The debate between independent and traditional publishing authors is heating up and now bookstores have been added to the discussion. If Hachette does not get its way with Amazon, then bookstores will suffer. Bookstores will become extinct and books will no longer be available through the friendly neighborhood bookstore. It's like the underlying theme of You've Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
The 3rd generation owner of Fox Books, Joe Fox, sells books, lots of books, at low, low prices, much like Amazon. The Shop Around the Corner, owned by Kathleen Kelly, the daughter of the original bookstore owner, sells children's books at a much higher price, buying them from publishers at about 50% wholesale, which means she must sell the books at a much higher price than Fox Books. It's all about volume sales.
Kathleen Kelly also hosts authors for signings and reads books to children. It is part of the service she provides as the bookstore owner. She decorates her windows with books and photos of children's book authors and sells rare and expensive hand tipped books, packing everything in canvas book bags for customers. The Shop Around the Corner is a boutique business in the old world tradition.
Joe Fox sells millions, perhaps billions of books, and sells all the books at deeply discounted prices. He can afford to sell books cheaper than Kathleen Kelly because he has the space to buy more books and get a better deal on price than The Shop Around the Corner. "It's business. It's not personal," as Joe tells Kathleen as they battle for supremacy.
The audience groans when Fox Books puts another bookstore out of business, a mystery bookstore, and they cheer when Kathleen appears on TV to fight the good fight to protect her little children's book shop. Meanwhile, Joe Fox touts his deep and comfortable chairs, food, and lattes and the way readers can come and sit for hours and just read and relax.
In the real world, Barnes & Noble is Fox Books and boutique neighborhood bookstores were put out of business by Barnes & Noble because B&N could afford to sell books cheaper and they offered scones and lattes and comfortable chairs where book buyers could sit and relax and read and write or do whatever. B&N also hosted authors for readings and signings and even sold records, cassettes, and games, as well as iPods and tape players. B&N was the future of bookstores while neighborhood book stores unable to get deeply discounted prices for published books fought for space and sales.
The thing is that no one seems to remember that the death of the neighborhood and privately owned bookstore was touted when Barnes & Noble and Borders and Books-a-Million and Half Price Books and other discount bookstores came onto the scene and drove independent bookstores out of business.
Then along comes Amazon and a brand new technology - eBooks and Kindle. B&N and Borders were no longer the flavor of the month. They had been replaced by a virtual store that sold books at deeper discounts than B&N offered and Amazon quickly took the book buying world by storm. B&N and Borders liked that they could keep a book for years and send it back to the publisher worn, torn, and shelf scarred and get a full refund. That was a deal born of the Great Depression when publishers were motivated to keep bookstores in business, a model that has not changed and one that nearly cost publishers -- and eventually authors who had to give back royalties -- a bundle in October 2008. It was a bad time and an even worse one for authors who were hard hit by returning their royalties and not getting royalty checks when bookstores, like B&N and Borders, returned all those books, books that went directly to the landfills.
Life is about change -- and so is business. Either move with the times and innovate or be buried in the dust. That is what bookstores and authors and publishers and readers need to keep uppermost in mind.
As much as we all rail about this changing world and so many of us comfortable with the past want it to stay unchanged, that is not the way the world works, especially not when it comes to retail. In order for business to be viable it must make money. That is the bottom line.
It is also a bottom line that Barnes & Noble, Borders, and numerous privately owned bookstores do not seem to grasp. Amazon is not the enemy any more than Joe Fox was. It's business. It's not personal.
Except that it is personal to Hachette. Hachette still allows bookstores to buy books and return them for full refund even though the books have been on the shelves unbought and pawed over by untold numbers of potential book buyers. Hachette doesn't mind when books are dumped by the millions into landfills. It's a tax write-off they are more than happy to take at the end of the year, and they don't have to pay authors anything because the books were never sold. The perk there for Hachette and the Big-5 publishers is that even though the books were never sold, the numbers remain so their big name authors remain on the best sellers lists. It's all about numbers, just not numbers that include Amazon being able to dictate terms to PUBLISHERS.
Amazon just will not accept its place in the scheme of things. Hachette has been doing business in publishing for decades and upstart Amazon refuses to grasp that they are supposed to be grateful for being allowed to put Hachette authors on their virtual bookshelves. The nerve!
If bookstores want to stay in business, it is time to change the way they do business the way they did in the 1800s or even the 1980s and get move with the times. Sell books. Sell expensive books to make your profit, but diversify and seize the moment to look at business -- and life -- in a different context.
Kathleen Kelly closed her bookstore because she couldn't compete with Fox Books, but she found other options. Publishers asked her to write her own children's books. Some offered her a great salary to work for them as an editor. Opportunities opened up that were never possible as long as she clung to the past and memories of working in the bookstore with her mother when she was a child, memories that included growing up and becoming the new owner of The Shop Around the Corner. It was difficult saying goodbye to the past, but Kathleen Kelly embraced her new future.
Privately owned bookstores and chain bookstores still stuck with their original innovations now dusty and dated refuse to embrace the future, to look at the world from a different perspective.
We all hold fond memories of the businesses and, for me, the bookstores that were a bright part of our lives, but it is nearly impossible to give up $60 for a couple of books, no matter how beautifully hand tipped and First Edition rare, when that same $60 will buy me 6 or 10 or even 20 books just waiting to be opened, read, and explored -- and loved. In the end, it is all about numbers. More is better, especially when it comes to books, be they print or eBooks, thousands of which I can archive or put on the Kindle I take with me wherever I go. I love the convenience and format all my books in eBook form first, and I never have to worry about them being returned and buried in a landfill.
I still go to bookstores that provide a calm and quiet place to relax and read (sometimes on my Kindle), write in my journal, sip lemonade or tea, and eat a cranberry orange muffin on a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It's the best of both worlds and I look forward to the next innovation in publishing, which I hope will put the Big-5 publishers in their places and open up a world of possibilities.