Book Business Extra Q&A: Meg Zelickson Smith of the American Booksellers Association talks about the impact of a new crop of independent sellers on the book industry.
Contrary to the notion that independently owned booksellers are on the decline, smaller, non-corporate-owned retailers have shown strong growth in the last few years, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). The ABA reported 97 new stores that became members of the group last year, more than the 90 members from 2005. The group has about 1,700 company members that represent about 2,400 storefront locations.
Meg Zelickson Smith, director of membership marketing for the ABA, spoke with Book Business Extra about the independent booksellers of today, and how they are affecting the industry.
Book Business Extra: What do you believe is causing people to want to open up independently owned bookstores?
Meg Smith: When you ask the people who have recently opened up stores, they open up stores for all the same reasons that people always have. They love books, they love their community and they want to create that kind of environment in their community. Stores have always closed. We’re now finding that stores are back opening a bit. And the people who are opening them are looking for more resources.
Extra: How many stores opened up last year?
Smith: We had 97 new store members, and 90 the year before.
Extra: What should book publishers take away from this news?
Smith: I think the publishers and the media, and potential booksellers and entrepreneurs should take away that while it’s a very difficult business—we don’t hide that, there’s not huge margins— there are ways to thrive and survive. We’re here to stay. The old story was that ‘You’ve Got Mail’ model, that there’s a small bookstore put out of business by a chain around the corner. The media has been very reluctant to let go of that scenario, which is why we wanted to spread the word that there are new stores. I think its important for the industry as a whole.
Extra: How has the independent bookstore’s role in the bookselling process and in the industry changed in the last year or so?
Smith: What we have seen, especially with the advent of the Book Sense ad marketing program, is a higher consciousness among publishers large and small, and all their imprints, about the ... importance of independent bookstores.
Seven years ago, the ABA launched a national marketing program on behalf of independent bookstores, its called Book Sense, and the goal of it is to create higher consumer awareness of the value of independent bookstores. One of the pieces of it is our communications and our relationships with publishers, because the program is underwritten by publisher money. What they do is pledge—and I use that word very loosely because we don’t actual bill them—a certain amount of their marketing dollars for use among Book Sense stores, meaning the group of ABA members that belong to the Book Sense program.
Extra: How are new independents separating themselves from the competition?
Smith: ... It’s no secret that booksellers sell the same product, and it can be obtained in many, many different outlets. What they have in common is there’s this overwhelming sense of customer service and passion and knowledge, and that is communicated in the stores to their customers. There are some very specific things that people do. They run incredible events programs. There’s a kids’ store in Minneapolis called Wild Rumpus that has one of the most ambitious and creative events programs you’ll ever encounter, to the point where the owner, Colette Morgan, will bring a horse into the store for kids to experience that.
There are some other stores that are very well known for their events. Books & Books in Miami probably has a 360-night-a-year events program. Sometimes it’s in-store, sometimes it’s offsite. There are stores that provide just outstanding personal service. Yes, there are many stores that have specialties. They may be a kids’ bookstore, or a travel bookstore, or a science fiction store. There are many stores that will carry non-book items that really set them apart.
The overriding theme for the successful stores is that they create a sense of community in the store. They make themselves into the third place, the place that is not home and is not work. A place that is a destination itself.