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independent book stores are back!!! a guest post post by clayton childress

Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. While making the case for examining the relationships between fields and reuniting the sociological studies of production and reception, Under the Cover empirically follows a works of fiction from start to finish: all the way from its creation, through its production, selling, and reading.

Three Reasons Independent Bookstores Are Coming Back

 A couple weeks ago, Fabio had a post about the recent rise in brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, suggesting that perhaps they have successfully repositioned themselves as “artisanal organizations” that thrive through the specialized curation of their stock, and through providing “authentic,” and maybe even somewhat bespoke, book buying experiences for their customers.

There’s some truth to this, but in my forthcoming book, I spend part of a chapter discussing the other factors. Here’s several of them.

Why the return:

1)     The Demise of the Borders Group, and Shifting Opportunity Space in Brick-and-Mortar Bookselling.

This graph from Statista in Fabio’s original post starts in 2009, lopping off decades of retrenchment in the number of American Bookseller Association member stores. Despite the recent uptick, independent bookstores have actually declined by about 50% since their peak. More importantly, it’s worth noting that even in the graph we see independent bookstores mostly holding steady from 2009 to 2010, with their rise starting in 2011. Why does this matter? As Dan Hirschman rightly hypothesizes in the comments section of the original post, the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders Group began in February of 2011, and is key to any story about the return of independent bookstores. To put some numbers to it, between 2010 and 2011 the Borders Group closed its remaining 686 stores, and between 2010 and 2016 – after spending decades in decline –651 independent bookstores were opened. It’s a pretty neat story of nearly one-to-one replacement between Borders and independents since 2011.*

Yet, if anything, this isn’t as much a surprising story about the continued prevalence of independent bookstores themselves, but rather, a story about the continued prevalence of paper as a medium through which people like to consume the types of books that are mostly sold in independent bookstores. When Borders liquated people didn’t predict that independents would take their place, but that’s because they had mostly misattributed the bankruptcy of Borders to the rise of eBook technology and Amazon. That story was never quite right, though. Borders last year of turning a profit, 2006, mostly predated these supposed causal factors. Instead, Borders’ rise to prominence came through a competitive advantage in their back-end logistics operations, which they then never really updated, and by the mid-2000s they had turned from a market leader to a market trailer. Borders also invested more floor space in selling CDs right when that market started to decline, and then turned that floor space into the selling of DVDs right when that market started to decline – their stores were always too big, and they seemed to have a preternatural ability to keep on filling them with the wrong things. As for the rise of Amazon and online book sales in the decline of Borders, they did play a role, but not the one that people think. In perhaps one of the least prescient moves in the history of American bookselling, as online bookselling started to take off, Borders decided to not spend resources investing in that market, and instead contracted their online bookselling out to Amazon, helping them on their way to dominance of the market. Oh, you dummies.

So, while it was mostly back-end distribution problems, stores that were too big, and a series of bad bets that tanked Borders, its demise was never really about a lack of demand for print books, which allowed independents to fill that market space after Borders disappeared. For independent used book stores (which have always had as much of a supply problem as a demand problem), advances in back end supply systems have in fact made them more viable.

2)     Independent Bookstores are the Favored Trading Partners of the Publishing Industry.

Starting during the Great Depression, in order to keep bookstores in business, book publishers began letting them return any (damaged or undamaged) unsold books, meaning that for nothing more than the cost of freight bookstores could pack books up to the ceiling without taking on much financial risk on stocking decisions (if you’ve ever been curious why so many bookstores seem so overstuffed with product, here’s your answer).

It was the beginning of a long history of cooperation between publishers and sellers, and the cooperation has never been more friendly than it is between publishers and independent stores. Publishers and bookstores want the same thing: for people to go into bookstores looking for the books that are actually in stock. With about 300,000 new industry-published books coming out per year, that’s no small feat. For this reason, cooperation between publishers and independents is key, and they rely on an informal system of gift exchange, the details of which I go into in my book.

With the rise of chain bookstores such as Walden, Crown, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, this cooperation became formalized as “co-op,” a system in which publishers nominate their books, and if they are chosen for co-op by the seller, then pay to have their books placed on front tables and endcaps across the country. The basic shorthand is that it costs a publisher about a dollar per copy to get their book on a front table at Barnes & Noble, which is very roughly the same amount that an author gets paid per copy to write the book in her advance (talk to any publisher for long enough and they’ll grind their teeth while noting this).

From the cooperation system with independents the chains developed “co-op”, but a publisher’s relationship with Amazon is closer to coercion. With the chains, publishers can decide to nominate for “co-op” or not, but as soon as publisher sells a book on Amazon they’ve already entered into an enforced “co-op” agreement, in which usually around 6-8% of all of their revenue from selling on Amazon is then withheld, and must be used to advertise on Amazon for future titles. This tends to gets talked about less as “coercion”, and more as “just the way things are” –it’s what happens when you have a retailer that dominates the space enough to set its own terms.

As a result, while book publishers like independent bookstores because they believe them to be owned and staffed by true book lovers (Jeff Bezos was famously disinterested in books when launching Amazon – books are just fairly durable objects of standard size and shape and therefore ship well, making them a good test market for the early days of ecommerce), they also do everything they can to support independent bookstores because their trading terms with them are most favorable to publishers. In their most extreme forms, we can see publishing professionals collaborate in opening their own independent bookstores, but more generally, they engage in subtler forms of support: getting their big name authors to smaller places, and maybe over-donating a little bit to the true cost of printing flyers, and covering the cost of wine and cheese for when the author gets there. Rather than doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, however, publishers do it because independent bookstores are good for them to have around, as they’re the only booksellers who are too small and diffuse to make publishers do things.

3)    A Further Reorientation to Niche Specialization at Independents

Here we get to artisanal organizations, and the independent bookstores that are sticking around (or even more importantly, opening) have mostly given up aspirations of being generalists. In Toronto, we’ve got an independent bookstore which specializes in aviation, another for medieval history, and a third which has found a niche for discount-priced theology.* They’re like the Cascade sour beers to Barnes & Noble’s pilsners. While it’s definitely a trend, it’s not one I’d trace back just to 2010, as instead, the artisanal organization market position is one that independent bookstores have been relying on at least back into the 1980s.

In addition to just being niche, while independent hardware stores and grocers were going the way of the dodo, independent bookstores were also able to both capture and foment the formation of the “buy independent” social movements of the 1990s. It’s not many retail outlets that can successfully advocate for their mere existence as a public good. For instance, when was the last time that the New York Times unironically quoted somebody referring to the closing of an independent laundromat halfway across the country as a civic tragedy? As generalist independent bookstores have come to terms with their inability to compete on breadth with Barnes & Noble and Amazon, we see not only a transition to niche sellers, but also more sellers overall, as each one tends to take up a smaller footprint and have lower overhead costs than the independents of the past.

***

Of course, while there has been a rise in the number of independent bookstores in the 2010s, we shouldn’t overstate it, or be certain that it will continue. At the end of the day –and nobody likes to admit this –we’re talking about a segment that makes up less than 10% of industry sales and is still way down from its peak. It took one of the two major brick-and-mortar chains going out of business for this return to happen, but if Barnes & Noble goes under, it will upend any balance left between Amazon and everyone else. Yet unlike the industries for music and journalism, a preference for analog books among a major segment of the market doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe if Barnes goes under we’ll instead be graphing the rise of brick-and-mortar bookstores by Amazon, and romantically pine for the good old days of Barnes as the industry villain.

 *If you’re a cynic, or even just a careful optimist, you’re also going to want to factor in the 80 stores Barnes & Noble has closed since 2010. So, since 2010 that’s a loss of 766 big brick-and-mortar bookstores which were selling a lot of books, and a gain of 655 generally much smaller brick-and-mortar bookstores which are generally selling many fewer books. Yet the number of physical books sold hasn’t really declined, and has actually increased for three years running (for reasons that are the subject of another post). In any case, the difference has been made up by Amazon.

**H/T to Christina Hutchinson and Chanmin Park, two undergraduate students in my Culture, Creativity, and Cities course, for these examples. You can see some of their work on bookstores, as well as other students’ great (and in progress!) work from this semester on Toronto martial arts studios, Korean and Indian restaurants, religious centers, food festivals, and so on here.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street

 

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Written by fabiorojas

March 30, 2017 at 12:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. As German writer Kathrin Passig gets not tired to emphasize, the claim that “651 independent bookstores were opened” ist most likely false. It is important to distinguish between ABA members and newly opened book stores. The development of ABA membership and newly opened book stores is quite well documented on the respective Wikipedia page:
    – between 2010 and 2016 only 275 ABA member bookstores were newly opened, many of which seemingly went out of business again soon thereafter
    – the rise in ABA membership numbers is much better explained not by newly opened bookstores but by a change in ABA membership rules in 2011, when used bookstores became eligible for membership and the annual dues of smaller stores were lowered.

    Using ABA membership numbers a s a proxy for bookstore growth is therefore highly questionable.

    Like

    leonidobusch

    March 30, 2017 at 7:57 am

  2. Reblogged this on Everything Social. Everything Sociology and commented:
    Sociology Professor Clayton Childress writes on the return of the independent bookstore on Orgtheory.net

    Like

    slklassen

    April 4, 2017 at 3:07 pm


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