Who Wins in the Holiday Book Buying Spree?
It's officially time for my holiday panic. With just one week to go in the shopping season, I've purchased only three gifts. In the next few days I plan to cram in all the rest, which may include a few books for my family members and loved ones. Publishers and booksellers hoping to hold on to their hopes I have time to stop in a Barnes & Noble or an indie bookstore and that the temptation to express ship everything from Amazon doesn't win out. The procrastinator in me cannot make any promises.
Although it's too early to say if book consumers have come out in force this holiday season, and my personal situations no clear indicator, we can take a look at recent purchasing trends to see if publishers and booksellers will have something to celebrate this holiday season.
Simba Information's Michael Norris tracked book sales during the holiday season for the past several years, measuring adult book consumers in the last three months of the year. 22% of US adults purchased at least one book as a gift last holiday season, which was up 4% from 2011.
This could paint a fine picture for publishers who rely on healthy print revenue. But according to Norris, it's hard to break down what books were bought at which retailers, especially with the minimal sales numbers Amazon releases after the holidays, but there is a clear predicament that all brick-and-mortar booksellers face this year. And Norris articulated that problem in the December issue of Book Business, "The most dysfunctional thing happening in books right now is that people walk into a bookstore, get the expertise from a bookseller, and go home and buy the ebook on their Kindle. That can't go on forever for obvious reasons."
The same scenario plays out for print purchases-browse for a book in Barnes & Noble and then order the cheaper hardcover from Amazon. It's a scenario, I'm sad to say, that I have participated in many times.
Still, while the sales in chains like Barnes & Noble are being compromised, independent bookstores are experiencing a slight resurgence. In August, The Economist reported that since 2009 more indie bookstores opened in the US than closed and that sales grew by 9% in 2012.
Norris adds an asterisk to these numbers, however, pointing out that the booksellers that have survived Amazon, the rise of social media, and endless media streaming are the savviest businesses of the lot. The creation of newsletters, active social media channels, and valuable partnerships like Indies First have provided the impetus consumers need to get in the door.
For Barnes & Noble, whose quarterly revenue fell 8% last quarter, even a holiday uptick will not be enough. In fact the last standing national American book chain projects that retail sales will fall by a high, single percentage in the current financial year up until April 2014.
And where does Amazon sit in all of this? In its Q3 2013 earnings report, Amazon reported $17.09 billion in sales, claiming about half of online book retail. Its sales continue to grow 24% year-over-year, and they will likely see a robust Q4.
Interestingly, enough, the success of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and indies everywhere may not come down to who has the best customer service, marketing, or the greatest convenience. "The number one factor that booksellers said affected sales," explains Norris, "was the weather." If the snow and ice are out in full force, book buyers are not. It seems like Amazon's best strategy would be to pray for a blizzard.