16 August 2007

More Bad News for Bookselling Business

In February, Publishers Weekly carried the unhappy announcement that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated bookstore sales fell 2.9% in 2006, compared to the previous year. December holiday sales tumbled 8.8%. Those declines happened even as sales for all retailers rose 6% in the year.

The latest comparable report, issued this month, carries the story through the first half of 2007.

Sales declined every month in the January through June period, resulting in a 4.6% drop in bookstore sales at the midway point of 2007. For the entire retail sector, sales were up 4.0% for the first six months of the year and were ahead 3.8% in June.
All the monthly figures for 2007 are laid out at Bookselling This Week.

The continued growth in other retail sales means that Americans are still buying things. We’re just not buying so many books, at least through the retail stores that the Census Bureau tracks.

That downward trend isn’t due to the big chain outlets pushing out independent bookstores because the chains are hurting, too. Barnes & Noble and Borders both acknowledged disappointing performances last year, as did some large regional chains. Borders announced several new strategic initiatives, including selling more technology and “carefully trimming” the inventory--meaning that it will stock fewer titles.

These trends may be part of a long-term leveling off or even shrinking of the US book industry. Back in March, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything offered a graphic glimpse of the long-term problem, also based on census data. Even though the population and economy continue to expand, total book sales haven’t risen as fast, and in fact have gone down in the last two years. Publishers still saw revenue rise only because prices went up.

The July bookselling figures will be anomalous, boosted by a particularly popular and expensive title. But beyond that the future for bookstores doesn’t look good.

Then again, that decline may only be expected since written information is:
  • easily digitized, and thus easily delivered online.
  • easily mailed, since a codex is compact, durable, and not prone to spoil.
  • competing in our culture with other sources of stories and facts, many of them requiring less consumer effort.
Stories aren’t going to go away. Writing isn’t going to go away. But frontlist retail bookstores may be the travel agencies of tomorrow.

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