, and themed activities, visiting the bookstore now transcends a mere shopping experience. It has become a community experience, especially with the addition of cozy instore caf├ęs and bistros.

Although traditional librarians have always been very helpful to their patrons, there is a bit more spring in the step of a superstore salesperson. They do, after all, have a vested interest in your finding what you want.

I have read very dark opinions about the superstores "elbowing out" the smaller, independent booksellers. Perhaps their marketing tactics are less than virginal, when it comes to selling books. They do often focus on books written by celebrities that somehow become instant "bestsellers", regardless of the quality of the writing or actual sales to consumers. Some believe there is questionable behind-the-scenes maneuvering that takes place to artificially create those "bestsellers".

Independent booksellers complain that the superstores have capitalized on concepts and methods first developed by the independents, such as booksignings by authors, and community related events. This may be true, but it is not a phenomenon exclusive to bookselling. Corner grocery stores endured a similar fate with the rise of supermarkets; independently owned hardware stores experienced it with the profusion of depot-type superstores; small record shops have been bombarded by the super music stores.

All of the superstore giants became "super" by grandstanding the marketing concepts and retailing methods of the "little guy". Their ability to offer a wider selection, at lower prices, has been the key to their success, not the "pirating" of good ideas.

Some independents feel betrayed by authors who choose to do booksignings at the superstores, and have initiated letter writing campaigns to discourage authors from doing this. Court battles are being waged to ensure equal pricing from publishers and wholesalers. Recommended reading lists, traditionally provided to customers by independent booksellers, are being guarded like trade secrets.

What kind of customer service is this? It sounds more like wargames than an attempt to preserve tradition. As a book buyer, I am less and less inclined to view the independent booksellers as the "underdogs".

One solution is for independent booksellers to establish a "niche", to focus on one or two particular types of books in which to specialize. Let the superstores be the smorgasbords they so desperately wish to be. As such, they can not afford to focus on individual customer needs.

Smart independent booksellers will take their cue from the broader marketplace. Of course the corner grocery store is gone, along with the butcher shop and the milkman. But, now there are small grocers who specialize in gourmet food, health food, or ethnic foods and spices that the superstores can't afford to stock.

When I was growing up, Main Street was a collection of dress shops, shoe stores, toy stores, and other independent merchants. That changed with the coming of department stores, then shopping centers and malls.

Now I go to the mall and see a collection of dress boutiques, shops for sandals or boots, and specialty toy stores, interspersed with the chains. It seems to me, the marketplace is returning to its roots, and independent merchants hold the keys to that transition. But it will not be accomplished by competing with the superstores as equals - even if that were possible.

With the advent of the Internet as a merchandising vehicle, we can expect the climate to change once again. The Internet marketplace truly does level the playing field for independent booksellers, if all they want to do is sell books. If, on the other hand, they want to preserve the traditions of bookselling, the magic of book buying, and promote the love of books in general, then specialization is their best bet.

Perhaps the ultimate solution lies in a combination of specialization and Internet technology. Just as the general stores of a century ago eventually branched off into clothing stores, groceries, hardware stores and bookstores, it seems likely that the superstores will need to expand into cyberspace. At that point, the superstore booksellers will once again break down into sections: cookbooks, travel books, books on theology, etc. Square footage means nothing in cyberspace.

Today's independent booksellers have an opportunity to beat the superstores to the punch, in this respect. But, will they capitalize on that advantage? Or will they continue to write letters to authors, begging them to boycott superstore booksignings?

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