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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part X: Boo!

by Craig Stark

#141 25 January 2010

Now that I've reached Part X of this series, I think this might be a good time to pause and perhaps throw a sort of a scare into those of you who are doing the same thing you were doing two or five or more years ago.

Ten years ago selling books online was, in a word, easy. Thrift shops in my area and likely yours provided a steady supply of $30 and up books - well, keeping this in perspective, what were then $30 and up books - and FOL sales were similarly productive largely because they weren't pre-shopped by dealers and were attended overwhelmingly by book lovers, not dealers. Estate sales? Better too, and better more often.

On the selling side, you could sell just about anything on eBay, and if you had even a rudimentary sense of picking warm or warmer spots, you could sell stuff for prices very, very much worth bothering with. The buyer-to-seller ratio was much higher then, and the shaking out process whereby "scarce" books evolved into common books was just beginning.

I could get into much more detail about this, but I think most of you get the idea: You could sell books without knowing squat about them because you could.

Today, those of you getting into the bookselling are faced with a far more daunting task. Not only is the competition exponentially more intense and to some extent more knowledgeable but also, this entire print biz that has been so good to us for so long is now getting crowded out of the marketplace.

Want to see some numbers? Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report on what our kids are up to, "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds." This is a compilation of three studies completed in, respectively, 1999, 2004 and 2009 that chronicle what for us is the bloody truth. Take a look at this chart.

See anything interesting in the trends? That's right. The only type of media use that's decreased in the last ten years is print.s Movies have remained relatively stable, and everything else has jumped more or less explosively. To be fair, when print use is broken out into magazines, newspapers and books, much of the overall decline can be attributed to a decreased use of magazines and newspapers, and to get more specific, books-read-for-pleasure has remained more or less stable through three studies (though one wonders how these numbers would look if Harry Potter had never been created and its author was not so adamantly opposed to digitization).

Can you live with stability? Personally, I take absolutely no comfort in this snapshot trend for two reasons:

  1. There are only so many hours a kid can devote to media use in one day, and if TV, Music/audio, Computer and Video games use is exploding, guess what's going to get crowded out first?

  2. Multitasking. It's what kids do best, right? And this same report shows a marked increase in multitasking. Why is this bad news? "Print media are among the least multitasked of all the various media. That is, when young people do sit down to read print materials, they are less likely to also be keeping an eye on the TV or listening to music than they are when they use most other types of media." Given how captive the reading experience is, I think most of us could've guessed this, but KFF's hard data confirm it.

So, there it is, or will be - your future marketplace. There's certainly no need to call in the banshees yet, but at the very least it seems high time to investigate new approaches.

Click here to see the entire KFF report.

Next time - another insulated niche.

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