Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 9)

This is the ninth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.

Stage Four: What Happens Next?

Although it seems that everything is doomed (remember what I said about publishing folks?), I believe that amid all this chaos, potential or otherwise, there are reasons to believe that independent publishers, booksellers, and works in translation all could thrive.

Assuming Borders doesn’t make it, or at least a significant shrinkage in chain stores, an opportunity will open up for independent bookstores to make a comeback. For years these stores have been battered out of business due to the volume discounts, enormous floor space, and nationwide branding efforts of the major chains. But at this time, when, thanks in part to the greed that destroyed the financial sector, people are focusing more on “buying local,” independent bookstores can fight back. There have been a number of studies on the economic impact of buying books from a local store, including one conducted last year in San Francisco that found that a 10% increase in book sales in the local market would result in increased economic input of $3.8 million, 25 additional jobs, and $325,000 in additional retail activity. These arguments should appeal to a larger segment of customers than usual during this current/forthcoming recession. In the wake of a Borders collapse there would be a lot of underserved book communities where a niche store could step in and succeed.

One reason indie stores could make it in this sort of climate is the modest nature of their business model. Rather than try and be everything to everyone, stores with specific identities that are integrated into the local community—like St. Mark’s, City Lights, McNally Jackson, Shaman Drum—tend to succeed by cultivating and serving a specific group of loyal customers. Additionally, a number of stores are playing around with the idea of becoming nonprofits. Shaman Drum is transforming into the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center and expanding its community activities and offerings. The indie store as literary center is the antithesis of the box store, and exactly what we need in our world today.

In terms of niche marketing, Amazon UK recently announced a “Literature in Translation” store highlighting works of international authors and presses that publish a lot of translations. This isn’t dissimilar from the annual Reading the World program in which independent bookstores display a host of translated titles in order to draw the attention of readers to the wealth of great books that are available from writers born outside of our borders. This sort of niche marketing—or not even marketing, just providing information about a particular type of book—is highly effective and can make a big difference sales.

It might seems self-serving (or self-delusional), but I think that independents on the whole—nonprofits publishers especially—are in a better position to weather this storm than anyone else. I’ve long believed that the role indies play in book culture would continue to grow in the future, mainly because these presses are branded, they have a particular mission and vision, and their expectations are modest enough to allow for them to publish “real” literature instead of books that seem profitable.

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