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Bookstores: Sold down the river

A bookseller reflects on the huge disruption Amazon and online commerce have wrought, and how local bookshops like Elliott Bay can respond.
The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior.

The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior. Flickr

I returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair to land in the midst of the news of Elliott Bay (likely to move) and BaileyCoy (closing) bookshops. More about them below, but first some context about my line of work, the book business, and how Amazon has changing it drastically.

Frankfurt was its oddest yet. The European economies are in many countries as tight and uncertain as in the U.S. Gustavo Gili has been an art and architecture publisher for 100 years in Barcelona, but this year no one is buying books in Spain. Hatje Cantz, the elegant German art book publisher, invited 250 people to a cocktail party at the Stadel museum to talk about the future, to recollect and reconnoiter. For almost the first time in 30 years, publishers came to talk to a bookseller — not simply to say hello or sell books; they have always done that. This time it was to talk. I went and said to one publisher, "Do you finally realize you might need fruit stands like mine?"

The publishers have the online business pretty well hammered out. Amazon signs them all to contracts, incentives, upfronts, delays, debuts, deliveries and such — for which each publisher gets squeezed to a margin they would never have imagined before. Their authors demand it. Publishers have no bookshops left anyway. And for an extra 5 percent discount, Amazon will send a check the next day, month after month.

Publishers are left with thousands of options: Position a book here or there, or how many copies. Now, their tasks are more about outflanking the other publishers for space and glitter and looks rather than worrying any longer about bookshops.

Online sales were once 20 percent of their sales; now it's 60 percent and growing, even as total sales are down 35 percent. If a book is to be an Oprah, or an NPR, or such, then the only issue is how much of the print run publishers should they send to Ingram, the Amazon distributor, or directly to Amazon. In truth, why not send most of them? Without paying a dime, Amazon then has all of the new bestsellers in their kitty. That was a bit too obvious, so now Costco, Walmart, Barnes and Noble, all want a piece of the stashing and selling new books. It is a slanted ramp, this discounting, and they deserve each other.

Under these conditions, why a book shop of any dignity would carry a book so discounted is not clear to me. Independent bookstores made Harry Potter. Then the author clearly, and to her roots, betrayed those very same shops and they should leave her as if she never existed.

But the publishers, each one of them it seems, have realized something. I once watched a snake catch a frog on the Hoh River. First it caught the frog by the toe. The frog thrashed and dashed and dragged the snake all over the water's edge trying to get away. Finally, exhausted, it paused. The snake moved up its leg for a better hold. Eventually, there was no more frog. This is the perfect economy for the snake.

That is what the publishers realized: Slowly and inexorably, they would be absorbed. Told what cover, told what author, told what time, told and paid and squeezed by more accountants and schemers than they could ever imagine or repel. But they also saw at least some light. They are tight in their seat and tight with their hopes, but there is this weird detail about online bookselling and discounting — not every book fits the sentence, not every book likes it. Amazon is a nasty one, with a scorched earth policy that will soon make Walmart look like a Shirley Temple. If a publisher tells them to not discount a book, Amazon will simply declare the title unavailable, or uncertain, even when it is available and certain. It holds the power and, as they say, does not share well.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 23, 9:18 p.m. Inappropriate

I think I will move to Germany. I have never bought a book on line. I buy almost all of my books at my favorite new and used book store unless I am traveling and see a book I can't live with out and that happens every trip. I love BOOKS and don't care to have a Kindle. I am not to much in love with Mac but at least it gives me more sources and a easy way to communicate or in cases like this speak my peace. My senators and reps regret me ever buying a laptop a few years ago but I love BOOKS!

Posted Mon, Nov 23, 9:52 p.m. Inappropriate

UBookstore and Powells have dabbled with buying used books in the past.

joshuadf

Posted Mon, Nov 23, 11:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you a newcomer, Joshuadf? Powells started as a dusty, musty exclusively USED bookstore in downtown Portland. In my minds eye I can still see (and smell) Old Man Powell clenching a stumpy cigar in his teeth while shuffling through his jumbled store looking for a book my mother my mother wanted to buy.

Much as I like the idea of a Kindle, I like even more the idea of actual books that I never have to recharge in in order to read. I wonder if Project Gutenberg will evolve to the point where it will someday cause book sales by Amazon, Walmart, B&N; et al. to crater the same way that Craigslist decimated newspaper classified ad revenues...

Mud Baby

Posted Tue, Nov 24, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I buy from everyone: Online, Amazon, Bookcloseouts, Alibris & eBay sellers; Powells both online & in person. (In searching for a particular book one day, I discovered my next-door neighbor is secretly running, in violation of the neighborhood covenants, an online bookstore out of his garage.) There's a B&N; across the parking lot from my office, so I reluctantly go in there as well, although I may come completely unhinged & inflict bodily damage if I have to hear about the (#*@() card program one more time. I frequent my local indies & used shops & out-of-town stores when I'm traveling (including Peter Miller on occasion). I hate reading online, & given the fact that I now must wear "cheaters" over my contacts do not find electronic devices appealing. They'll pry a book out of my cold, dead fingers someday!

That said, I've given Elliott Bay descreasing business over the years. I used to work across the street but moved to a different county. It's difficult to plan a visit given the competing stadium traffic, & I used to be prone to stopping by late night after doing something else, but now they're closed at that hour. If the Capital Hill move goes through I'm less likely to visit, since I rarely have reason to be there.

debbalee

Posted Tue, Nov 24, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting piece in today's Independent — http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists/thomas-sutcliffe/tom-sutcliffe-should-we-pay-double-to-save-the-bookshop-1826467.html — or http://bit.ly/6e7Tx4 if you prefer — "Should we pay double to save the bookshop?"

Here's a passage:
I've found myself wondering exactly how much of a premium I'd pay to keep that small bookshop in business. Because — all millennial gloom about cultural priorities aside — it isn't easy to reconcile the book-liking bit of me (which wants a huge range of titles available at really cheap prices) with the bookshop-liking bit of me (which still loves to be surprised by an appetite I didn't know existed).

Posted Fri, Nov 27, 1:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this article!

A shame that my local bookstore, Bailey Coy, had to close! It makes my neighborhood that much less interesting. One of the reasons I have always liked Seattle so much is its fine, INDEPENDENT, neighborhood bookstores. I also particularly appreciate Elliott Bay Book Company, as well as Peter Miller Books. With the progressive disappearance of independent bookstores, the U. S. publishing industry tends to only publish what is popular and profitable. Potentially great works and authors may well never see the light of day. Without independent bookstores, Seattle will also have lost part of its soul! (Kindle is no replacement for real books! Despite the cheap prices, down with Amazon et al.!) We can not let Seattle loose its independent bookstores!

Kamille

Posted Sun, Nov 29, 5:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Not a newcomer--I actually grew up in Portland when Powell's was the only retail business in the Pearl District. What I meant was that together Powell's and the UBookstore dabbled in some sort of cooperative used book buying arrangement. I don't know the details, but there were signs about it up in the UBookstore.

The reasons I've always preferred local bookstores are the personable staff and events, neither of which Amazon provides.

joshuadf

Posted Sun, Nov 29, 9:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I frequently buy books and prefer to buy used and locally. However I have had good luck with Amazon. I agree that they can be considered predatory but, if you have a problem, their customer service is fantastic.

recently I went into Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill to browse the racks and likely purchase a book. I was told that I had to check my camera bag. i informed the clerk that I was not checking my expensive camera and if they are to presume me to be a thief why shouldn't I presume the same about them. i was told by the owner to "definitely not come back."

I walked to downtown and into a Borders where I have never purchased a book before. I was greeted pleasantly and directed to the shelves with the type of book I was seeking. I chose a few, sat down in a comfortable chair and browsed them; made my selection and paid for it and left. All this without having my camera bag confiscated. In other words I had the experience that local independent book sellers are supposed to offer.

Don't worry Twice Sold Tales: I definitely won't be back.

Posted Sat, Jul 31, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Twice Sold Tales can be a particularly difficult place.

Kamille

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