Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Books don't sell any more (and other self-fulfilling prophecies)
Okay, I confess this is going to be a bit of a rant, and a bit of an unfocused one too. Because it's about a number of things, and it's all about the selling of books, especially fiction books, a subject near-and-dear to my heart.
What it's about is declining book sales, and at least a small part of why that's happening. It's also about the kind of one-size-fits-all, top-down, number-driven retail management that is driving many of this country's retail giants (book-chains included, though they aren't directly the subject here) into ruin.
It's also about the local chain grocery store where I do much of my shopping. (Safeway. Let's name names here, so credit can go where credit is due. Safeway. Safeway. Safeway. F***ing Safeway!) And it's the sad tale of my little beach town where you can buy kites and surf-boards in at least half-a-dozen places each, but where getting a new book written by one of our many local authors (including Chris and I) is all but impossible.
Let's go back to the beginning.
I live in a beach town on the Oregon coast, one of the busiest and most tourist driven. Every summer weekend we're crowded with weekenders and tourists jamming hotel rooms, rental properties, condos, and second homes. Many more are day trippers, driving over from the Willamette Valley for a bowl of chowder, some salt-water taffy, and a stroll on the beach before they head home.
On a sunny summer weekend the roads are jammed and "NO VACANCY" signs are everywhere. The locals, those that aren't out servicing the visiting throngs in one way or another, are mostly cocooned at home, knowing better to challenge the roads, and having had the foresight to do our shopping, eat our meals-out, and see our movies earlier in the week then things were relatively uncrowded.
Unlike southern beach towns, we have a much more laid-back style of tourism here. Except for a small but growing contingent of extreme surfers and wave-boarders, the ocean is too cold, rough and dangerous for much in the way of swimming. There are no amusement parks, major tourist attractions (other than the beach itself) and not a lot of night-life, even in the summer. There's some boating on the local lake, but for most people it's not about watercraft either. People come to eat, shop, comb the beach, and mostly to kick back in their weekend castle, put the feet up, and enjoy the sights and smells of the seaside.
They come to relax, and for a lot of people (a LOT of people, screw you Steve Jobs) that still means kicking back with a good, entertaining, book.
That is, if they can get one. It's a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
Actually, there are still plenty of books here. We've got several bookstores, some excellent, that primarily sell used books. There's also a book liquidator store in the local outlet shopping center that deals in remaindered book. But as for new books, the kind that actually keep the book industry (and authors like us) in business, the water holes are drying up and the vultures are gathering.
When I moved here ten years ago (has it really been that long?) we had an excellent little independent bookstore in this town. It was good enough that, even when I was driving over from much larger Eugene, Oregon, which had many bookstores, independent, chain, and big-box, of its own, it was still worth dropping in. The store was run like a bit-city newsstand or a good airport bookstore. Not a lot of floorspace, but tons of magazines, tons of paperbacks, lots of turn-over so there was ALWAYS something new every week. Yes, there were more serious books, more hardcovers, a nice section for local authors, lots of hand-selling, but the owners knew the economic engine that made all that other stuff possible. Churn the stock, make the tourists and casual readers happy.
Ironically, this store was located right next to the grocery story that is the subject of this post, one door down in the little strip-mall they both occupied. The storefront stands empty now, and has for most of a year. The sad tale of its demise is a story in itself, and I've already written it. You can find it here.
Anyway, that left us locals primarily defendant on the local Safeway, Amazon.com, out-of-town travel (60 miles to the nearest chain-bookstore) and the limited new selection carried in a couple of new/antiquarian bookstores in town, as our sources for our new books.
Actually, that wasn't so terrible at first. At that time, Safeway had a pretty good book section, most of one side of an aisle and a wrap-around end-cap devoted to books and magazines, plus a couple of spinner racks where hardcovers, trades, best-sellers and kids books were sometimes displayed. Sadly, that didn't last long.
We should have seen it coming. It began with the three most dreaded words that any customer of a corporate entity can possibly hear, "to serve you better..." Nothing that begins with "to serve you better" ever ends well. Our store was to be remodeled over the winter.
But like sheep, we suspected nothing. Despite the mess, the confusion, the reduced hours, the noise, and the dust, we were looking forward to our shiny new store, and the imagined new amenities that it might being when it was all done.
It was a chaotic time. Everything in the store kept moving. Stocks and selections on everything were cut back to make room for the construction, and so it was no shock at all the that book and magazine section was moved and rearranged and reduced. Surely this was a temporary thing. Surely the section would return as good or better than before?
Surely -- not.
New fixtures came in, including a smaller magazine racks, and just enough book pockets to hold a rang of best-sellers and not much else. The fancy fixtures just ended part-way-down the isle, leaving an incomplete and shoddy-looking joint that certainly would connect to more book pockets once the dust started to settle.
That didn't happen. The remodel wound down, and as the local writers gathered for lunch, we would talk in hushed and nervous voices about what had happened. This can't be the new status quo, can it?
Eventually we started talking to the employees and the managers. No, they didn't like it either. No, there was nothing they could do about it. Corporate decided all these things. It quickly became clear that the people calling the shots had probably never been to our store, much less on a busy summer weekend which are its biggest business days. They had no clue about local needs or how it differed from other stores of similar size and sales volume. It was just another interchangable cog in a retail machine.
So this was the new status quo. The magazine section was maybe 2/3s the size it once had been, and was much more thinly stocked. The book section had suffered even more. I'd guess we have maybe a quarter the pockets we once had, most of them devoted to best-sellers, the rest to second-tier "big" books. There are no genre sections, no science fiction, no western, no cozy mystery or category romance.
Pushing out the books is a huge greeting card section. One entire side of the aisle and half of the side the the books are on is taken up with greeting cards. You can imagine the bean-counter-think on this. Most greeting cards are a piece of folded cardboard and a three-cent-wholesale envelope that you can sell for $3-5. Short of gift-cards that never get cashed, there can't be many higher-profit items in a grocery store, and the grocery business runs on notoriously tight margins. Books and magazines don't sell the way they used to (ask anyone, or check the numbers comparing stores of similar overall sales volume through the entire chain), they take up lots of space, and they don't have high margins.
You can see the logic. Dump the dead-tree-media for some dead-tree greeting cards, get kudos from your boss (who will be gone in six months anyway) and get ready to climb the corporate ladder to something really important, like breakfast cereals or female hygiene products...
Now, you can argue that this is the price we pay for living in a small town, that this simply reflects the decline of the book industry and the magazine business. But we aren't just any small town. We're a beach town. This isn't a generic Safeway store of a certain sales volume in a typical location.
It's in a beach town! Most of that volume comes from tourists! And surprise, surprise, people mostly don't come to the beach to buy get-well and Christmas cards. They come to the beach to kick back with a good book.
Don't believe me? Go back and take a look at the photos taken earlier this evening at my local Safeway (and I apologize for the poor quality of these things, taken with my cell phone) at the beginning of the article. For good measure, here's one of the small hardcover section. Take a good look. I'll still be here...
No, this isn't the result of some fire-sale, or the death of the local news-vendor. It's just a typical mid-week during the summer after the locusts have descended.
What's really interesting, as many books as obviously sold here, are all the books that didn't sell. Every empty pocket represents lost sales, just in the best-seller area. And trust me, when people go to the beach, they love those NYT best-selling thrillers and potboilers, yes, but they also crave literary comfort-food: the genres. They love their category romances, cozy mysteries, their westerns, their space-operas, and you pretty much won't find those at Safeway any more. More lost sales.
This isn't just Safeway, and it isn't just grocery stores. Across the industry, books aren't selling because books aren't being sold. They aren't easily available, and they aren't where people can find them! You won't find books in convenience stores any more, or in many drug stores, and book sections are being cut back or eliminated in many big-box department stores. Paperback books are fast-food for the mind, but you won't see them sold that way. Not any more. And certainly not at Safeway.
And what about those cards? Well, I've been keeping an eye on the card aisle since the remodel, and fact is, I rarely see anybody there. Locals buy cards, and there just aren't that many of us. The tourists seem to avoid them.
The good part about this is that, with fewer books and magazines to browse (and when somebody does linger there, it is almost always for the books and magazines) and nobody interested in cards, the aisle is like a superhighway between the back and front of the store. If you want to get back to the pharmacy or to grab a quick gallon of milk, this is what the locals now use as a short-cut. Unlike the rest of the store, you aren't likely to get blocked by shopping carts or gawking tourists. It's a wasteland, a straight desert road where you can really open it up and let it rip.
Look, assuming some bean-counter or merchandising V.P. ever looks at this, I know what they're thinking: it doesn't matter if you sell more books or magazines because the margins are small. If there's no profit, you can't make it up in volume.
But consider this. Just like milk and bread and soda-pop, the reading section was a destination. Regular visitors knew that if they needed a quick read, they could drop in and find a reasonable selection to browse. But nobody walks into a beach-town grocery store just to buy books, of if they do, that isn't how it goes down.
No, they buy a good book, and then to go with it, they need some salty snack, maybe some cookies or baked goods, maybe some soda pop or a nice bottle of wine. Maybe while they're at it, they'll look for something for a nice dinner in, something pre-prepared, quick, and low effort. The store may not make much off the books and magazines themselves, but they'll make plenty off all the high-profit items necessary to complete the relaxation experience.
And the real irony is, my gut feeling is that a smaller card section would still sell about the same number of cards. We locals don't have a lot of other options in town, and an occasion or holiday is an occasion or holiday. So a smaller card section would make just as much money, and a larger book section would make more. And, because more books and magazines would encourage more browsers, some of them (or the people waiting to get around them) might look over at the card section and think, "I should send a card to cheer up Aunt Penny in the hospital." So they might actually sell more cards.
That's my theory. Prove me wrong.
Please, give it a try.
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