Bricks and mortar bookshops: still powerful

"I’ve been visiting bookshops here in Wellington, and we have so much in common,” says Becky Anderson.

Becky is the current president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville and an adjoining town, situated 50 kilometres from Chicago.

She was speaking to Booksellers New Zealand’s Annual Conference at Te Papa on Sunday, 17 July.

Anderson’s Bookshops has been in her family for 136 years, beginning as a pharmacy which sold books along with many items beyond medications in its early days.

Both personally and as ABA president, Becky Anderson believes it is time for the independents in the book industry to stand up and be counted.

The below cost pricing of Amazon, using books as loss leaders is something else she deplores.  Another concern in the US market – as here – is Amazon’s takeover of  London Book Depository. 

But ABA is leading the fightback. First with its IndieBound campaign, which features the importance of local stores, especially bookstores, to the communities they serve.

The bold posters and other marketing collateral (now adapted for use here - see IndieBound website) are having a big impact in the US.

Younger bookstore assistants associate “indie” with indie films and music and thus it has a “cool” factor.

“It’s not a marketing plan – it is a revolution. We are so important to the spiritual health of the community.”

(In Becky’s store, they have a bag filler which lists the ten things their store does for its customers which Amazon does not do. Booksellers NZ are trying to get that for use in New Zealand stores too.)

The good news is that the decline in US numbers of independent bookstores in America has not only been halted but reversed, with many new independents opening recently.

Becky has however fielded media questions of “are you still in business?”
In cities, groups of independents are advertising as a group, saying they are still here and providing full service bookselling.  

About the core practice of bookselling, Becky is adamant that it is essential in introducing people to books, but says the trade has to grow, to innovate and collaborate more closely with its suppliers, the publishers.

Doing just that, a delegation from the ABA visited major publishers in New York early last year to discuss book pricing, e-book availability, and to tell them that ‘business as usual’ would not work in the future.

The difficulties with issues relating to Borders in the US distracted publishers from picking up on the initiatives, but a second delegation in May this year saw publishers more ready to talk – one powerful reason is Amazon’s move to hire top publishing talent to set up their own publishing house.

What the ABA wants is the agency model for e-book sales – that is, one set price for all markets and for those to be maintained.

As Becky points out, the lack of a showcase in no longer existent music stores has actually cost that industry money – revenue is three times less than it was 10 years ago.

“The portents for the book industry are chilling if we don’t maintain a bricks and mortar presence,” says Becky.

And she is heartened that books as we know them still have their place in the world of e-readers, pointing out that digital era teenagers do so much on screen that they actually prefer the physical book for recreational reading.

Issues she says have to be addressed by publishers and booksellers jointly are:

  • Standard minimum retail price on all titles
  • Possibly dropping ad co-op and lowering discounts
  • Selling on consignment, i.e books are not paid for upfront and only books sold are paid for (this could allow bigger and better display space devoted to titles)
  • Creating recognisable ‘windows’ with hardback release exclusive for a longer period, and ebooks and paperbacks following say six months to a year later, and
  • Continuing to tour authors – this is key for Anderson’s says Becky.

Finally, they want Print on Demand and availability of out of print titles for that service.

There is another side of the coin. Anderson’s store is fully set up with a web presence, an online catalogue and e-ordering capability. They’ve also embraced email contact with customers and a full use of social  media – Becky says it is essential every independent book store has these capabilities.

Stores are powerful, Becky says. Amazon had 84 percent of the e-book market three years ago, but since Barnes and Noble started proactively demonstrating their Nook e-reader in their stores and widening the market away from the Kindle, Amazon now has only 50percent of all e-book sales.


IMAGE: Kindle (left) and Nook (right)

Twenty five  bookstores have taken part in a pilot program where they have recorded all their contacts with the public who use their stores or are part of their outreach. In the course of a year, those stores reckon they will recorded 30 million “eyeball” customer contacts – not just face to face with customers but also be promotions, store functions, store presence at conferences and all the social media interactions.

This powerful research is another factor in ensuring publishers don’t overlook the importance of bookstores as their market to the consumer.

There are some bright spots for the future of bookselling. Becky is greatly impressed with World Book Day pioneered last year by British publisher Jamie Byng on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23. He collected a million books, and book advocates all over the country were sent 40 books to distribute to whoever they wished in their area. The results in book awareness were astonishingly good, and Becky hopes the idea will spread world wide on April 23 each year.

Becky also notes that the Swiss deregulated their book market some three years ago, expecting that books would become cheaper. The experiment failed, and now the regulations have been put back in place.

“Publishers are scared to death. They’ve now come to realise that if bricks and mortar book retail ceases to exist, they will also fail to survive.

“IndieBound now means something – great book recommendations, a unique bookstore in the community.”

And that’s a great place to start rebuilding the importance of books in civilised communities.


IMAGE: After her trip to Wellington, Booksellers NZ Chairman Hamish Wright teed up a farm visit for Becky, pictured at the right of the photo above.

Story by Jillian Ewart, writer for The Read