Looking Ahead to 2016 Bookselling

by Craig Stark

20 December 2015

Turntables and Related Matters

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Several months ago I purchased a turntable for my son's birthday. You can connect it to most anything - computer speakers, TV, whatever. Toss a record on it, and you're ready to go. No expensive components to purchase, and at about $100, not a budget buster. The thing is, though he grew up in a different time, he likes how vinyl sounds, and so do I. So do many of us. But I never anticipated I'd be buying a turntable for any purpose in 2015.

There were many pundits who predicted the demise of vinyl, and I must say, for a few years things did look pretty dire. But the bloom, as they say, is off the digital rose, and vinyl is well on its way back, CD sales down. In fact, 2015 will mark the ninth consecutive year of growth in sales. Though still a relatively small segment of the market, there's one thing we can say for certain: Vinyl has not been displaced by digitized products. It's still here because there is durable demand for it; it offers a sound that digitized products don't.

I bought a turntable myself several years ago to test play records. I don't sell a lot of them, but if I come across something scarce and desirable, I'll grab it. Ten or fifteen years ago I bought no records. Sold none. So, vinyl sales are now growing for me too.

If there is a point to be made here, it's this: As technology advances, not everything it's intended to displace goes away. Sometimes, like vinyl, it starts to and then comes back. But sometimes there's not much displacement at all, and a kind of co-existence kicks in more or less without marketplace interruption.

You know where I'm going with this - books.

I don't recall when I started thinking/writing about the future of print books, but I know it was before we founded BookThink in 2003. Certainly the Digital Revolution gave me pause. More than once I pondered my future in bookselling, and my gradual response to it was to move away from consumable books to collectible books - or, as I have more often put it, commodity books to antiquarian.

Not that you can't still make some money selling commodity books. Used commodity books. Some do, and likely have no intention of doing anything different. But it's a different game entirely, one that has left a long trail of burnt-out booksellers, and not at all like the game I'm playing now. This holiday season in particular I've been reminded of where I was in 2003 - and how it looked compared to now. Back then, if I sold a book for over $100, it was something approaching an anomaly. Now it's commonplace, and perhaps $1,000 is the new anomaly.

Yes, some sectors of the collectible book market have suffered a decline in recent years, but some haven't - and some new ones have popped up. Tastes change. There are trends afoot, as always. If you haven't already done so, I would invite you to read one or more bookseller memoirs from, say, 75 or 100 years ago.

One of my favorites is David A. Randall's Dukedom Large Enough: Reminiscences of a Rare Book Dealer, 1929-1956. Not only is it well written - I can testify that not all of these things are - but also the last two dozen or so chapters are devoted to individual, then collectible authors. Some familiar faces are there - Doyle, Poe, Hemingway, etc., all of whom are much sought after still. Talk about durability. Some familiar faces whose stars have faded also appear - Scott, Cooper, etc. Oh - and there's a chapter on Mary Webb.


Anyway, few topics have been discussed as exhaustively as digitization in recent years, and perhaps nothing hits home with booksellers more than the specter of e-things displacing print books. One thing I can say for certain, now many years into this revolution, is that print books have suffered nowhere near the decline that vinyl did, and the decline they did suffer was confined primarily to certain sectors of the commodity book market (and often made up for in other sectors). As for the collectible book trade, it's alive and well and shows no signs of going south anytime soon - for that matter, print book sales overall are growing.

This bodes well for bookselling. If there's a difference between late 1990's bookselling and now, it's that any clown could make a few bucks then. I did. Nowadays it seems you have to know a thing or two, and acquiring this thing or two - or three or four - might involve doing things you haven't previously done (if you're interested). This isn't intended to be a pep talk, but in my opinion successful bookselling is considerably more demanding today than it has ever been. If your sales are suffering, there's a reason for it, like anything else, and my take is that it doesn't have much to do with competing e-products.

So, stay with me in 2016, and I'll do my best to provide you with the know-how to succeed.

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