Bookselling - It's a Business: Year and Decade in Review
What are Books Now?
In the new scheme of things books are no longer viewed as the primary means for communicating content. Books are still seen as culturally important but more as collectible physical objects. The perceived value of books in the new era is beefed up where feasible with autographed copies, or special, illustrated or limited editions which can help insure future value and scarcity. The emphasis on the object strengthens some aspects of bookselling even as it weakens others.
In short, the decade saw both a growth and consolidation of the market for used, rare and out-of-print books. It began with a heady sense of growth - "I can get rich quick doing this" - and quickly encountered the growing industrialization. Cataloging and description became nothing more than scanning the ISBN on an assembly line in warehouses filled with cheap books and low paid workers.
Optimists and the Future
Independent booksellers reacted to these threats by emphasizing their unique abilities and knowledge. At the same time they adopted many of the computer driven advances to increase their own efficiency. Even some of the sellers who looked down on the use of scanners were seen checking out prices and availability on their iPhones.
One bookseller who reported a dramatic increase in sales (with December 2009 alone almost double December 2008) was using "Fulfillment by Amazon" (FBA) extensively, which enabled this solo bookseller to sell and ship many more books than she would have been able to ship otherwise. FBA is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, there are benefits to customers, including free shipping, and it relieves booksellers of the mundane packing and shipping of books, but on the other hand, it isolates sellers almost completely from their customers. Even this seller who has grasped its potential in terms of increased sales is using it primarily as a supplement to her core specialty bookselling business.
The factor that separates optimistic booksellers from pessimistic ones was not the business model or the volume of sales. Instead the split appeared to be between the people who came into bookselling in the traditional way and learned the trade when actual bookstores were the norm and those who cut their teeth in the internet age. The first group tended to be pessimistic, while those who grew up on-line and were more at ease with the evolving technology seemed a more upbeat group.
No matter how dealers began, there was unanimity that independent real bookstores as a physical entity doing a retail business have mostly vanished as are the jobs, training, ambience and revenues they generated. Sea Ocean Books in Seattle commented that, after more than thirteen years as an open shop, they are once again the newest bookstore in the city. While several stores opened in the years after them, none have survived.
Though the number of closings seemed to slow, it was because so many stores were already gone. Still there are a few sellers, like Paul and Tonja Shelley of Books of Paradise in Paradise, California who have gone full-cycle from open store to internet only and back to a large and well-stocked open store with online sales being an important part of their business.
In the place of these real stores, virtual bookstores now try to recreate a similar personality and ambiance on-line. Many better dealers hope to stand out from the crowd by employing an array of tech innovations including blogs, Skype, Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, pay for clicks via Google ad placement, tie-ins and special deals with larger marketers.
The people with the best numbers consistently mentioned a desire to become their customers' bookseller of choice by keeping in touch using many forms of social media, keeping up face-to-face personal contact, by exhibiting their wares at large shows in major metro areas, with offers that drive traffic directly to their own sites, or simply by knowing more and adding more value to their wares with their specialized knowledge.
Despite their differences, bookselling is still proclaimed a worthwhile and extremely long running profession. While it may be changing, the optimists feel it is not in danger of extinction any time soon. "Survival is success," commented one dealer. Many booksellers share his view: If they ate today, have more books than they had last week, and have a dry place to store them, then life is good.
Susan Netzorg Halas, owner of Prints Pacific, Ltd. in Maui Hawaii, is an antiquarian dealer celebrating her 30th year in the trade. She is a native of Detroit, where her family ran The Cellar Book Shop (ABAA) for over fifty years.
Chris Volk has been a bookseller since 1993; she and her partner Shep Iiams run Bookfever.com in Northern California. Currently she is Vice President of IOBA. She also served on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar and has been active in the on-line bookselling community for many years.