12 March 2009

Backlist Books Clogging Up the System?

Marion Maneker's article "The Kindle Revolution" on Slate's The Big Money section discusses the current book-publishing business through the lens of the latest book-reading technology:

The risky part of the business--best-sellers-- isn't really the problem. Though how to manage that risk has become a serious problem for several houses. What's eating into publishers' profits is the slowing of backlist sales. . . .

Backlist is slowing because traffic at the bookstore chains is slowing. Barnes & Noble's holiday sales were down nearly 8 percent as measured by same-store comps. Retail was bad everywhere in the fourth quarter, but for the year, those comps were down more than 5 percent.

Ironically, the book chains are falling victim to the same disease that killed the independent bookstore. High-margin sales--big best-sellers that come in the back of the store in a shipping box and leave through the front with a customer in the space of a few hours or days--have migrated to other outlets. When a book is running hot, most sales don't take place in bookstores at all. They're at Costco and newsstands and grocery stores and dozens of other nonbook book outlets.

Meanwhile, back at the Barnes & Noble, the low-margin books--those worthy backlist titles for which the store must pay a lot to store on the shelves for weeks or years just so they'll be waiting for you when you finally come looking for them--are clogging up the system.
So what will the Kindle or other electronic readers linked to the web do to that system?
The important thing here is to recognize that the purchasing decision for a book doesn't take place in the bookstore anymore. You don't need to hold the book, read the flap copy, or weigh the sincerity of the jacket blurbs anymore.
I think that decision already started to migrate out of the bookstore with the arrival of Amazon, but electronic readers can certainly accelerate the change.
Here's where the Kindle comes in. The collapse of bookstores almost ensures that the Kindle will thrive. Not because it's better than a book; that doesn't matter. The nation-within-a-nation that reads for pleasure and to be informed is a small but vibrant republic. Heavy readers make up a large portion of the book-buying public. These are people who read two to three books a week and buy 50 or so books a year. The Kindle will solve a number of problems for the citizens of Biblandia, not the least of which is having to go find a bookstore to get their next read.
But is going to a bookstore really a problem for us Biblandians? Sure, not having to do so would give us more time to read. But just as movie fans like going to movie theaters and visiting movie studios, so book fans enjoy book places. Which gives me an excuse to link to Mirage Bookmark's "Most Interesting Bookstores of the World" and Flickr's "World's Most Beautiful Bookstores" Pool. (Picture above from that pool courtesy of ECV-OnTheRoad.)

Maneker's final paragraphs burrow down into one corner of book publishing--journalism-based non-fiction--and spin it into the whole of the industry. I therefore don't find them as compelling as the remarks above.


Anonymous said...

Since achieving internetosity I have not entered a bookstore of any kind. I used to haunt them. Used bookstores especially. Ones with teeny little staircases going nowhere. Now I have Amazon and Bookfinder and Powells. I get books from Canada and England and Ireland and France and Holland and Germany and... Google has Google books wherein I have some thousands of books from the 1600s 1700s 1800s in my personal library. Those that are not full view, I buy. From Amazon, through Bookfinder and from Powells. All my local used bookstores, to whom I sell duplicates and unlikely to ever read agains, do most of their business online - through Amazon and other venues ABE etc found through Bookfinder. Twenty years from now I don't expect Borders or Barnes will have brickware in this city anymore. And I won't notice their absence.

Anonymous said...

I do think bookstores are in for a further downturn. How they will weather the evolution of books will depend on how savvy their owners are. Because although I do believe there will be more ebooks on the horizon, I don't believe that there paper books will disappear. Just as I can buy shoes online, I prefer to try them on in a shop first. There is that feeling too for a whole lot of books -- *especially* children's books where what the book looks like inside is so important. (Comics too, for that matter.)