Posted on September 7, 2013 in Archive

What the fall of bookstores means for publishers


The digital revolution has left the publishing industry in a state of flux and has raised a lot of questions about the future of all involved. Specifically, what does the fall of bookstores mean for publishers?

What we do know for certain is that digital growth hasn’t reached its full capacity, and the revolution isn’t about to slow down any time soon.

Concern about the fate of the publishing industry has recently intensified, since Bowker released research that reveals about half of US book sales are now occurring online.

Similar reports emerging from Hachette in the UK indicate the industry is facing the same challenges there.

As a result, the fixation that people have with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital books is being replaced by worry about a shift towards buying books online rather than in store.

Some people have attempted to argue that independent print booksellers will be fine, as long as they demonstrate innovation and courage.

Others have maintained that without more control over online sales, publishers are essentially digging their own graves.

Either way, online book buying, whether people are buying print or digital books, takes business away from bookstores.

In response, bookstores either close, or downsize, which detracts from their convenience and appeal, and in turn makes buying books online a more attractive option.

One of the consequences of this vicious cycle is that the role and value of publishers has also diminished.

In the past, one of the main services publishers provided was supplying readers with access to authors by putting books on shelves.

But with the loss of shelves comes a loss in the value of publishers.

One industry expert, Joseph Esposito argues that a majority of the print vs. digital debate for readers is based on price and convenience.

As long as brick and mortar stores have books on display and sustain their status as the best place to discover new titles, it should, in theory, be more convenient for people to go there to discover and buy books.

But as bookstores become smaller and their function as showrooms is further diminished, people are forced to find books elsewhere.

And this is the most significant issue for publishers who have as much to fear from the decline of bookstores as readers and authors do.

Sure, digital books are much easier to sell online, but print books aren’t impossible to trade either.

Any publisher who thinks they’ve got everything sorted simply because they’ve got a digital book division, is kidding themselves.

The biggest reason for authors to work through a publisher is to get the distribution of printed copies to as many bookstores as possible.

Conventional publishing usually requires an agent and quite a lengthy process that involves waiting for approval from a publisher who then has to place a book on a trade publishing schedule.

Given this complexity, it’s no wonder more and more authors are considering self-publishing as a viable alternative.

As a result, what publishers will need to do to stay alive in this complex environment depends on what they publish.

To date, digital books haven’t been profitable for much more than narratives but that doesn’t mean bookstore owners can let their guard down.

True, some books don’t convert as nicely to digital format, but that doesn’t mean people will always need physical stores to buy non-narrative books from.

Mike Shatzkin claims that for publishers working with straight narratives, their sales may continue to rise for a while, but authors and retailers will most likely start looking around for cheaper and less complex options.

Publishers working with anything else will need to introduce a new business model. Shatzkin suggests beginning with a “vertical” approach, which involves sticking to audiences they are familiar with, however, he acknowledges that this isn’t a foolproof strategy.

Above all else, what publishers need to do is try to gain more influence over online book sales. That could be by opening their own virtual bookstores, buying existing ones, or even influencing buying trends through online communities.

Once publishers lose their influence over sales channels, they lose a large part of their perceived value to authors.

Of course, regaining that influence won’t be easy. Outside the industry, most people shedding tears over the decline of bookstores aren’t doing so because of the trouble it’s causing for publishers.

The only way publishers are going survive is to convince their clients (authors) and their customers (readers) that they can provide genuine value.