A Crystal Ball for Bookselling

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 25, 2020

Back in 2009, I wrote a ShelfTalker post called “Lost in the Pixels of a Good Book” about the surprising (and concerning) appeal of being able to access the world’s libraries at the touch of a button. Back then, digital reading was on the rise in a big way, with ebook sales more than doubling each year and publishing pundits predicting the demise of “p-books,” a ridiculous term invented to differentiate physical books from their audio and digital versions. (Happily, we still call those just ‘books.’)

All those years ago, I had been more than a little surprised to discover that, while a real book would always be my favorite form of reading, I was able to lose myself in a story even while reading it on my little phone screen. (That was back in the 4S days – those screens were teeny!) I wondered how we booksellers would be able to compete in this business with more and more players angling for a slice of a literary pie that was both expanding (in terms of products offered and venues selling) and shrinking (an American population doing less and less reading).

Since then, as we’ve seen monumental shifts in the business, mostly due to a market increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer entities, those concerns remain, though they look a little different as they’ve morphed over time. Worries that ebooks would replace books have largely subsided; it turns out that the shiny allure of screens isn’t so alluring now that screens are ubiquitous and our collective eyes are tired. Ebook sales have flattened out, comprising just about 20% of book sales; that crazy flurry of energy spent on developing or resisting ebooks has mostly dissipated.

And yet, we are still trying to make sense of a changing landscape and predict the future of reading and books. In the 23 years we’ve had our bookstore, the industry has faced so many changes and challenges that it would be comical if it weren’t so critical.

Many recent articles have heralded the return of indie bookstores, and it is true that many new storefronts have opened as communities strive to replace what was lost when so many stores closed in the face of chain, and then internet, competition. Every single day at the Flying Pig, people comment on how lucky our town is to have a bookstore, and how much they miss the bookstores they used to have in their own home towns. I want to be as hopeful as these articles and reports, but I am cautious. When I read articles five years from now reporting that the new stores are still going strong, I will breathe a little easier. The reality is that bookselling is a low-margin, high-expense business, one that rarely yields economic profit.

I’ve long felt that bookstores should more rightly be considered and operate as not-for-profit entities, cultural institutions that protect free speech, provide educational and artistic opportunities, and provide enrichment for every citizen, of every age. We should be able to fundraise for events and operational costs, fundraise to provide authors to schools and offer programs to empower our readers, young and old. We would love to be able to raise more money than we already do to give books to the schools and families that most need access to them.

Back in 2009, I wrote:

…[A]s an independent bookseller, I’m concerned that, with more and more competition, a difficult economy, and less and less market to share, we are looking at a very steep mountain. Yet none of these other layers in the lasagna do quite what we do: notice and champion the treasures, both small and large; build blockbusters not by hype and hope, but by word-of-mouth; write thoughtful reviews to share with colleagues and customers; and put books directly in the hands of children and adults, teachers and librarians, saying, “You’ve got to read this!”

Eleven years later, I could write the same paragraph (though I’d lose the lasagna metaphor). The mountain is even steeper now, but what gives me heart is that, instead of dying out altogether in the face of the crevasses and (ricotta?) avalanches, bookstores are springing up and continuing on, like wildflowers in the rock face. Because people recognize that we need bookstores, almost as much as we need libraries. We need those great third places, we need new ideas and conversation and enlightenment and inspiration and escape and education. And we can find all those things available in a compact, sturdy format that never needs a charger.

I can’t know exactly what will happen to books and bookstores in the future, obviously, but if publishers pay attention, they should see that the greatest hope for the future of books is to open the halls of publishing to a truly diverse editorial and managerial leadership, to understand that the real richness of literature is so much bigger and deeper than we have so far allowed it to be. There’s a separate post to be written here, but we are still publishing even diverse books through a largely white gaze, and have a long way to go. As we truly transform publishing, the readers, the book buyers, will be there. And I have to hope and trust that the bookstores will be right there with them.

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