Friday, May 25, 2012

Long Live the Booksellers

This morning I went to the doctor's office—well, really the lab—to have blood work done in advance of my appointment with my rheumatologist next week. I brought a work magazine with me to read, but they called me within two minutes of my arrival and I was out in five.

So the hour I told the receptionist was wrong, since it was only a 4.5 mile drive from the office. I thought about stopping at the convenience store near the hospital, buy something, and sit in the air conditioning and read the mag. But I had lunch in the fridge at work, I didn't need the calories and carbs of the stuff they have at the con-store, so I didn't want that. I decided to stop at the Goodwill store on the way back to the office and browse the books.

As readers of this blog know, I buy way too many books, though most of them are used, either from thrift stores or yard sales. The thrift store near the office has a better book section than does the Goodwill, but I'd been to the former recently but not the latter. After fifteen minutes of browsing I had five titles picked out, paid for, and in the pick-up.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I'm pretty sure I have this at home, but the one I bought is a clean mass-market paperback from 1991, and will stay in the office should I ever get around to reading it in the next 5 years, 7 months, and 6 days.
  • The Prince and other Writings by Niccolo Machiavelli. This is another classic I've never read. I might have a copy at home, but I can't remember. The one I bought is from the Barnes & Noble Classics collection.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. I haven't heard of this one before. It looks like an excellent non-fiction read. Also a Barnes & Noble classic.
  • A New Look at the Sacraments by William J. Bausch. I believe this is a modern (1977) Catholic view of their sacraments. What am I doing buying a Catholic book, you wonder? I believe it can help me flesh out my Bible study "Sacred Moments", which I'm hoping to self-publish at some point in time.
  • Mr. Maugham Himself: A collection of Writings by W. Somerset Maugham. I bought this without even checking the table of contents. It's a 688 page hardback, Book Club edition, and contains items of Maugham's that I haven't yet read.
All this for an even $6.00.

Traditional publishing is dead, or dying. So say the army of self-publishers, though many of them would die for a contract with a traditional publisher. No so fast, say the somewhat smaller army in the traditional publishing camp. The curation done by publishers and agents is invaluable. The distribution systems in place favor the traditional publisher. And most of the publishers are profitable. No, traditional publishing isn't going anywhere.

Caught in the middle is the bookseller. Borders is gone—liquidated in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Barnes & Noble is hanging on, though industry insiders say that's because of the Nook. The smaller chains were mostly swallowed up long ago. The mom and pop, sole proprietor books store have been disappearing due to Borders and Barnes & Noble.

I wonder, though, if the independent bookseller isn't poised for a comeback. They won't be able to do it the same way the did before. The public still wants books. Even those who own an e-reader will sometimes want a book in paper format. Some people won't ever own an e-reader. These will be around for a long, long time. So books in paper format will continue to have a demand, maybe a good sized demand.

The small bookseller who learns to adapt to this can make money. The mom and pop store can come back, but may have to be a mixture of used and new books. It may have to be a niche store. It may have to have an on-line presence, and may make as much money in a booksellers co-op as it does with walk-ins.

Back in the late 1990s I was an on-line bookseller. After we brought to our house the 2,200 books that were in Dad's house when he died, added them to the 500 or so we had brought back from my father-in-law's house when he died, and to the 1,200 or so that we had, and I decided to sell them. I established a business, The Sexton Collection, and joined the Advanced Booksellers Exchange network. For $30 a month we got the inventory software, a website, and the benefits of the ABE system. I waited until we had about 300 books inventoried and listed, then I took the site live. Most months we made a little money. When they raised the monthly fee to $35, once I hit three consecutive months where we lost money, I folded the business.

The problem was, we didn't reduce our inventory. We quickly found we needed more inventory to have enough selection for people to buy from. So we scoured the thrift stores, the garage sales, and any place we could, looking for over-looked first editions, older books, anything we thought would sell. I imagine at the end of our two years of book selling we had 100 to 200 more books in inventory than when we started. [Aside: My best buy was a book listing the service men from Philadelphia who served during World War 1. I bought that for 50 cents on a Saturday, listed it for $22 the same day, and sold it on Monday for that price plus shipping and handling.] With all the used book purchasing we do, I don't even want to think of our current inventory, even after we donated well over 100 books to the church library.

I think the bookseller will always be with us. I hope so. The friends of library type bookstores are great. The used bookstore down on Dixon Street in Fayetteville is great—if it's still there; I haven't been down there for a few years. People will want books, and books will be published. The bookseller is the broker/inventory holder/retailer who helps an author, a publisher, and a reader to all achieve their aims.

Long live the bookseller!


Joe Pote said...

Nice post, David!

I agree...Long live the bookseller!

David A. Todd said...

Thanks for the comment, Joe.