Sunday, February 20, 2011

SAVING BOOKSTORES FROM ELECTRIC SHOCK

Hannah here ... Please welcome the fabulously talented Eric Stone as our guest blogger today. Eric is a second generation Los Angeleno but is equally at home in Asia where he spent eleven years living in Hong Kong and Jakarta. It's also where Eric sets his best selling Ray Sharp thrillers.

I first met Eric when he was teaching an excellent workshop on Book Touring. With so many independents bookstores going out of business and the sales of ebooks on the rise, I was eager to hear his thoughts.

Eric ... over to you.

I’m one of the strange authors who actually enjoys book touring. Over the past six years, whenever I’ve had a new book I’ve got into my car and made a road trip out of it, stopping at book stores across the country. I’ve got good friends in bookstores all across America.

I don’t have a new book out this year, but all of my books have recently come out as ebooks. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to the affect that has on bookstores. I love bookstores. I want to support them. I still buy plenty of “traditional” books. But ebooks are one of the things that are killing bookstores. My ebooks are a win-win for my readers and me. My ebooks are cheaper than my books in bookstores – chalk one up for my readers. And despite that, I make a bigger royalty from each sale than I did from a paperback (and nearly the same as from a hardcover sale – chalk one up for me. eBooks already outsell hardcovers, and they’re catching up fast to paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks. Unless I want to be left behind I have no choice but to climb aboard the ebook wagon. But I’d love to find some way to bring my bookstore buddies along with me.

The sad truth is that bookstores need to change or they’ll disappear. They’ll go the way of record and CD shops. (One of the few still successful record/CD shops anywhere is Amoeba Records in Hollywood. They survive by doing some of the things I suggest below.) I don’t have the solution to this problem, but I do have some musings on what bookstores might be able to do to survive; how they can turn ebooks and modern technology to their advantage. I have no idea whether or not any of these ideas will work, but I hope they’re worth thinking about and discussing. (My guess is that it will require some combination of all these ideas, and probably more.)

Become book “galleries.” Instead of carrying multiple copies of as many different books as they can, bookstores should carry only one copy each of a wide variety of books for browsing purposes. (That will save them rent on large spaces that currently serve as warehousing for their stock. And it will save them shipping costs and the other headaches of returns.)

If the store can afford one of the new Espresso machines – that prints books on demand in minutes from electronic files – when a customer wants a book they can make one for them on the spot. (The machines are expensive now, but if enough stores order them the price will come down.) If the customer wants an ebook, they can use the store’s wireless to download it and the store can get a commission from the publisher. (That might not be as hard to negotiate as it seems.

Bookstores are an incredibly cheap and efficient way for publishers to sell and promote their books. If bookstores disappear, they are hardly going to start advertising all their mid-list authors on TV, radio or the pages of the also in decline newspapers.)

  • Diversify what they offer. If a store doesn’t have to warehouse a bunch of books, unless they move to a smaller space they’ll have some extra room. Do something else to get customers into the store. Partner with a bakery or coffee house. Sell tacos. Put in some stoves and refrigerators and host cooking classes using the cookbooks that are for sale. If you can get a beer or wine or liquor license, open a bar. Host open mic nights for local musicians, poets and comedians. Jello wrestling at author events. (Maybe not.) Get creative. Get more people into the store for any reason at all, and some of them will buy books.
  • Concentrate on specialty items: collectors editions, art books, fine bindings, antiquarian books, picture books. All of those are things that ebooks will have a tough time replacing.
  • Sell more used books. Acquiring stock is cheaper than new books. Profit margins can be higher. And there are always going to be people who want good old-fashioned paper and ink books around. (I get nervous in a house without a lot of books in it.)

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head while I’m sitting here on flight BR015 on my way to Bangkok. In Bangkok I’ll be signing paper and ink copies of a new anthology calledBangkok Noir. http://www.bangkoknoir.info/ I’ve got a short story called “The Lunch That Got Away” in it. Unless you live in Asia, you’ll probably have to download the ebook to read it. And when I get back home, that’s exactly what I’m going to encourage you to do. (It won’t be available until sometime in March. I’ll remind you.) Meanwhile you can find my ebooks on Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, LuLu.com and soon in the iBookstore and the SONY Reader Store. Cheap, too - $2.99.

So, anyone got any other bright ideas about how bookstores can survive in this new ebook world? I’d love to hear them.

5 comments:

Eric said...

Thanks so much for hosting my musings today. I'm in Bangkok where there do seem to be quite a few bookshops that are actually thriving. Despite the fact that everything and everybody seem more wired up here than in the U.S., ebooks don't seem to have made any headway yet.

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Eric. I enjoyed your thoughts. All of us, writers and readers, have an interest in keeping bookstores healthy. Otherwise it will beomce a world of the top 100 bestsellers. And as a reader, I don't want that. My local bookstore, Books and Company, in Picton is doing well. They have a coffee shop, a very large space for events, and also sell used books.

Vicki Delany said...

There is an article in Salon today about the demise of Borders. In particuarly he comments on how a one-size-fits-all chain can not provide that the neighbourhood bookstore can: books that people in the neighbourhood want! http://www.salon.com/books/bookstores/index.html?story=/books/feature/2011/02/19/borders_disappears

Hannah Dennison said...

I really enjoyed your post Eric. And Vicki - thanks for mentioning the Salon piece. I just read it. Flintridge Books is opening in a new location in La Canada, California - it is one of the few in the country with the Espresso machine ...maybe all is not lost. Yet?

jenny milchman said...

I so appreciate hearing your ideas, Eric, and also your feelings about touring. (I share them, although with a novel on sub, I've yet to tour myself. My plan though is rather like yours: Road trip! and a good old-fashioned hopping from indie bookstore to indie bookstore, happy to meet readers and booksellers alike).

I co-host a literary series called Writing Matters at my own local independent, which I think fits with your open mic and the like idea. Our events are usually SRO and bring people from all over the country to this cozy little store--that better survive anything short of the apocalypse!

Thanks again and best of luck selling your books both--all--ways.