Friday, September 19, 2008

Doom and Gloom, Gloom and Doom!

And it's time for my semi-annual "the economy sucks" post!

First, go read what Lori has to say. Go, I'm watching. It's smart advice. She's been in this business longer than I have.

Second, I'm going to babble some. I'll preface this by saying that I don't know much about macroeconomics, other than a basic understanding of them. I was never meant to be an economist, so any predictions I make are not highly-informed. They're just guesses and extrapolations. But these are some of the things that might happen, if the economy doesn't pick up. They're not in any particular order.

  1. Borders goes under. They've been victims of bad marketing and sales practices for quite awhile, and their current sales figures aren't looking particularly rosy. I'd be surprised if they manage to outlast this one, particularly because if past economic events are any indicator, we're probably in for a pretty stagnant 2-5 years here.
  2. Here we have a branching pathway: We can either assume that Borders AND Barnes & Noble go under, or that Barnes & Noble stays solvent. We know right now that bookstore sales are down overall.
  3. If B&N stays solvent, then let's assume that they get the traffic from Borders and they get economically stronger from Borders collapsing.
  4. If B&N goes under too, then we have a problem. Chain bookstores have come to dominate in the United States, and at least in my area of NJ, there are no independent bookstores left. If we lose Borders and B&N, I have nowhere I can go to buy books in person.
  5. Where does that leave me then?
  6. Assuming that I'm a typical consumer, I'm going to buy books online. Buy enough in bulk, and Amazon makes out well, and you save on delivery charges. You're also saving gas by not driving to the (now-non-existent) bookstores. You're losing out on selection and browsing and all the good things that come from bookstores though.
  7. Ok, Amazon is now the place to go to for books in the US. There are no chain bookstores left. The economy is still stagnant (or has gotten worse), which means that anyone who would want to open an independent bookstore isn't going to risk the capital on it.
  8. Now the publishers don't have to market to anyone but Amazon and the few remaining indies. Now they have to direct most of their marketing to Amazon. Now they have to get more web-savvy and start marketing things to niche groups (large or small ones) who are going to be bothered to get online to get the books they want to read.
  9. All of the marketing shift can radically change editors' buying orders from the people who hold the purse strings at publishing houses.
And the true question that's the end of all this speculation is this:

If we are left with all the events above, then what does this mean for the publishing industry as a whole, and for the writers who produce the commodities that it sells?

Please weigh in and discuss! I'm interested in getting some more opinions on this, because mine is just that--an opinion. =)


Anonymous said...

I don't think Barnes and Noble could go under. I can't even begin to imagine how the process of buying books would be if that happened. Buying books in the store is like flipping through the channels on a television- you can browse what's there and pick up whatever looks interesting even if you've never heard of it before. Buying books online is more directed, like watching a TV show on Hulu or you go there with a specific title in mind and you pick it up.

There have been many, many books I have purchased simply because I sat down with a stack of several unknown books in a Barnes and Noble and read the first 30 or so pages of each book. I'm not sure I'd be willing to do that on Amazon.

Pema said...

According to's US History Companion: Publishing article: "The Great Depression forced many firms to experiment with covers, cheap popular novels, and ultimately paperback editions, the prototype being Robert de Graff's Pocket Books (1939)."

As for what will happen this time around? I'm no expert (not by a long shot) but, I suspect that many of the experiments in publishing online will continue, and some will flourish. Some publishers will figure out how to ride the storm, and others will go under. If one or both of the behemoth book stores close, then in addition to Amazon, there will be room for independents to come back, at least until one (or more) is big enough to become the next behemoth book store.

Zara Penney said...

Could be just the giants sorting out the market. Adjustments being made. epublishing intruding on market share. Remember videos were going to break the back of big cinema. Now that's reversed. It's probably more "brave new world" with a-b-c-d-e...pods

For writers it's going to mean less shelf space. Possibly a harder start up for new writers, though I am a great believer in good writer=eventual success.

Also concept of remaindering will change.

I wonder if this down turn in economy will quicken the pacefor the epublishers with cheaper access to reading matter and spawn a revolution that may not have happened given better economic times.

I also must footnote this with I hate economists. IF there's one thing I've learned over the years whatever they predict, don't believe it. They're in the same business as a writer and publisher. Producing fiction.

Just_Me said...

I think we'll see e-books becoming a common form. Books will be published in paperback and E, or hardcover, paperback, and E. First chapters will be available for browsing.

Maybe we'll see greater diversification of fiction since it's cheaper for a publisher to offer e-books than a paper book.

Maybe we'll see the return of indie book stores in small areas or larger libraries.

CNU said...

I believe that online books will become much more visible if this happens. However, I doubt that all traditional bookstores will go under. If the larger bookstore 'giants' go the way of America's credibility in the world (zing), then 'Indy' bookstores will expand. A great example is Tattered Cover of Denver, CO. Excellent selection and a warrior of the first Amendment to the point of being sued over handing the Fed's a clients bookstore purchases.

Viva la "Indy".


PS- The economy will bounce back, however we will not recognize our financial institutions, which we all are now the major 'shareholders' of.

Good question though.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Like several others are saying, I doubt that all traditional bookstores will go under. Borders I could unfortunately see happening, but I think their business would go to B&N for the most part. Though book sales are down right now, too many people like browsing a physical store for them to entirely disappear, and eventually the economy will recover and book sales will go back up.

I do think e-publishing and e-stores will continue to become more prevalent, though. And if more people shop online only, it will become harder for books that don't get major marketing to be noticed. There will be fewer bestsellers, although they may be bigger (in terms of number sold). People don't go online to browse for something they might like; they have something specific in mind, and rarely pick up something else (unless something catches their eye in the "People who bought this were also interested in..." section).

Suzanne said...

What about Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam's Club which have become sources of best sellers and limited back list books at cut rate prices.

As much as I enjoy browsing, amazon and my local library have become my primary sources of books. And if e-books (and devices that feel reader friendly) become more mainstream then it feels like we'll be getting all of our books online.

I wish I could imagine a different scenario, in my younger days I had a dream of owning my own little bookstore. Nowadays, that seems like a folly.

JS Bangs said...

Really, I can only see it as a good thing if Amazon becomes the primary source of bookbuying. Amazon has a basically infinite room to stock titles, and carries many more titles than B&N does. It is far easier for indie publishers to get on Amazon than to get into B&N, and Amazon's recommendation system is very good for driving people down the long tail to lesser-known books--far better than anything that B&N has. What's not to like?

Andrew Wheeler said...

There was a time when the major bookseller in most towns was the local department store -- not all that long ago, either; this was the mid-'70s -- and that could easily happen again with Wal*Mart and Target. (Plus the clubs, of course.) That means a greater focus on fewer books, since those outlets have much less shelf space for books than an all-books store.

Of course, B&N isn't going out of business any time soon; the economic downturn that would send them out into the streets would bankrupt three or four of the major New York publishers first. You'll see Penguin broken up and sold for parts before you see B&N bankrupt.

Also, Borders is exceptionally unlikely to just disappear -- someone is going to end up with their leases and inventory, even if they are forced into bankruptcy. It might not be called Borders, and it will certainly close a lot of locations, but it will be a chain of bookstores. (And Borders would be much more financially stable right now if they were only a bookstore to begin with -- they rode the wave of CDs and DVDs up, and got smashed when that wave disappeared suddenly. It's not the book business that's hurting them.)

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Books-a-Million. It's growing rapidly, and is well-managed, fiscally solvent, and PROFITABLE. If Borders goes under (and they probably will, since they were mismanaged even in good economic times), I see most of their market share going to Books-a-Million, not B&N.

Another chain that is doing very well is Half Price Books. But HPB makes its dough selling remainders and used books, which authors get no income from.

I too get most of my books from Amazon and the library. I seldom browse bookstores anymore---having a toddler makes that hard to do. But I do miss doing it. I also buy books at Target, Wal-Mart, and even the grocery store.

And yes, ebooks are going to EXPLODE.

Writer in Transition said...

I almost never post on the web. However, as a writer making the transition (I hope) from short fiction/novella sales and non-fiction books, to novels, this topic popped up and grabbed my (self-interested) attention.

I believe PoD will synergize significantly with e-books, and that the more the physical retail outlets contract, the more expansive this probable trend. Logic: people still want books they can touch, feel, see on their bookshelves, take with them without fear of battery death, and read in the ---er, woodshed. But that will be far more expensive than e-books. However, e-books will probably offer the sample chapter(s), and that may have two effects (that may fuse, ultimately).

Effect One: the predictable (and intended) increase in the reader's impulse to buy the book. But not always; it's also going to facilitate a high degree of individualized selectivity. "Yeah, the topic sounded right for me, but that author's excessively perky/droll/labored/bombastic/you-name-it style turned me right off." No sale.

Effect Two: if there is a PoD option, and the topic and style REALLY grab the reader, they may leapfrog the ebook purchase, and go straight to PoD b/c they want this tome on their shelves. They want to touch it and feel it and OWN it in a way that a file in a reader just doesn't satisfy.

FUSION EFFECT: I like the ebook so much that I decide, "You know, I want to have that on my shelf." And so I buy it that way, after having purchased the ebook.

I'm an SF author and I can tell you, talking to the folks at the magazines, I can't even imagine how they're going to survive if they don't adopt some version of this. OTOH, this ain't the field of dreams. If you build it, the readers might NOT come--if they don't know about it. Marketing is all important, and the first folks who try this kind of "blended marketing approach" are going to need to have deep enough pockets, or make a big enough splash, to overcome the "didn't-know-about-it" factor.

All of which would normally lead me into my views on how authors are really going to have to learn to promote themselves on the web--podcasts, site guest appearances, active content and regular new content on their own sites, and etc. etc. etc.--but I'll spare us all that.

Thanks for such a great thread and the chance to participate.
---An SF Writer in Transition