February 05, 2013

Little, Fast Mammals

by Alan Beatts

Last month I shared some pretty grim figures about the rate that print book sales are decreasing.  I also pointed out that, if sales continue to drop at that rate, by 2015 print sales will have dropped by 44% overall since 2009.  Sales shrinking to that degree will make it very hard for bookstores to stay open. However I also suggested that it could be an opportunity for smaller bookstores as well as specialty and used bookshops.

This month I'm going to go into detail about how those sorts of stores can continue to survive, and even grow, despite the contraction of the printed book business.

First assumption -- People who shop at bookstores now do so because they want to, not because they have to.  Amazon has been around for 15 years, they do an outstanding job of selling books, and everyone has heard of them.  Likewise, ebook readers are dirt cheap, reliable and ubiquitous.  There are a plentitude of reasons people want to shop at bookstores but one of them is not lack of choice.  That means the people who are shopping now are likely to continue shopping, unless new factors enter into their decision making.  Such factors could be price increases as the market for print books declines, eroding some of the economies of scale that currently exist, or store closures that require customers to travel further to reach a bookstore.  That aside, people who buy books now at stores will probably want to continue to do so.

Second assumption -- People who buy books buy all sorts of books.  As you would expect, many of the books I buy are in my specialty.  But I also collect books on the history of cities and books about woodworking and building trades.  I read quite a bit of non-fiction (pirates have been a favorite for several years now) and a fair number of mysteries.  Plus, I give books as gifts.  Further, most of the people I know also buy books all across the spectrum.

Third assumption -- The distance a customer will travel to bookstores is affected by the number of other stores in the area and the uniqueness of the store. Why drive for 15 minutes to get to a store when there's another store only five minutes down the road?  You might do that if the farther store had a better selection of the books you wanted (let's say it was a science fiction and fantasy specialty store) but otherwise, you would go to the closer store.

Final Assumption -- The total number of print books produced by traditional publishers will drop over time as more and more titles with limited sales possibilities are released either as ebook only or are ebook / print on demand.  Since print on demand is usually associated with small or nonexistent discounts for booksellers it is not practical to stock them in most bookstores.  The end result is that the number of titles for bookstores to stock per year will decrease.

None of the foregoing will help the large, independent general interest bookstores much.  When Barnes and Noble folds (which is, I think, bound to happen in the not-too-distant future -- a small business can soldier on for quite a long time while sales drop, but a publicly traded company cannot), the big stores that are left will pick up a nice bump in business.  But, I think that will peak about one year after B&N closes most of its stores.  After that the sales at the big stores will decrease steadily as the sales of print books decrease.  The problem that those large stores face is that they are already capturing most of the sales they can within their trade area (i.e. the rough circle around a business that describes the average distance a customer will travel to shop at that business).  The sales will jump up if a B&N nearby closes but after that, it's all down hill.

But smaller stores are not in the same position.  A small, general interest store is limited in how many customers they can capture in their trade area because of restricted space for inventory.  However, as the total number of books published decreases, the small store can expand the inventory relative to the books that are in print.  Which means they can attract more of the book buying customers in their area.  A small store could even expand in size, and thereby increase sales.

It's a risky proposition to expand your business while your field as a whole is shrinking, but it's possible.  But it is much safer and easier, however, if you don't need to expand your space as much as you need to expand your offerings.

As a mature business, Borderlands is probably selling just about as many books as it can.  Unless the popularity of our genres suddenly increases or the demographics of our region change drastically, the customers we have are most of the possible customers for us.  After fifteen years, if someone in the bay area is really interested in SF, fantasy or horror, and is willing to travel to our place, they've probably found us by now.  Certainly, people do come in and say, "I never knew you were here" but it doesn't happen often.  And, the new customers we get each year probably balance out with the customers we lose because they move, slow down their reading (kids, school and jobs can all do that . . . I've been told), or, sadly, die.

But, we can potentially gain huge numbers of customers if we expand our offerings.  Right now I might have all the SF, fantasy and horror customers I can have . . . but I don't have _any_ customers who only like mysteries, for example, because we don't sell 'em.  But we've got room to carry them.  And, as of two years ago, we have no competition from a store with that specialty in San Francisco.  And, if we did carry them, our business could take a big jump upwards.  The same thing applies to any other sections that I might add.  Almost anything would both add new customers _and_ increase my sales to the customers I have.  That, combined with a shrinking volume of titles each year, might mean that, in ten years or so, I'll be running a general interest bookstore with a special focus on SF / F / H.

Used bookstores are in the same sort of position.  As places to buy new print books start to vanish, a used book shop could increase sales just by doing something as simple as putting a display of New York Times Bestsellers in their window.  Not to mention staking out a specialty of their own and serving those customers with both used and new books.

When all is said and done, we may be facing an "extinction level" event for traditional bookselling but, like what happened after the dinosaurs and, later, the prehistoric megafauna vanished, the little, quick critters may be the ones that last the longest.  Or perhaps the little bookstores might even be the basis for a new generation of bookselling.  But I'm not betting on that.

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