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.
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Elliott Bay Book Company in its old Pioneer Square location.

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

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.

On the other hand, it must all come out of that screen. And whether that screen is on your phone or your concrete wall in Medina, it is still a screen. But the book business, which has always pretended a foolish democracy, is about to be cured of that illusion by the internet. Many books should be on the Kindle, and not on paper ever. Most new titles were borne on a computer, and should stay there. In their very intricate detailing of brainwaves and fingers and form, it is like to like. The Kindle will clear space and make space clearer. In all finality, reading is better than not reading. Why should a textbook, for example, be printed? Let it live and change and adapt in pixels. What needs paper will, like the hippo, find it.

My wife wanted to read The Fountainhead and found a 20-year-old paperback copy to carry on the train each day. There were Kindle readers all around her, holding up their plastic boxes while she is folding back slightly yellowed pages and a lurid cover. Two quite different skits, two products with different smells and feel and memory. The Kindle is a kind of suburban atom — no trees involved at all, and the houses look the same.

For the first time, publishers had authors complaining that their books were not in any of the shops. What could they say to these authors? "No one wants to carry your book because it is so discounted?" "There are no more shops?" Meanwhile, the publishers are finding that some of their best titles need a real shop to sell — fruit that needs a fruit stand — and they could see it, all too clearly. The Phaidon editor says that one of his favorite books, The Art of Looking Sideways, only sold well in bookstores.

Publishers are adopting new policies for distribution, such as holding back quantities from the bulk discount orders so the book would be available in stores. Some of this is merely a tactic of showing the book in a shop, knowing that will drive online sales. "Could I have a pencil and paper? I want to write down some titles you have here." But still, it is a progress and it is only in its very beginnings. The publishers need many of their books to have length and a long tail, and for many of those books, that is time on a shelf.

One country that tried to resist the online tide is Germany, where the book is neither taxed nor discounted, by law, and where sales per capita are nearly six times the level of the US. Publishers are a cultural legacy, and book shops are an equal legacy. Result: Germany was the perfect site for a cruel reckoning. Amazon has clearly won. There were no booksellers at all at Frankfurt, and hundreds of smaller publishers huddled under distribution umbrellas. In Hall 8, the Americans and the British looked more like an electronics trade show than bookstore. (Hall 8 was the only Hall that insisted on bag searches.)

But even with all that, there were still the books — hundreds of thousands of them, too many for just the screen, too many that meant something, too many that would not simply go away.

All this brings me back to Seattle, home to Amazon and our local bookshops. Elliott Bay Books should have moved from Pioneer Square years ago. The only customers that are now near all work for Amazon and never were too much into books. Had they located to a then-sleepy and then-affordable-rents Belltown, they would now be open early and closing late, and it would have brought a great order to Belltown.

Instead, it may now be the time for the retailing on the Pike/Pine corridor of west Capitol Hill to fully emerge; what seemed diffuse only a couple years ago, now is near and quite true. If you can get a butcher, you can get a baker and soon likely a bookseller. It will not be a certain success when EBBooks moves, but there is so much going on in Pike/Pine, and so much planned, and there is such voltage coming from Spinasse, Anchovy, Presse, Lark, Sitka, Vita, Quinn, Oddfellow, Tin, Stump, Brasa and other restaurants that, like water on the moon, it all seems perfectly possible. It will be interesting to see what EBBooks decides to look like up there, both in design and book titles, and how they fit readings and cafe into space. If it works up there, it will help many places work up there.

People who love books often wonder why there is not a Powell's Books (the mammoth Portland bookstore mixing current titles with used books) here. Powell's has thought of being in Seattle, but this miserable recession may not be enough to make the soil for a Powell's. They need a big building and parking in a wonderful location that no else one wants, and clever Seattle is well low on such stock.

BaileyCoy on Capitol Hill, closing this month, fell victim to staying too long, on a street badly served by landlords and decisions. Any bookshop now must seek an exemption from Seattle's bid-up commercial rents, since it is not possible for these stores to pay the rents involved on Front Street. Either they discover space that no one else could envision or they find a landlord who can utilize them to help the whole area. Bookstores are generally clean, educated, and well intentioned.

On the other hand, Seattle is a striver town. The old MCoy Books space on Pine St. near the Market has still not been rented; yet the landlord, even in hindsight, would have still kicked the bookshop out. They were never going to be able to pay the rent he sought. Odd as it seems, he would rather wait.

It is an historic time for any store. There is very little to sell that has not been badly compromised online or on those big pallets. Any new shop must make its bargain with these devils, and a bookshop must understand it is on the very front line of this battle. Elliott Bay is a remarkable store with extraordinarily loyal customers. But its survival will hinge much more on intelligence and accuracy than on nostalgia.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of