2011 – No Turning Back
If the older generation of book sellers ever doubted a new era was at hand 2011 confirmed the new scheme of things was not only here, but here to stay.
The weather vane event was the demise of Borders.
As recently as January of 2010 Borders Books employed more than 19,000 workers at over 500 US stores and another 175 smaller outlets. One year later, in February 2011, the company filed for bankruptcy. By September the retail chain founded in 1971 with a single Ann Arbor location was history. From sheer brilliance to total oblivion in only 40 years; the books, the stores and the people were all gone -- gone for good.
Most observers in the financial world thought liquidation was the price Borders paid for not keeping up with tech and marketing techniques developed by e-tailers like Amazon.
Though that observation was true, many in the larger world-of-books believed Borders’ demise was the logical result of dumbing down, diluting and cheapening of what was once the gold standard for American new books. “That’s what you get,” said the wise men, “when you entrust the running of your book stores to people who only read bar codes.”
But even that opinion was wide of the mark.
In the world of big time book selling real knowledge of books and what’s in them is no longer a basic ingredient for commercial success. In fact 2011 was the year that the Amazon business model ate the lunch of not just every other book seller but every other retailer period.
This is the model based on mathematically generated formulas, ranking by merchandise by sales volume, passing the shipping costs back to the shipper (better at least than eBay which passed the shipping cost back and then took a commission on it too). Both Amazon and eBay declined to collect or pay the sales taxes in most of the 50 states, but only Amazon had the chutzpah to reinvent the sweat shop.
Their a how low can you go moment came in December when Amazon offered a discount to customers willing to use its Price Check app to browse at a brick-and-mortar store but buy the goods from Amazon’s website.
“Enough is enough,” came the resounding backlash loud and clear from smaller old school vendors. It was quite a reaction considering that the Price Check promotion lasted only one day.
2011 – No Turning Back
In a tough year for the rest of America Amazon expanded its position in both honest-to God-books and their digital cousins. It also upgraded its Kindle e-reader and lowered the price to do battle with the iPad and other entries in the e-reader-tablet format wars. Which device(s) will prevail remains to be seen but by mid-year Amazon saw the sale of e-books to Kindle owners surpassed the sale of real books for the first time.
When Amazon chief Jeff Bezos presented these figures his graph looked like a rocket launch: the line went straight up.
Amazon not only expanded its dominance in books but extended its reach as a publisher. It bragged that authors who used the Amazon software and marketing apparatus could easily format their manuscript and could expect to receive much heftier royalties from Amazon than paid by conventional publishers. If those two features were not enticing enough there was also the prospect of vast undreamed of audiences.
Early in December the Wall Street Journal wrote about Darcie Chan, an unknown author, rejected by dozens of publishers who sold 400,000 copies of her novel. She made it to the New York Times Best Seller List with her Amazon assisted e-book The Mill River Recluse priced at 99 cents. The Amazon program, launched in 2007, allows authors to upload their books directly to Amazon's Kindle store, set their own prices and publish in multiple languages. Barnes & Noble followed suit in 2010 with a similar program for its Nook e-reader.
The big players in book selling got lots of media coverage in 2011; but what was it like for the other end of the spectrum, the small well established people, all of them on-line who actually had their own books and knew something about what was in them?
Well mostly they weren’t keeping stats, especially not for publication, but some people who talked with AE thought 2011 was “a bit of a nail-biter,” “hit and miss,” “up one month, down the next,” “flat is the new normal.”
If there was any good creep it was a perceived slight upward trend to the value of the average sale. Most said that number had risen in 2011, and added in the next breath, but the expenses of doing business went up for everything from the prices of postage to the cost of gas.
“The best thing you can say about 2011 is that it’s over,” was a familiar refrain. Asked about big ticket sales one well established seller replied: “We had no five digit sales, a few four digit sales, but there were enough three digit sales to keep us alive and we’ll do it again next year.”
2011 – No Turning Back
Electronic reading grew rapidly.
A frequently heard comment was the value of buying well. Some bought solo, other bought with partners but they bought to turn and turn they did.
In fact the happiest moments for the traditionalist were the goose bumps they got when the long sought rarity finally landed in their lap at the right price. “I touched the paper and I knew it was the real thing. I can’t describe it, the hair on my arms stood straight up. I was so happy. I’d wanted it for years.”
Despite the advent of digital readers, and bottom-dollar mega marketers, top-of-the-line book collectors are still with us. Said one long time buyer: “Today’s collector may own an iPad, but he or she is still interested in books, real books. Often that taste has expanded to include photos, maps, art and all that that implies. The internet has made ephemera more accessible and also more desirable, and more and more the collectors are adding ephemera to their book collections.”
“Obviously,” one dealer said, “they’re not going to be collecting e-books, at least in their present format. In one way e-books are good. It separates out the junk. If we can get rid of the cheap and common by moving it over to the e-readers, I say ‘Hooray!’”
It also seems the old school still saves the good stuff for the favored customers and the live presentation. There were many comments on the benefits of repeat customers and also of exhibiting at shows.
“Shows have been good for us,” was a common theme. “If you can’t sell then you buy; if you can’t buy then you drink. All else fails at least you can say you had a good time.”
Reach writer Susan Halas at firstname.lastname@example.org.