Do We Need Bookstores Anymore?

Quick Reminder: Tomorrow is the last day you can enter to win a copy of the ARC of Artemis Invaded.  Details are on the Jane Lindskold Facebook page.

Before you read any further, I’m going to provide a spoiler.  My answer is “yes.”  However, I believe that for bookstores to survive, they may need to adapt.

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the recent events surrounding Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, California.  If you are, skip the next paragraph – or don’t.  I’ve talked to a few people who seem to only have part of the picture.

Me At Mysterious Galaxy

Me At Mysterious Galaxy

Borderlands Bookstore specializes in SF/F.  They have a knowledgeable staff, a friendly atmosphere, and offer a much wider variety of works than you’ll find at your standard Big Box Store.  They host great author events (I know this firsthand) and even serve a fine cup of coffee.  However, they’re also located in an expensive city.  When a vote raised the local minimum wage, they realized they couldn’t keep going without lowering the quality of their service.  You can read more on their website about why they arrived at this conclusion, including details of the plan that may just enable them to pull through.

Anyhow, Borderlands’ difficulties got me thinking about what bookstores need to do to survive in an age when competition from on-line retailers makes it harder and harder for them to secure the sale – even when customers browse their shelves and get recommendations from their staff.

Oddly enough, what I think needs to be done can be done best by specialty bookstores rather than by the big boxes.

When they announced they would be closing, Borderlands found that people were willing to step up to sponsor the store through this difficult time and into the future because Borderlands offers a variety of things that on-line retailers do not, and the big chain stores rarely do.   Does the idea of sponsoring a store seem strange?  I don’t think so.  These days, people pay for memberships that offer nothing much beyond a discount on a few services.  Borderlands is offering something less tangible, but much more important.

In the over twenty years that I’ve been a professional author, I’ve done a lot of book events.  By all logic, the events held at big box stores should be the best, right?  After all, they have a larger staff, a larger customer base, and a lot more space.  In fact, the reverse is true.  The only disastrous author events I’ve participated in have been at the big box stores.

There was the one where I arrived – after having been specifically requested by the store – to find that the “events manager” had left for the day, that no one knew to expect me, and that no publicity had been done.  There have been events where I’ve been stuck in the back of the store with no signs or announcements to help people find me.  Even worse are those where I’ve been placed at a table near the front door, blocking the flow and making people who’ve come in to buy something else feel uncomfortable when they come in to carry out their business.

And every author has stories about the book event when the only time anyone stopped to speak to them was to ask directions to the restroom.

Worse, even if the staff of a big box store is talented and enthusiastic, they may be hampered by corporate policy.  I encountered this when a friend who managed a big box bookstore asked if I would like to help arrange a group event.  I was happy to pitch in, since group events often do much better than single author events.  However, despite the best attempts of the store’s staff, we kept coming up against corporate policy that crippled our attempts to put together an interesting and creative publicity campaign.  What we had in mind would have cost no more than the standard procedure but, since it didn’t fit the template, it was rejected.

By contrast, the events I’ve attended at stores such as Borderlands Bookstore and Mysterious Galaxy (a store in San Diego that specializes in mystery and SF/F) have been well-attended.   Page One Books here in Albuquerque isn’t a specialty bookstore, but those of us who do SF/F events are blessed that Craig Chrissenger (who is an officer of the local SF club and a co-chair of Bubonicon) works at Page One and does a great job managing events.

But what makes these events special goes beyond attendance.  Usually someone working for the store has read one or more of my books, and is ready to start the questions if the audience is too shy.  I often mention works by other authors I’ve enjoyed and the bookstore staff is ready to show folks where they can find them.  Then there is the intangible sense of community.  People end up chatting after, making connections, maybe even making friends.  I’ve made a few myself that way…

So, how can bookstores benefit further from these things they do so well?  I’d like to see more stores do like Borderlands offer sponsorships, then find ways to take their events even to those sponsors who can’t attend in the flesh.

If the author agrees, could a reading and Q&A be filmed and posted to a sponsors-only section of the store’s website?  I’m about as camera shy as you can find, but I’d agree, especially if I knew that someone at the store was ready to ask a couple of questions so the Q&A wouldn’t be flat.

What’s in it for the store?  One, a growing awareness that such events happen.   After a short while, sponsors would start looking at the calendar to see what’s coming up.  If they’re in the area, they’d know to plan to be there.  If not, they’d know they would still have access to something special.

Another benefit would be encouraging people outside of the store’s immediate area to buy signed and personalized books.  Already some bookstores will take advance orders for books, including arranging for personalization.  As more areas lack any bookstores at all, and publishers are less and less willing to send authors on tour, those stores that do host events should make as much of them as possible.

So what about extending this service to those who buy a store sponsorship?  Handled correctly, everyone would win.  The bookstore would expand the area from which they could draw customers.  People in areas off the publicity tour route could get signed and personalized books.

Would this undercut other bookstores?  Not really.  Customers who already have a relationship with a bookstore that hosts author events would continue to come to them.  After all, some of the fun is talking with the author.  However, having seen the glow in Jim’s eyes when he came up to me with a signed Robert Parker novel during one of our visits to Mysterious Galaxy (Parker had been in a few weeks before), there’s an excitement to acquiring a signed book even if you can’t do it in person.

Sponsors might get access to restricted areas of the store’s newsletter, perhaps with author interviews.  Or a chance to submit questions for Q&A’s.  Or to attend a small reception or workshop.   Or receive sponsor-only items…

Seems to me that bookstores are in the position of being the goose that lays the golden egg.  In the fairytale, the goose faithfully lays a golden egg each day until the greedy farmer kills it, assuming it’s full of gold.  Of course, he discovers that it is not and now there will never again be golden eggs.

So it is with bookstores…  Readers rely on them to host events, inform them about new and exciting reads, and provide a comfortable place to go where they can meet people who share their interests.  However, when they use the facility without supporting it – whether through purchases or sponsorships – they’re like that farmer.  One day they’ll wake up and discover there isn’t any more gold.


9 Responses to “Do We Need Bookstores Anymore?”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    There are two kinds of bookstores — those who have knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff who understand what they are selling, and those who do not. Almost invariably the staff who have no idea about their stock work for the big chains. The big stores are just moving “product” and they care very little about it. If you ask the staff questions about their stock, they are unlikely to be able to answer.

    But the small stores who care about what they sell are the jewels in the crown. It is always worth doing business with them and it is always worth going out of your way to keep the enthusiasm alive.

    Borderlands have come up with a clever scheme, and I wish them well. I hope they succeed.


  2. Peter Says:

    I love bookstores. Have since I was a kid, saving up two weeks’ allowance so I could ride my bike to the local one and drop 50 or 75 cents on a Norton or a Heinlein I hadn’t read yet and the local library didn’t have. I used to have a T-shirt that said “Migratory life-form with a tropism for bookstores.”

    That said, it’s been at least 25 years since I lived in a city that had a good local bookstore, specialty or generalist (at least a good specialty store that specialized in SF/F), and in that time the Internet – and I don’t just mean Amazon here, I mean Usenet fora, and blogs, and Twitter, and Reddit and on and on – has filled a lot of the functions I used to rely on bookstores for. Reviews, recommendations, and discovery? Check. News and information? Check. Getting that small-press collection of stories by a favourite author? I can find out about it online and buy direct from the publisher, rather than putting in a special order (or find one waiting for me next time I go into the shop, since the staff saw it in a catalogue, knew I’d want a copy, and ordered one for me between visits). Striking up a conversation with a total stranger over a new book? Covered. Author readings and signings? We’re not quite there yet, sadly, but reading and commenting a blog post is a lot more convenient than flying half-way around the world 🙂 Not as good an experience as being able to shake somebody’s hand and thank them, but better than nothing.

    So yes, I I love bookstores (at least the ones that actually sell books – last time I was in a chain store I had to walk past the display of kitchenware, past the aisle of craft supplies, and duck through the Starbucks in order to find the actual books, which amounted to not much more than the spinner rack at the airport gift shop), and if I lived within a reasonable distance of one I’d spend a great deal of time and money there. But I don’t need them – which is just as well, since a good local bookstore is a luxury I just don’t have.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    So you’re suggesting CSBs as well as CSAs? CSA is of course, Community Supported Agriculture, while CSB would be a Community Supported Bookstore. If we can do it for public radio, why not?

  4. DrWeb Says:

    Reblogged this on DrWeb's Domain.

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    The idea of using the power of the internet is something I think bookstores are neglecting. There are a number of websites that will let you do a live stream for very little, or even no cost. Think about it. A fan on the East coast can still watch your singing in San Diego, and submit questions. The tricky part would be in the set-up. Ideally (in my mind anyway), the author would have a display to look at from time to time, and thus take a couple of questions from those watching on-line as well as those in person. Setting up the whole thing might be tricky, but small investment in a professional to do it might be worth it.

    Beyond that, the idea of a sponsorship is a good one. As you said, you get exclusive access for supporting the bookstore beyond just buying books. It’s a worth effort too, as far too many still prefer looking at books in person than on-line. For one thing, you can’t jump to random page on-line, which I sometimes do when considering a book. Ok, good hook, but can I jump to a page and want to know what’s coming, or how they got there? Of course taking into account I am partway through, so by then I already know who John is and why he hates cats so much. Then again, perhaps in that one page, it sounds like I missed a funny story, and now I want to hear it! SALE!

    You just can’t do that on-line. Add a staff that’s friendly and knowledgeable, and it’s a perfect place to go for my next read. That’s worth a monthly premium.

  6. Chad Merkley Says:

    Bookstores are about browsing and impulse buys. Online shopping is for purchasing exactly what you want. That’s kind of how I’d sum it up.

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