Bookstore Blues, Or You Better Learn Your Keywords, Friend

by | Mar 23, 2011

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

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. thankgodisurf

    Well Said Joel. Of the 300,000+ new titles published each year the average book regardless of publishing method still only manages to sell a handful of copies. The truth is that the average author doesn’t know the first thing about building a platform, marketing, social authority, database creation, branding etc… The internet has created a level playing field where anyone who takes the time to learn a few new skills has limitless potential to reach the world with their story. Great article. Keep em coming

  2. Jon

    If you’re like me, I’m so passionate about my writings that I don’t want anybody else marketing my books but me. How can I convey my passion for my project to someone else? It simply can’t be done. I also consider myself fully capable in business and marketing, so it seems obvious to market my own books. My first book is just around the corner and I’m raring to market the book to the fullest extent. Sure I’ll screw things up, but I’ll learn from it and come back bigger, stronger, and harder the very next day!

  3. Christopher Wills

    We have an interesting situation in the UK where a music company, HMV is having serious financial problems, whilst they own Waterstones, possibly the largest book retailer in the UK. Apparently, they may need to sell Waterstones, but in the current publishing climate who is going to buy a huge bookseller that has a store in many high streets? If Waterstones gets caught up in HMVs problems, stores will close and if Waterstones are sold, stores will close as a rationalisation takes place by any new owner. Either way, many large towns in the UK could be left without a bookstore in the next year or two. Things are not looking good for books.

    • Joel Friedlander

      The whole situation makes me wonder whether, as these massive bookstore chains run into financial troubles, there isn’t an opening being created at the same time for small, independent bookstores that know how to serve their communities, sell more than just books, and can thrive by providing what the big box stores never can: personal service, attentive staff and owners who actually keep up with technology. Perhaps there will be a resurgence of the small independent store. That would be interesting.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Imagine a UPS Store combined with a 7-11 and equipped with an Espresso Book Machine. Add a laundry and a dog-friendly motel with a pool and wi-fi, and I’ll move in tomorrow.

  4. Vikram Narayan

    Authors should write and do little else.

    A new group of authors emerging who are trying to master too many things (facebook, twitter, formatting ebooks, creating wordpress websites, negotiating contracts, blogging and more.)

    It’s not physically possible.
    Trying to do so many things is stressful and pushes authors towards mediocrity in their chosen craft.

    Ideally, there would be specialist companies that offer said services to authors. Problem is that many authors cannot afford to pay the charges being charged by these services.

    The next best alternative is to offer DIY technologies that help many of these activities through the push of a few keyboard buttons. Authors pay a small monthly fee for a bunch of online technologies that mimic the services offered by specialists.

    This is probably the only viable model as the publishing industry shrinks and shifts tectonically.

    • Michael N. Marcus

      ]]Ideally, there would be specialist companies that offer said services to authors . . . . many authors cannot afford . . . . [[

      Services are already widely available, and prices vary greatly.

      Independent designers, artists, photographers, editors and page formatters have been working with self-publishers for years. Joel is certainly an excellent example.

      Recently, some self-publishing companies such as AuthorHouse, Outskirts Press and Arbor Books have begun to offer a la carte services in addition to their publishing packages.

      eBook formattiing is available from specialists like and

      Marketing services are provided by If you need book publicity, Westwind Communications is ready to work with you. The list of website designers seems endless.

      Negotiating contracts is seldom necessary for self-publishers, and if a writer needs help with blogging and Facebook, he or she is probably not prepared to write books.

      There is nothing stopping a writer from doing everything from writing and illustrating to bookbinding, shipping and bill collecting. At the other extreme, someone with an idea but limited time or skills could pay for ghostwriting and everything else.

      ]]Authors should write and do little else.[[

      But some authors ENJOY doing more than just writing, and can do other tasks well.

      I would never design an important book cover myself, skip professional editing or ship books to booksellers, but I would never pay someone else — or trust someone else — to write my press releases, sell sheets or website content.

      I’m strictly an amateur page formatter, but I don’t want to give up the control I have. My paper pages are better than pages produced by some alleged professionals, but my eBooks are formatted by others.

      You said, “Trying to do so many things is stressful and pushes authors towards mediocrity.” I feel no stress, and my books are better-looking and better written because I control the page formatting. I would feel more stress depending on someone else to do this. I want to be the person who decides which words can be eliminated to kill a widow or orphan, or if a photo should move to a different page, enlarged, reduced or eliminated. I want to decide which index entries can be eliminated to get rid of a page with just two lines at the top.

      Free choice and self-reliance are fundamental attractions and benefits of self-publishing. You should do what you feel comfortable doing, but don’t try to advise or impose limits on other writers.

      Michael N. Marcus
      — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
      — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Christopher Wills

      Vikram on the one hand I agree with you, about jack of all trades, master of none. But do you think that the technology ‘we’ are trying to master is technology to younger people? Not long ago when I was a teacher I was considered a computer wizz kid by fellow teachers because I could write PowerPoint presentations. My son wrote his first PowerPoint at school when he was 9 years old.

      To the kids of today Twitter, blogging, facebook etc is not technology, it’s how they communicate. If you read Amanda Hocking’s blog you’ll quickly discover that she (27 years old I believe) doesn’t consider Twitter, facebook etc is anything special because all young people use it al the time; to her it’s as natural as picking up a pen and a piece of paper and writing a letter.

      Where I think you are heading in the right direction is; OK so we can use the ‘technology’ but how do we use it to market our books? What may come from this is marketing companies who can use the technology, but it’s the marketing they will be expert in because the technology will be a given.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Christopher, I agree about the digital generation. My son started using my Mac when he was 2 and would climb up on my lap and happily bang on the keyboard. He and his peers grew up with computers in the house that were no different than the TV or the refrigerator, marvels to earlier generations. That is the new reality.

      • Vikram Narayan


        Thanks for the link to Amanda’s site. I agree with your point that technology comes naturally to young people. But young people also seem to be struggling with a sense of overwhelm. Following is from Amanda’s recent blog post:

        “But here’s what I can say – I’m writer. I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation. As I said before in my post – Some Things That Need to be Said – I am spending so much time on things that are not writing.”

    • Joel Friedlander


      I think you are right to point out the massive number of different specialized tasks that self-publishers have to deal with. This is usually very surprising to authors who decide to self-publish. Although there are many who take to it and enjoy the process (like Michael N. Marcus, here) there are many who are simply overwhelmed.

      It’s not realistic for many authors to take this on by themselves, and that’s why the “specialist companies” you talk about are doing quite well. If you look at CreateSpace or other companies offering to help you self-publish you’ll see they offer most of these services for an additional cost.

      I’m not sure that doing book formatting and marketing is pushing people into mediocrity, but you’ve raised an important issue that confronts every self-publisher.


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