Remember When?

I’ve been thinking about a lot of publishing stuff lately, gathering thoughts, forming opinions etc. But of all the upheaval lately, I can’t help but be struck by something ironic.

Way back before Jeff Bezos named a website after a very large river, there were bookstores! Physical bookstores. Then along came chain bookstores. Really BIG bookstores that had the power to demand and get steep discounts and payola that got called co-op (where a publisher pays the bookstore pretty big bucks to get a title in the best part of the store, or to get a piece of paper tacked onto the shelf under the book, all to improve the chances of that book selling.) This put the independent bookstores at a disadvantage. There was an outcry. Shop Indie!! Don’t buy from the chains!!!

The Mega-Store Model Is Anti-Avid-Reader

I remember when Mom and Pop bookstores started disappearing from my town because they could not compete with Crown, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and the like. Several cute little bookstores just up and closed shop. The hue and cry was still Shop Indie! Don’t Buy from the Chains! Chains are evil!!

As smaller indie bookstores went away, the selection of books at chains and even some of the large independents started to shrink. I remember how hard it started getting to find what I wanted to read. For years and years, my local independent, which I LOVED and still do, did not carry romance. And the dozen or so smaller stores that did were gone. Drugstores, who used to carry racks and racks of genre fiction, got rid of the racks of books because the jobbers who filled those racks were all fired. Suddenly, the only books in drugstores were the same damn books in the chains.  One less place to find and buy books.

Then Amazon came along and I remember booksellers and publishers scoffed. Who would buy books on-line and wait for delivery when you could go to a bookstore and walk out with the book right then? Why, you couldn’t even browse!

Amazon’s Model is Pro-Avid Reader

As I reader, I discovered that at Amazon, I could now find the books I wanted to read. I knew who my favorite authors were, I knew what titles were getting word of mouth and I could get those books from Amazon. I could jump on Amazon, search Romance or Fantasy or Barbara Hambly and browse for the books I wanted. I also started hearing that editors, though they scoffed at Amazon, were using Amazon as a way to find out what was unexpectedly selling and as a book-finding system. Amazon kicked ass at that.

I remember when the chains started gobbling each other up. B.Dalton? Acquired. Waldonbooks? Acquired. More bookstores disappeared, gobbled up by other chains. Fewer bookstores, but much bigger stores. Too big?

The pressure from Amazon built and some of the bigger independents started having trouble, because more and more avid readers, annoyed with the dwindling selection of books and the relentless push of the same-old same-old, turned to Amazon. And then Amazon solved the wait-for-it problem. I could order a book and have it the next day. And it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

Some really big independents closed. Here in the Bay Area, the two shockers were Cody’s Books in Berkeley (not romance friendly) and Staceys (also not a Romance friendly story, I’m sorry to say).

Avid readers complained about the Borders selection and its inability to shelve or reshelve their stores with books that were getting buzz. Impatient avid readers didn’t wait for the book to finally show up. Why should they when they could order from Amazon and have it the next day? Border’s problems with inventory control were an open secret among readers. They really did support Romance, though, and I suspect that kept their doors open longer that might otherwise have been the case. Several years before the Borders bankruptcy the Borders/Walden Express nearest me closed not because of sales (they were quite profitable per square foot, which I think was in large part due to their awesome romance and genre sections) but because the landlord (a Mall) tripled their rent. If I’m recalling correctly, to $30,000 a month. A MONTH.

Then Border’s failed and suddenly, everyone seemed to forget that Chains were supposedly responsible for the demise of the independent book store. No, it was Amazon who killed them. And Amazon killed Borders too! Except if you read past the first paragraphs of articles analyzing the failure, eventually, you’d get to the description of the inventory problem. That, combined with a corporate cookie cutter mentality about what books would be stocked — so that a Borders anywhere would, supposedly, be the same experience, was a far bigger problem because it was baked in. This cookie cutter/chain store mentality infects Barnes & Noble, stores too.

The Avid (Romance) Reader’s Dream Comes True

Then Amazon came out with the Kindle. It was a success, and anyone paying attention to the Romance community could have predicted it — because eBooks had already been a success  in Romance for 10 years. At long last, we’re seeing mainstream acknowledgment that Romance readers are the leading edge. Ignore us at the peril of your book delivery business. Then came 70% royalties for self-publishers and Amazon started eating a lot of lunches.

Now we’re all supposed to cheer for the survival of the last remaining chain store and it’s all Amazon’s fault.

Maybe. From what I hear, Amazon is ruthless. I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s a reason publishers and booksellers actively despise (not just fear) Amazon.

But I’m a reader, and darn it, Amazon makes my reader life better. Print publishers have not made my reader life better. They make it worse, and that’s true despite the fact that they’re publishing books by authors I want to read. As a place to buy print books, Barnes & Nobel is irrelevant to me. The nearest one requires a drive of 13 miles that typically takes 45 minutes. No. No. No. NEVER.

If there’s a book I want to read, or even just a certain type of book, I can have that book 30 seconds after my click and I can do it lying in bed. If it’s backlist that has been self-published by one of my favorite authors, I have that book at a better price.

Since this post is already too long, I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for another post.

What are your thoughts?


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5 Responses to “Remember When?”

  1. SonomaLass says:

    I agree with most of what you say here, Carolyn. I’ve never been fortunate enough to have a local independent bookstore that catered to my taste for genre fiction, particularly romance. My reading has been shaped by what was available from the library and the fantasy section of various bookstores through most of my life.

    As a reader, I love a lot of the changes in book buying and selling. Ebooks are wonderful, both for the fast access and the wide variety. If someone recommends a recent book, I know I can get it immediately — and I can find lots of recommendations, too! Gone are my days of just wandering up and down through the shelves, looking for something I hadn’t already read that might appeal. The prospects for backlist availability are especially exciting for me, because I didn’t read romance for a long time, and I know I missed a lot of good books.

    I don’t like the pricing controls that some of the major publishers have put on books, because I’d like for sites to be able to compete for my business with special offers and rewards. But with so many books out there, and with the tools to find them and get a sample or review before I buy, I can usually bypass a book that I think is overpriced. There’s always another book to buy instead.

    • That “curated” content has been the knock against independent bookstores for a while. As the smaller, niche stores vanished, that curation ended up locking out a lot of readers. Romance in particular, but other genres as well.

      There’s got to be quite challenge in stocking a bookstore so that it will sell titles to walk-ins but have the breadth of inventory to interest readers who just plain read a lot and who have eclectic interests.

      Where I live, there are still several large independents, all of whom, until recently were romance unfriendly. Quite literally, if you told the staff you wrote romance, you’d get the glare of doom. I once dropped off an ARC in such a store and the man looked at me as if I’d put a bag of dog poo on his counter. And if you said you read romance? It’s gotten better, though. From what I’ve seen, they’re struggling a bit to build the kind of Romance section that brings in the hardcore buyers who read across genres.

  2. king rat says:

    Hear hear!

    I keep hearing that Indie bookstores have such wonderful “curated” selections, and yet I can never find what I want to read at most of them.

  3. Kathy says:

    Oh man, is this a hot button for me. Where I live, we used to have several independent stores and they were generally romance friendly. Beyond romance, I could always find something unique and interesting to read there because I, too, am an avid reader. Then they slowly disappeared until we had two Books-A-Million stores and one Barnes & Noble. I could usually find what I was looking for between the three stores, and thankfully, one pretty good USB.

    About two years ago, the B&N closed after the owner of this mall kept raising rent. This store was in an area where stores were abandoning that section of my town because of crime. The landlord’s solution to losing businesses to lease the space was to increase the rent for the ones remaining. B&N tried to negotiate, but the landlord was not willing to bargain. It was my understanding that the landlord could write off the unused space on taxes if the business bailed. So it was a win-win for them. Also, I understand that there were some issues between B&N and the city making inspections looking for “pornography”. Standards for the locally based BAM and B&N (New York based) were not equal according to some associates I talked to regularly. For instance, inspectors would come into B&N, pull a book off the shelf, judge it to be “pornographic” and hassle the store until it was removed. The same book was allowed to stay on the shelves at BAM. At any rate, the result is that the nearest B&N is now 100 miles away, and my choices were even more limited. Thank heaven for Amazon and Kindle. If I had to depend on the two BAM stores, I would not be able to find even half of the books on my list every month.

    Amazon/Kindle makes my life very much better. Are they ruthless? Probably. But as a reader, I am just glad they are there. Without Amazon, I would not have been able to read the backlist of Carla Kelly, Loretta Chase, and, yes, Carolyn Jewel. And, I admit, about once a month, my husband and I make that 100 mile pilgrimage to B&N just for kicks and to thumb our noses at the powers that be here in my small corner of the world.

    Sorry for the long reply.

    • Kathy:

      Thanks so much for your reply! Kristine Katherine Rusch has a post that covers some of the same issues with some additional details as my post. Add in your point about the impact on readers of the rather long and slow removal of books from places were readers could actually get them, and it’s no wonder there’s problems.

      As long as publishers see distribution and points-of-sale as someone else’s job, or as an ecosystem they don’t need to do anything to maintain, there’s only going to be more problems. Is it wise (or was it wise) for them to behave as if they did not need to look for markets?

      There are an awful lot of readers out there in your situation. With nowhere convenient to buy books, Amazon is just about the only game in town. B&N was late to that version of the game, but at least they’re in play. Sony took themselves out by never doing anything to address a product and store that was routinely criticized as, well, plain awful. Sad.