It seems as if every month or so, we have another round of discussions about the eventual fate ofbookstores. Usually it’s sparked by a news story about sales numbers or store closings.
Well, here we go again. Earlier this week, the Huffington Post picked up a story from the Wall Street Journal quoting Barnes & Noble retail group CEO Mitchell Klipper as saying the chain expects to close hundreds of its stores over the next ten years – as many as twenty stores per year. Holiday sales were off nearly eleven percent when compared to those in 2011, and – more ominous for indies – sales of Nook e-book devices were lower during the 2012 holiday season than they were a year earlier.
But before we break out the “Trad publishing is dead! Long live indie publishing!” parade again, the article mentions a few more points worth considering. For one thing, just three percent of B&N’s stores are losing money. The retail store division, as a whole, made $317 million infiscal 2012. Amazon has also signaled a drop-off in sales of its Kindles; industry watchers say that’s due in part to people switching over to reading on their iPads and smartphones. And while all of us indies are excited about the meteoric rise of e-book sales over the past five years – from zero in 2007 to 22 percent of Random House’s sales, as one example, in 2012 – that still means 78 percent of the books Random House sold last year were dead-tree tomes.
The consensus seems to be that the next two years will determine whether brick-and-mortar bookstores survive the e-book revolution. One trad publishing insider believes e-books will account for as much as half of all book sales, and the vast majority of sales of commercial fiction, by the end of 2014.
None of this has changed my mind about the future of bookstores. I still think there will continue to be a market for dead-tree books. Hard as it is to believe, not everybody has a Kindle/iPad/smartphone yet, and a lot of people still prefer the feel of an actual book in their hands. Mr. Klipper of B&N says their customers buy both paper and digital books, and that’s certainly true for me. While I’m trying to transition over to buying only e-books, I recently bought a dead-tree copy of a book I already had on my Nook. It’s sort of a how-to guide that requires me to flip back and forth a lot, and I just couldn’t figure out how to do it as quickly and easily on the Nook as I can with a paperback.
That said, the transition is definitely well underway. When I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto this past November, I was struck by the contents of my book bag. All attendees are handed a huge bag full of books at registration – probably fifteen or twenty books, all new, several of them hardbacks. This year, though, a packet of postcard-sized ads for free e-books was also included in the bag. The dead-tree books were, as usual, provided by trad publishers. But the postcards, which probably accounted for an additional fifteen or twentybooks, were all from indies and small presses. That seemed remarkable to me, at a convention that has traditionally been for industry insiders. The times are changing indeed.
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