Ryan Raffaelli, a professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School who examines how innovations transform industries — including bookselling — is set to appear as a keynote speaker at the American Booksellers Association’s 2020 Winter Institute in Baltimore this month.
Raffaelli’s research introduces the concept of “technology reemergence,” a process whereby mature organizations and industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves. He began researching independent bookstores in 2012, and has since spoken with more than 200 booksellers and visited stores in 25 states around the U.S. At the Winter Institute, he will be sharing findings from his study with attendees.
Here, Bookselling This Week discussed technology reemergence and the bookselling industry with Raffaelli.
Bookselling This Week: What will you be talking about in your keynote speech?
Ryan Raffaelli: The talk will focus on two topics. First, I will discuss my research on how mature industries and organizations successfully respond to technological change or radical shifts in their business environment. The talk will address several factors that appear to make some industries more amenable to reinvention than others.
The second component of the talk will speak directly to the research I’ve been doing on the recent resurgence of independent bookstores. I’ll be talking about what it means for retail models to reinvent in order to compete against Amazon, big box stores, and other corporate competitors. My belief is that the independent bookselling sector provides a potential path for other industries grappling with how to maintain a community-based business. In conjunction with Winter Institute, I plan to release a white paper that will summarize many of the key findings from my study.
BTW: When and why did you begin researching indie bookstores?
RR: I started studying independent bookstores around 2012. At that point, independent bookstores had seen about two years of growth in the number of stores across the country. For me, as a business academic, this unexpected pattern was intriguing. So I started visiting bookstores and interviewing booksellers across the country. I hoped to be able to compare what was happening in bookstores to some of the other industries I have studied — like the Swiss watch industry — that had seen periods of decline and resurgence. I call this process “technology reemergence,” which is about how some industries faced with technological change beat the odds and are able reclaim sustained market growth.
BTW: Can you describe your research process?
RR: I’m trained in a method called organizational ethnography, a method that business academics often partake in when they’re attempting to go deep into an organization or industry. You can almost think of me like an anthropologist for business. I embed myself into an industry for several years and try to understand some the nuances that are hard to track as an outsider, or an analyst running a set of economic models. Often the things I uncover in my research don’t get addressed in predictive economic models.
I combine a lot of different data sources and bring them together to look for patterns. For this study I’ve interviewed and attended focus groups with more than 200 booksellers, publishers, and industry experts. I’ve physically gone to 25 U.S. states to visit different bookstores to understand what’s similar and what’s different in these locations. I’ve attended multiple industry events, including several Winter Institutes. I have also analyzed large amounts of archival data. For example, my research team and I coded every article in Publishers Weekly and several popular news outlets that mentioned independent bookselling from 1995 to 2018. Doing so allowed us to uncover trends about the most salient the things booksellers, publishers, and industry leaders have discussed over the last several decades.
BTW: You actually enrolled in a training course for prospective independent bookstore owners as part of your research process. What was that like? How did it impact your understanding of the industry?
RR: This is something I always try to do when I study an industry. I took one of the Paz & Associate courses on opening a bookstore. They were gracious enough to let me sit in, and I got to be in a room with a bunch of people who were thinking about opening bookstores. It was helpful because I could see what practices were being passed down to the next generation of booksellers. If you think about it, every single bookstore is, by definition, independent. But indie bookstores also share a lot of commonalities that allow the consumer to view the independent bookstore category as a distinct category from big box and online alternatives.
BTW: What have some of your findings been?
RR: I believe there are several lessons from the study that will have broader implications for independent retailers. One of the key findings from this research is the importance of community. In the talk, I will dig into what it means to cultivate community as a source of competitive advantage. Booksellers are experts at building community and helping their customers be part of the process.
There are also some open questions about how indie booksellers will be able to sustain their recent growth going forward. For example, we know there is quite a bit of variance in store-by-store financial performance. And there are also some difficult challenges facing the sector related to living wages, land rents, and razor-thin margins. I will discuss several of these themes in my talk and propose what booksellers might learn from other industries that have gone through similar challenges over the half-century.
BTW: Can you talk a little bit about the impact indie stores have had on your life?
RR: One of the great gifts of being a business academic is that I am able to study industries and organizations I find fascinating and care about. One of the highlights of this study was being around, and learning from, booksellers. Most booksellers have a higher calling for the work they do – it’s infectious. Bookstores continue to play a critical role in shaping the life of our communities.