Bookselling in the 21st Century

by Craig Stark

17 August 2009

Part I: Adapt or Die?

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In whatever form it pops up, are you getting tired of hearing this? "If you want to survive as a bookseller, you'll have to adapt." Have you been hearing it more often since the recession kicked in? I have. Do you want to choke the next person who says it? I do. I mean, Geeze, if things have slowed down for you, I guess you could wait until the recession ends and see if things get better, but if you're like me and 99.9% of other booksellers (who haven't left the business, that is), you ain't gonna' wait - and in fact have already been adapting like a madman. And probably your numero uno adaptation has been to slash your prices. Right?


Is it working?

Well, let's hold off answering that for now and look at what got us here because a carefully considered retrospective might suggest a plan of action going forward.

First, I invite you to look back over the last, oh, 15 to 25 years. If you had kids during this period, try to recall how many times you caught them voluntarily reading a book. If they were like my kids - and most other kids, for that matter - they were far more likely to have cell phones, remotes, video game controllers, etc., in their hands than books. No big secret here.

Some pundits would argue that one of the great tragedies of modern civilization is the diminishing importance attached to reading books. To that I say, horse feathers - I mean, when I grew up, with darn few exceptions the only books I actually enjoyed reading were those that never found their way into a classroom. The only difference now is that the preferred form of entertainment has changed, not kids themselves.

Still, some of these kids have started to buy our books anyway, textbooks especially. Do you sell textbooks? You won't for long. Expect print textbooks to go away sooner than later, likely much sooner - and if textbooks comprise a significant portion of your sales, guess what you're going to have to do?

Many of these kids, however, are also starting to buy our CDs and DVDs. What's that you say? You're not selling this stuff? What are you - a purist or something? Despite your deep bibliomaniacal roots, if things were slowing down for you, you could have steeled yourself and made this adaptation years ago.

Oh, wait, I get it; you're one of those antiquarian booksellers. You only sell collected books. Them objet d'art things. Ah, tradition. By the way, how's it going? Sales booming? If not, well, I invite you to go back to that same 15-to-25-year window into the past for at least a partial answer. And further back as well to note that serious book collectors are ageing out of the marketplace. Of course, you're really not in it for the big money anyway, right?

Seriously, even if you are an antiquarian bookseller and make a decent living - and there's no shortage of those that do - there's a good chance you'll be able to carry on a few more years, maybe more than a few, and some of these businesses are in fact growing as we speak. But even so, not everybody is cut out to be an antiquarian bookseller. To be successful at it, you have to devote significant parts of lifetimes to learning how. Even if you love it, it isn't easy to make a go of things - and besides, there are only so many of these "objets" floating around. Few things that are conventionally regarded as zero sum games actually are, but this is one of the exceptions. Sure, new collectibles are being created every day, but more and more often they take the form of something other than books.

The reality is that we all know this bookselling game is slowly going away, though some of us won't admit it. It's a hard reality to face. It isn't just because kids aren't drawn to books as much now. It's also because books themselves are mass-evolving into digitized formats, which in turn manifest as e-texts, CDs, PODs and so on. If you're close to retirement or need only a hobby income, no problem. If you're forty- or fiftysomething and need to make a serious part- or full-time living, on the other hand, you might have some thinking to do. Over the coming weeks I'd like to think along with you. I have no idea how many parts there will be to this series or even what I'm going to say, but I have at least a few of those adaptation ideas to kick around - and maybe something useful will come out of it. Stay tuned!

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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