George Fox Rishel, the proprietor of The Sly Fox in Virden, Illinois, recently shared his thoughts on the future of bricks-and-mortar bookstores in a letter to ABA CEO Oren Teicher. Published here, with permission, is his letter and ABA’s response.
November 22, 2011
I run my bookstore, The Sly Fox, entirely on my own. So, I am unable to attend BookExpo or any of the regional conventions. Let me offer my musings on the bookselling profession.
A Bit of Background
The Sly Fox opened in 1998. It is a small store in a small town (pop. 3,500) with miniscule annual sales. It’s a one-man labor of love. But I will soon be 68 years old, and the store will cease to operate when I am not longer able to keep it going. In previous careers I worked as a journalist, the communications director for the American Supply Association, assistant general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, and staff attorney for the Illinois legislature. But selling books is the job I’ve loved the most.
Among the fundamental questions publishers need to give serious thought to are: Do you foresee a viable role for bricks-and-mortar bookstores? And do you see a continuing need for hardback and trade paperback books?
If a publisher is able to answer yes to these questions, then it needs to consider this one: What policies and distribution systems — and changes to current ones — are needed to maintain the economic well-being of bookstores?
These are questions that need to be raised for each individual publisher to consider. Perhaps they are already being discussed. In which case, I anticipate seeing what ensues.
Some Thoughts and Ideas
The Sly Fox has not hitched itself to the e-book craze (and in my opinion that is what it is right now), and for a variety of reasons is unlikely to do so. But it would be helpful to me, and I suspect other ABA members, to have a more detailed idea of what categories of books are being most impacted by e-books. Are big print runs of hardbacks for best-selling authors or celebrity authors taking a hit? Are some categories being more affected than others, such as romance, how-to, etc.? At the same time, are the hardbacks for mid-list mystery authors (ones with initial print runs of 20,000 or less) and some types of nonfiction, such as history, not feeling much impact from e-books? I suspect children’s books from pre-K through “tween” are not feeling much effect — as yet. I think you get the idea. More detailed information of this sort would certainly help us when we make decisions on what to order for the store. Who knows, just maybe there are portions of the book market for which bricks-and-mortar bookstores and the printed book will remain the primary and preferred distribution choice.
If publishers see a continuing need for hardbacks and trade paperbacks, they could try putting out a better product, in terms of production values — better paper and bindings, etc. I recently read an article in Publisher’s Weekly about the deteriorating quality of paper used in making books. If bricks-and-mortar bookstores are to be seen as a primary source for printed books, then we should have a quality product to offer — one that will meet the desires of those who value the printed book.
If publishers see bricks-and-mortar bookstores as serving a “showroom” function in the marketplace, then they should consider giving us at least one free copy of the “demo model” for display (and sale, too). We would probably forego printed ARCs to get a saleable hardcover or trade paperback. Some publishers already provide such books in lieu of ARCs, but they often come stickered or stamped as “review copy not for sale.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if each season several publishers selected a book or two to promote primarily, initially, or exclusively through bricks-and-mortar bookstores? It would be a great way to drive traffic to our stores, and give us a competitive edge — at least temporarily — over online, mass marketers, book fairs, e-books, etc. These promotions could take a multitude of forms, with each individual bookstore setting its own selling price. I’m sure something like this can be done without running afoul of antitrust laws or other legal requirements. And it would underpin our economic foundation.
Some communities of independent businesses have started what are being called “First Friday” or “Third Thursday,” etc. as a way to encourage consumers to shop locally at least one day each month. Perhaps, the ABA could initiate something like that nationwide for independent bookstores — monthly. If so, wouldn’t it be great if some publishers elected to time their seasonal promotion to coincide with one of these “Independent Bookstore Days”— perhaps as the launch date for a new title — available the same day in 1,500 locations across the USA?
I may be wrong, but it seems to me a number of publishers sell books direct to consumers from either their own website or a related or supported website. Without getting into all of the other issues associated with this practice, it would be helpful if in each shipment, the publisher included a sheet that said something like, “if you are interested in reading more books like this one, visit one of these nearby bookstores” and then listed bookstores within a 25 or 50 mile radius.
To Wrap Up
I’ve read numerous articles recently on the demise of Borders and the future of bookselling. Most of them have been superficial, uninformed drivel. But one article — “The End of Borders and the Future of Books” by Ben Austen of Bloomberg Business Week — included a quote from Jeff Green, president of Jeff Green Partners, that bookselling is “the only retail industry I can think of that will go full circle, back to the way it originally was. From the small-village bookstore to the big-box retailer and then back again. That doesn’t ever happen in retail.”
Let’s just assume for a moment that Mr. Green may be onto something. Back a couple of decades ago, when I was a provisional member of the ABA, I recall the ABA had programs for a suggested opening store inventory and a single title order plan — programs designed to serve the needs of bricks-and-mortar bookstores selling the printed book. Permit me to be a bit of a contrarian (something I’m told I’m good at) and suggest that perhaps the ABA has been a bit too fixated on establishing an Internet presence and the e-book fad to devote sufficient time to thinking about what programs bricks-and-mortar booksellers selling the printed book need. I don’t suggest resurrecting the old programs, but thinking anew for today and the future.
Well, I could probably go on if I thought more about this. For what it is worth, this is my two cents. I’m encouraged that your October letter shows that the ABA is actively engaged in discussions about the future of our profession.
George Fox Rishel
Proprietor, The Sly Fox
ABA CEO Oren Teicher Responds
January 5, 2012
Many thanks for your thoughtful letter. I know how busy the days in a bookstore are, and I very much appreciate that you took the time to respond to my letter to members about the need for our industry to experiment with new business models. From the sounds of your letter, a distinguished career has led you to the profession of bookselling — and, like ABA members nationwide, it sounds as if you have found a vocation that elicits both passion and pride — which is not by any measure to imply we don’t have significant challenges in front of us!
I think your letter cogently identifies two fundamental issues facing the book industry when you ask about the continuing role of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and what these stores can continue to offer shoppers in the rapidly changing world in which we live. We at ABA believe that readers and book buyers will continue to find in bookstores an unmatched venue for discovery, connection, and enjoyment — and that this will translate into sales for bricks-and-mortar stores. We have seen the inventory mix in bookstores continue to evolve — encompassing more gift and sidelines selections than a decade ago — but a bookstore’s shelves are still an essential, and unduplicated, bridge between the unique creation of the writer’s talent and a reader’s inquiring mind.
This inventory evolution includes, for some of our member stores, the selling of e-books. The sales of e-readers, tablets, and e-books underscore that the era of digital content has arrived. However, while it’s important to remember that it is still relatively early in the e-book game and we don’t have a lot of industry-wide data yet regarding trends among categories in e-book sales, from what we do know, it’s clear that, overall, growth in e-book sales continues at a very robust pace — up 131 percent as a category in 2011 over 2010.
Having said that, it’s also clear that approximately 80 percent of industry sales overall are still print books. And ABA strongly believes that print books are not going away and that bricks-and-mortar bookstores will remain a key connection between writers and readers.
Both the reports from members and the indie weekly bestseller sales numbers were very bullish during the holiday season leading up to the year’s end. I believe those results will continue to drive home to publishers that a healthy business ecosystem depends on a healthy bricks-and-mortar sales channel.
I think you and I are completely in agreement that in the coming years bookstores will not be able to reach their full potential unless publishers begin to fashion new industry business models that will help create a sustainable bookselling business for the 21st century. As I noted in my earlier letter, several publishers have individually identified new initiatives and have selected independent bookstores in which, for a limited period of time, they are testing these new ideas. I’m heartened to report that additional publishers have joined their ranks in recent weeks. As a trade association, ABA cannot negotiate terms on behalf of its members, but as these tests expand and evolve, it’s our belief that these publishers will gain the experience and information necessary to determine which of these innovations have the potential to help bookstores sell a broader range of their titles.
It’s always been our belief that the dialogue regarding how our industry can and should evolve should include the widest range of voices possible, and I will be sharing your suggestions with publishers in our ongoing discussions.
We definitely believe in the importance of local independent businesses working together for their mutual benefit, which is the spirit of the IndieBound movement. Right here in Tarrytown, New York, where ABA is located, there has been for many years a very successful “Third Friday” town-wide monthly promotion. So, we have seen firsthand the retail dividends of such cooperative efforts among indie businesses!
Despite the strong sales of recent weeks, we do recognize the many significant challenges that face indie bookstores in the coming year. But I very much agree with you that the bottom-line assessment from the Bloomberg Business Week piece “The End of Borders and the Future of Books” is on the mark. As we continue to offer consumers an intelligently curated inventory (books, e-books, and sidelines) and a welcoming, community-based destination of discovery, interaction, and fun, I believe that the future for the new generation of booksellers is full of opportunity and growth.
Again, very many thanks for sharing your insights and ideas.
Oren Teicher, CEO
American Booksellers Association