Big Chain Bookstore Deathwatch

If you’re still focusing significant efforts on raising your visibility in Borders or Barnes & Noble, or if the difficulty of getting your self-published book into these chains is a major reason for your refusal to self-publish in the first place, the results of a Random House/Zogby Poll released May 29 will be a real eye-opener.

When asked to name the one type of retailer from which they most frequently bought books in the past year, 43% of respondents said online, 32% named chain bookstores, and 9% specified small, independent bookstores. A specific breakdown isn’t provided for the remaining 16%, but that 16% definitely aren’t buying most of their books in chain bookstores.

Some quick math on these numbers shows that 68% of respondents buy the majority of their books from outlets other than chain booksellers. Conversely, only 32% of respondents buy the majority of their books in chain bookstores.

In the same poll, respondents were asked to name all the places they’d bought books in the past year. Outlets most often named were online retailers (77%), chain bookstores (76%) and independent bookstores (49%). In other words, respondents were just as likely to buy online as in chain bookstores, and nearly half are also buying from independent booksellers—retailers generally more receptive to carrying indie books.

Drug stores, supermarkets, warehouse clubs, big box stores and airports were also named, in percentages ranging from 16-39%, but retailers such as these usually only carry current bestsellers, discounted/remaindered titles, and gift books, so they’re not typically receptive to carrying self-published works.

Parse these figures any way you like, but the truth is unavoidable: chain bookstores no longer dominate the bookselling landscape, and in fact are losing ground all the time. None of this should be surprising, and in fact it’s just a case of retail history repeating.

Do you remember precisely when you stopped going to chain music stores like Musicland, Licorice Pizza and Tower Records, and why? For me, a music fan with eclectic tastes, most often looking for artists not represented on Billboard’s charts, the birth of online retailer CDNow (later absorbed by Amazon) was the beginning of the end. No brick-and-mortar store could hope to match CDNow’s selection or prices, and if I wanted something really obscure, I knew I’d sooner find it at an indie/used record store than a chain store.

For people seeking chart-toppers, the widening selection of music available at discount stores, big box stores and warehouse clubs like Target, Best Buy and CostCo sounded the music chains’ first death knell. Department and discount stores couldn’t match the selection of a dedicated record store, but it didn’t matter because their customers were only interested in the most popular current albums, greatest-hits collections and compilations of past hits. Not only could these retailers easily offer a good selection of these low-risk offerings, they could price their titles lower than those in dedicated record stores.

Record stores responded by diversifying their product mix with the introduction of videogames, VHS movies and eventually, DVDs, but it was a hopeless strategy built on an already failing business model. There were simply too many other places to get these same items more conveniently, at a lower cost, and in the case of online retailers, with a wider selection. By the time digital downloading became a mainstream phenomenon thanks to Napster, the iPod and iTunes, it was merely the last nail in a coffin already built by other powerful market forces.

Compare this death of an entire industry to chain bookstores’ current situation. Greater selection of books can be had online, at lower prices? Check. Bestsellers, gift books and discount books can be bought more conveniently at other stores, for lower prices? Check. Obscure and out-of-print books can only be found online, or in indie/used bookstores? Check. Attempts are being made to diversify product mix by introducing DVDs, CDs, toys and other products, but none of these products are being offered at lower prices or in a wider selection than through other, pre-existing retail outlets? Check.

Now, explain it to me again: why do publishers and writers continue to believe big chain bookstores still have the power to make or break careers in authorship? Why do indie authors invest in catalog listings with companies like Ingram, or choose to work with higher-priced self-publication outfits on the basis of that outfit’s ability to get catalog listings?

True, without the listing your book won’t be accessible to the big bookstore chains’ corporate purchasers, nor those of any other major chain retailer that is not an Amazon affiliate (i.e., Best Buy, WalMart), but none of them were ever likely to stock your book anyway. Most of an indie author’s sales will be from efforts and outlets that aren’t in any way dependent on, nor even necessarily helped by, catalog listings. Worse yet, paying for catalog listings or working with a costlier publisher typically forces an indie author to raise the retail price of his book. This makes the book less attractive to all potential buyers while forcing those who do buy the book to subsidize the cost of its exposure in retail markets that are both small and generally outside the indie author’s reach anyway.

The bottom line is this: even if you succeed in getting a big chain bookstore to carry your self-published book, the maximum market segment you can possibly capture there now stands at 32%, and it’s shrinking all the time.

Does it really make sense to let 32% of book buyers dictate your choice of whether or not to self-publish, or your choice of publisher, or if you’ve already self-published, claim the bulk of your promotional resources?

This piece originally appeared on The Indie Author Blog.

April L. Hamilton is the founder of Publetariat, the author of The IndieAuthor Guide, a blogger and Technorati BlogCritic on topics related to indie authorship and publishing.

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