How Bookstores Die

Shedding light on the question “How do bookstores survive?” might be an explanation of How Bookstores Die…

According to one source in the Guardian article Price wars come at a cost, independent booksellers suffer at the hands of supermarket-style stores and book lovers may end up paying the price.

The problem, independent booksellers claim, is that publishers accord huge discounts to bulk buyers such as Amazon and Tesco, but not to anything like the same degree to smaller outlets. So a two-tier system is created, where independents charge more for many titles – they cannot compete with the aggressive price wars engaged in by the giants, and risk going to the wall. And, as the supermarkets increase their market share – from 9% of the book market in 2004 to 12% in 2006, according to the Book Marketing Society – the problem looks likely to grow.

While the savings look good for the consumer, the benefits of these price wars may be short-term at best, according to Jonathan Spencer-Payne, who runs the Peak Bookshop. Independents carry a much greater range of titles, he says, so a greater diversity of authors and books are represented, including traditionally hard-to-shift first novels. “We support publishers with other titles, with the backlist,” he says. “The feeling in the independent sector is that publishers aren’t thinking about tomorrow. If independent bookshops disappeared, where would they sell the full range of their books? It would be a terrible indictment on society if one or two sellers sold a limited range of books and they basically picked and chose what people read.”

4 thoughts on “How Bookstores Die”

  1. I love the ‘doom and gloom’ scenario suggested here. A few huge bookstores push out all the small ones with low prices, then they will only sell the huge mass market books. I bet you could see the same argument made by small, independant hardware stores, grocery stores, and basically any industry where larger nation-wide chains have come in to dominate them with more efficient business models.

    However, that flies in the face of reality – Amazon sells every book with an ISBN number, even those you publish yourself (doesn’t matter if you’ve printed one hundred or one million, Amazon will list it.)

    How about those small bookstores compete on service or find a niche they can carve out and thrive in? I’ve seen a book store that caters to mystery books have huge success. Or for example, I humbly suggest that a book store that caters to science fiction books would have a huge chance of success – as we stated elsewhere, the old books still have a lot of merit and I believe most readers would appreciate the chance to search for and find them.

  2. There used to be a number of books specializing in SF/Fantasy; nearly all of them have now closed. When independent stores are going under, it’s usually the most specialized, specific ones that die first (think of it like evolution — the organism with the most invested in a very specific niche probably won’t be able to survive when that niche disappears).

    Mystery book stores are dying, too — the longest-running one in NYC (and possibly the world), Murder Ink, is closing at the end of this year.

    Saying “compete on service” is a nice idea, but the vast majority of buyers (of anything) only concern themselves with price. When a movement to support small or local business works, it’s nearly always based on the consumer’s guilt (or perceived neighborhood self-interest, which is close to the same thing).

    But I do agree completely with Scott’s first point: big chain stores push out small independent stores because they offer the same thing cheaper, and consumers — not surprisingly — like that. (And I very much doubt that the supermarkets will take enough market share to threaten the big bookstore chains, whose superstores have a depth of stock to rival all but the very biggest indies.)

  3. The SF Bookstore that was near me most of my adult life used to have weekly discussions, author appearances, and all kinds of meatspace bells and whistles that made it feel like an ongoing convention. Then it got sold when the owner retired and the new owners were interested strictly in revenue and thought erasing any sense of community the store had fostered was the only way to go.

    They lasted six months.

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