Bookstore Blues, Or You Better Learn Your Keywords, Friend

POSTED ON Mar 23, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Marketing, Self-Publishing > Bookstore Blues, Or You Better Learn Your Keywords, Friend

I’ve been getting them in my email inbox for weeks. As a book designer, you can’t ignore them. The notices from Borders of store closing sales:

Store Closing Sale!
This Location Only!
Huge Savings!

Of course, we kept hoping the store in San Rafael we’ve been patronizing for years would escape the axe. But no. Last week we started hearing rumors that the staff had been told to look for other jobs.

Soon a big “For Lease” sign appeared outside, and it didn’t look like it was meant for Toys ‘R Us or Barbeques Galore, the mini-strip neighbors of the big Borders store.

I don’t know about the company’s managment or their strategic decisions. It’s always seemed like an abstract exercise to imagine how companies that big are actually run.

When I worked in corporate America I was always impressed with how much energy and ambition went into things that had nothing to do with the work of the company: making an impression, trying to get a better office, attending meetings, meetings, meetings.

While I was getting nostalgic about our big box book retailer, I started to remember when Borders first came to town. Back then it was the enemy. It was a huge and ruthless discounter.

There was a time when San Rafael had five bookstores downtown. Some were new books, some used. One catered to a more literary crowd. Now we have none, and that’s partly due to Borders.

Now Borders is the one on the skids, but it doesn’t feel like an enjoyable payback. Sure, people can drive ten minutes down the freeway and go to the even newer, probably larger Barnes & Noble, a store whose organization continues to mystify me.

Hey, Wait a Minute.

I was thinking about the wisdom of Borders doubling the size of their store to put in a huge music department just when the music industry was going down the tubes. And about the publishers (and their authors) who are owed some $230,000,000 by the bankrupt chain. What were they thinking?

But some of the news from Indie bookstores wasn’t much better.

I had been down to Book Passage, the outstanding independent bookstore a stone’s throw from the new Barnes & Noble, a couple of weeks ago. One of the staff there was telling me breathlessly that they were now selling ebooks, through an arrangement with the Google eBookstore. He seemed to feel this, and this alone, would vault the bookstore into the forefront of electronic publishing.

Just the idea that someone would get in their car and drive to a bookstore to buy an ebook seemed so perverse that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was never going to work. Indie bookstores will not be saved by selling Google’s ebooks.

But there are bookstores doing well, because most of the book-buying population continues to buy bound sheaves of paper wrapped in covers. Some indie bookstores, like Book Passage, have made themselves into community gathering points, coffee shops, gift shops and places kids can sit a play for a while.

It seems inevitable that inventories in bookstores will continue to shrink. Is their future an Espresso Book Machine in each bookstore? At least that would put indie bookstores on a more equal footing with online retailers. But what is a bookstore then? A cash register and a machine. Not too appealing, is it?

An Electronic Wave

The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. The rise of ecommerce made Amazon possible, and many indie bookstore owners blame Amazon directly and indirectly for the demise of hundreds of bookstores. But it has changed the business in other ways:

  • It has turned us into publishers. We own ISBNs, download distribution contracts, negotiate special sales, and do many of the chores of a big publishing house.
  • It has made us all into retailers. Many authors now vend their books from their websites and blogs.
  • The internet has also made us into marketers. Each author now takes on the responsiblity for building their author platform.
  • We’ve become our own publicists, writing and uploading press releases, booking blog tours, meeting influencers.
  • We’re also typesetters, contractors hiring free lance help, and book producers, dealing directly with book printers.

The message I take from this, and that you should be listening to, is that we have to become adept at the online world of commerce. We’ve been saying for a long time that bookstores are a terrible place to sell niche, independently published books. The corollary to that is that the internet is the best place to sell those books. And, of course, the ebook is the perfect form for our books to take on the internet.

We need to be learning the skills we’ll need to meet that challenge. Even before the internet, in self-publishing we never had the luxury of depending on a publisher to take care of all these tasks for us. That’s why today’s indie publishers are the people best suited to take advantage of this tectonic shift in the world of bookselling.

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Mark Hillary

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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