Guest Column: Minding the Store
Because there are no sycophantic bloggers promoting the book-retailing activities of big-box stores, their growing influence has gone relatively unnoticed. Yet non-bookstore physical locations are having the same kind of disruptive effect on bookselling now that the Internet had in the 1990s. It clearly shows in the numbers: According to Simmons, about 10 million more consumers buy books at non-bookstore, brick-and-mortar locations today than use the Internet to procure their titles. Plenty of them buy mass-market romance books at these locations, as they have for decades, but still more are buying hardcovers and paperbacks that grace the best-seller lists, contributing to slowing traffic at bookstores.
That said, the presence of some books at non-bookstores can make sense (e.g., Carson-Delossa Publishing’s “Mike and the Bike” was sold at bike shops), but the channel-stuffing of blockbuster books is cheapening what should be the most expensive product. It also isn’t like books are similar to other goods: Anyone can make or sell a hammer—it’s basically a commodity. When a publisher buys the rights to a book, only it can sell the book where the contract specifies. When a book from a popular author is sold everywhere, it behaves like a commodity when it really isn’t.
We also have to remember economic pressures are making it harder for consumers to buy books—regardless of the channel. Even if mass merchandisers get traffic that would otherwise go to a bookstore, there are few, if any, employees at these stores willing to help close a sale. If you go into a Wal-Mart and ask an employee for “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen, you’ll be lucky if that person points you to the camping aisle and mumbles something about having one from Coleman.
If you ask for “Hatchet” at a store like Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Conn., chances are excellent you’ll be led to the children’s section where the book will be pulled off a shelf and placed in your hands. These are the same bookstores hosting events—with and without authors—to draw traffic in and get people buying once they get there. Even B&N and Borders Group are showing signs of returning to their roots as cultural centers of their communities and realizing that books are sold one at a time to one person at a time.