4 June 08 | Chad W. Post

One of the big events at BEA was the announcement of the new IndieBound program of the American Booksellers Associaton. This will take the place of BookSense, a special marketing program that started ten years ago as a way of helping brand independent bookstores across the country.

As mentioned in the Publishers Weekly article a lot of the same BookSense features will persevere in the new program.

IndieBound will retain many of Book Sense’s most popular features, such as bestseller lists and monthly selections, although both will receive new names. The bestseller list is being rebranded as simply the “Indie Bestseller List,” while Book Sense Picks will be known as “The Indie Next List.” Teicher acknowledged that “some parts of Book Sense worked and some didn’t,” and the weakest link was the one to the consumer. “You ask 10 customers about Book Sense and nine will have never heard of it,” observed one publisher. By branding IndieBound, the ABA hopes to overcome that problem by emphasizing to consumers the value of independent businesses.

One of the points of emphasis with this program is the sort of “Read Global, Buy Local” mentality. The idea that buying from a locally-owned bookstore is better for the community than from a chain. (I totally agree with this.)

Anyway, that idea, in combination with the glum news about Borders, and a few conversations with booksellers, got me thinking about the state of independent bookselling and what might happen over the next decade.

There are a lot of people out there that know a lot more about this than I do, which is why I’d like to start running a series of interviews with booksellers about this very topic. To kick things off, I thought I’d lay out a few of my initial thoughts that came out of BEA and hopefully hit on some of the key issues that booksellers face.

For more than a decade we’ve heard about how Amazon and the chains have been forcing indies out of business, but over the next few years I have a feeling that there’s going to be a window of opportunity for booksellers to reestablish themselves. (Last year the number of independent booksellers in America grew, which I guess means that there is some empirical proof that I’m not completely out of my mind.) This is half-premised on the belief that Borders is on its way out. There are a few options for how the Borders situation can be resolved—continue muddling along by cutting costs, get bought by someone, get bought by B&N, go bankrupt—all of which will have a significant impact on the bookselling landscape.

Unless there’s a sudden windfall, one way or another, things are going to change at Borders. And based on the current economic climate and competitive strategy, these changes will be echoed, to a much lesser degree, by Barnes & Noble. There are a lot of B&N stores out there that exist solely to compete with the nearby Borders store. If Borders reduces its presence—either willingly or due to bankruptcy—I wouldn’t be surprised if B&N scales back a bit as well.

This immediately creates opportunities for local independent booksellers . . . assuming that people still want to buy books. (See endless reports and polls on the decline of reading in America.) But seriously, I don’t think the problem is the amount of people reading, but where they want to go to get their books.

When I was doing the B&N sales call (which went really, really well), I overheard a bunch of sales reps talking about how this fiscal year Amazon finally took over as their largest single customer. This is not surprising. Amazon has everything, it’s easy to use, it’s convenient, you can shop while working, right after you hear about some book during your drive home, etc. Amazon has advantages, that’s for sure.

But so do independent bookstores. There’s immediacy of purchasing (vs. waiting for what seems like forever to get your shipment), the ability to browse the physical object, intelligent readers to give recommendations, etc., etc. And since the “buy local” idea has gotten a lot of traction in our culture, there’s a viable, appealing way for booksellers to market their stores as stores. As anti-big box stores sentiments continue to grow, independent booksellers could grow as well.

Of course the advent (maybe?) of eBooks could screw up the whole system. If people don’t need physical books, they don’t need bookstores. But that’s decades down the line. (I hope?)

One big issue that jumps out at me is the next generation of booksellers. As Mitchell Kaplan casually mentioned in a conversation over the weekend, in many ways, bookselling is a young person’s business. In my experience, there are a ton of twenty- or thirty-somethings who populate indie bookstores across the country, passionately selling books because they believe in the higher ideals and can live on a very small salary. And as much as it sickens me to say it, that small salary is one of the huge problems facing bookselling.

It’s no secret that only a small percentage of people in the book business make a lot of money. Editors, mid-list authors, booksellers, translators, marketing assistants, literary agents, etc., etc., are all generally underpaid. Especially when you see what your friends are making as investment bankers or lawyers or whatever. (Sure these fields aren’t exactly interchangeable, but I’m sure you get the picture.) And frequently, as booksellers get older, start families, etc., either they get to the managerial level and earn just enough to survive, or they leave and start up a new career path.

The Emerging Leaders group was started specifically to address this situation and try and keep really talented people in the bookselling biz. Nevertheless, this is an industry based on dedication and staying motivated through frequently intangible benefits, such as great conversations with cool people, free books, time for creative thought and creation, etc.

I’m very hopeful about the Emerging Leaders program, and about the fact that people of my generation are really psyched about books, but from a cold, detached economic standpoint, there are potential “growing pains” in the near future.

Right now, what it seems like to me—as a partial outsider—is that most stores are owned/managed by people who started in bookselling in their twenties, but are now approaching spitting distance of retirement. (Not that there’s going to be a huge number of booksellers retiring over the next few years, but I get the sense that a lot of people are starting to think about what’s going to happen when they’re no longer there.) With real estate having exploded (bubbling and bursting), the crazy ass credit crunch we’re never going to get out off, and the weakening economy, I’m concerned (possibly unjustly) about what will happen when owners go to sell their stores. (They could always do what Karl Pohrt is doing and convert the store into a nonprofit literary center—something I’m definitely going to write more about in the future.)

Will there be a group of properly motivated and trained individuals ready to buy and take over these stores? People in a position to take advantage of the possible window of opportunity that may be coming over the next few years? I hope and believe so, but this seems to me to be a valid question. My generation is resourceful, but in a business that gets more expensive by the lease renewal, with ever-shrinking profit margins, I’m at least a bit concerned.

Anyway, all this is to say that I’d like to run a series of interviews with booksellers over the next few months to see what they think and to get a better sense of what the future may hold . . .

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