Saving bookstores

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July 17, 2013 by Julia

It’s no secret that I am a reader.  I was a book geek before I was anything else; I always have a book in my purse, “just in case.”  Seriously, I feel stressed if I know I don’t have a book to read in the event of downtime.

I remember when the nearest Barnes & Noble was an hour away.  Going there was like going on a pilgrimage.  We couldn’t just head over whenever we had time to kill, so I only got to go a few times a year, when we were already in the area for something else.  All we had in my hometown was a Waldenbooks, and we were definitely there once every week or two.  That was back in the day when a paperback was around $4.99, and I would come home every time with at least one new book.  By the time I got to law school, I had learned that when I was super stressed, going into a bookstore and chilling with the books could calm me down.  Other women’s retail therapy is shoes or clothes, but mine is and always has been books.

And that does not include ebooks, by the way.  I have zero desire to own an ebook reader or read ebooks; if I ever own a tablet, the sole reason will be to watch my streaming shows when on vacation without carrying around my laptop.  People keep trying to buy me ebook readers, and my husband (whom they, thankfully, always ask first) tells them in no uncertain terms not to waste their money on any such thing.  The idea of ebooks gives me chills.  I can’t stand in an aisle full of ebooks, or smell the paper, or flip through the pages.  Ebook readers are hard, but books are soft and comforting (I rarely buy hardcovers), and if I drop a book in the bathtub, I lose no more than $15, not over $100.

Right now, I have two boxes full of unread books that I have collected over the years and never gotten to (I had a third full of magazines, but I just recycled them last week).  One of the reasons they have sat there for so long is that when I moved after law school and couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t afford to buy books, so I finally started using the library.  Instead of going back and reading old books, I tend to go to the library and read new books for free.  Even though I have a job now, how can I turn down free library books?  If I really love a title, then I go out and buy it, but if not–I’m not out any money.  (Yes, the library is funded with tax money, so it’s not “free” in that I am still paying for it my taxes.  Still, if I’m going to be forced by the government to fund the library, I might as well take advantage of it)

As you may have heard, Barnes & Noble is not doing so well right now.  Between Amazon.com and ebooks, brick and mortar bookstore are suffering.  This makes me very sad, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that Barnes & Noble (and Borders before it) is bringing some of it on itself.  Barnes & Noble is at least trying to compete in the ebook market, but (and this isn’t B&N’s fault), how in the world can they compete with Amazon.com’s prices with book MSRPs shooting through the roof?

Virginia Postrel over at Bloomberg recently discussed the situation, and suggested turning physical bookstores into hang-outs for browsing:

So here’s an idea, for the publishing industry, Barnes & Noble or a tech-savvy retail entrepreneur: Instead of fighting showrooming, embrace it.

Separate the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from the book-warehousing function. Make them smaller, with the inventory limited to curated examination copies — one copy per title. (Publishers should be willing to supply such copies free, just as they do for potential reviewers.) Charge for daily, monthly or annual memberships that entitle customers to hang out, browse the shelves, buy snacks and use the Wi-Fi. Give members an easy way to order books online, whether from a retail site or the publishers directly, without feeling guilty. And give the place a good name. How about Serendipity Books?

Apparently, “showrooming” is the main reason people still visit bookstores, because they want to preview books before purchasing them.  Now, I’m sure that’s 100% true, because that is one of the ways I use B&N these days.  I browse the books, find some that sound interesting, check the Amazon.com reviews, and then get them from the library.  If I like them, I buy them, most likely at B&N (because Amazon.com has a problem with allowing the sale of bootleg anime, which offends me).  What I don’t do is read entire books there, though, because I am ideologically opposed to manga cows and their literary equivalents.  Give money to the people who made the manga/book/etc. so they can make more manga/books/etc. and not have to change jobs to support their families, how is this not obvious?!

Anyway, here’s my problem with Postrel’s suggestion:  there can’t possibly be enough people willing to pay a membership fee for access to a place where you sit around and pay again for food and drinks, while you look at thumbed-through books you can’t take home for the business model to succeed.  I would just browse Amazon’s recommendations until I found some books in which I was interested, and then get them from the library.  I couldn’t even use that type of book cafe for relaxing, because again, I couldn’t take the books home if I wanted to engage in some retail therapy.

As an avid reader, here’s what B&N needs to do to up my book-buying in their stores: lower the damn prices.  That’s it.  When books were $5, I could afford to take a risk on an unknown book that sounded pretty good.  But now that my main genres (YA urban fantasy and fantasy) have stopped printing mass market paperbacks and the trades are $10 each, paperback regular fiction is $15 each, and hardcovers are just plain unreasonable, it’s more of an investment to buy a book.  If I can get a free, legal, and moral copy from the library to make sure I like it, why wouldn’t I do that?  And then if I like the book, why would I pay more to get the book from B&N when Amazon.com is almost always cheaper?  Now, my answer is a bit more complex, because I disapprove of Amazon.com allowing bootlegs to stay on its site, but the average consumer isn’t going to agree with me on that and will simply pick the cheaper option.

I only know about ebook pricing–I have no idea who sets the MSRP for physical books (but it’s printed on the book, so maybe the publisher?), but you’d think B&N could discount the MSRP of all books and count on a higher quantity of sales to bring in more money.  Additionally, the B&N membership program is completely useless to me.  In order to break even on the $25/year fee, I need to spend at least $250/year (since I can’t remember ever buying a “hardcover bestseller”).  I don’t spend $250 a year on books anymore, because I can’t find $250 in books I think are worth owning forever.  But, if taking a risk on an unknown book weren’t such an investment–if they cost $5 or even $7 again–maybe I would try out new titles without getting them from the library first.  I also feel like the publishers are trying to trick me with trade paperbacks, because they are so much more expensive than mass market paperbacks.  It feels like an excuse to raise the price, nothing more.

Now can B&Ns make enough to continue to pay their rent and their staff if they lower the prices?  Well, I hope so.  I want the sales to increase and bring in at least the same amount of money, if not more, because I don’t want to lose bookstores.  I don’t promise to know anything at all about the bigger financial picture here; all I can do is tell you about my buying habits, and why my book-buying has dropped off.  I’m an adult now (in theory), and I have bills.  While I technically make more money than when I was in middle school and high school, I also have more obligations.  I just can’t afford to blow money on books I might not like anymore.  If the publishers and/or B&N minimize the risk, I will buy more books.  It’s that easy.

Also, stop publishing random YA urban fantasies in hardcover.  It feels desperate and tricksy, and does newer authors a disservice.  Even if I do find one I like, I have to wait a year (at least!) to buy it in paperback, so the author and publisher aren’t calculating my purchase until then.  For an example of doing it right, check out Beautiful Decay.  It’s one of the few books I have picked up on a whim in the recent past, and I loved it–and there was no hardcover, so I could just take the paperback home with me.  There, it wouldn’t be a book post without a rec, right?

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