The future for books in retail stores is not unified; it’s dispersed. To the extent that there continue to be bookstores (and although shelf space in them will continue to decline inexorably, they’ll also be around for years to come), the bookstores will increasingly be more about books for reading and less about books for using. Much of the slack can be picked up by merchants of other things, but there are challenges.
The one piece of good news from Barnes & Noble’s most recent reporting was that their stores are still throwing off cash. We don’t know how much of the margin they’re reporting comes from books as opposed to NOOKs or toys and games. But it is definitely good news that the stores, which publishers still depend heavily on for sales as well as “discovery” are apparently still healthy.
Unfortunately, it would be a surprise if things stayed that way for very long. The share of book sales that are migrating to the Internet keeps growing. Amazon’s print book sales keep going up (more slowly, of course, but everybody else’s are going down) and sales of ebooks keep rising as more and more people get the digital habit. Amazon gets 60% or more of those sales through the Kindle platform.
The term “showrooming” is becoming familiar to people in the book business to describe the retailer’s role in the consumer’s new tendency to use stores to shop but the Internet to buy. Part of what drives this effect is Amazon’s well-earned reputation for heavy discounting — it seems just about every book at Amazon sells for less than the publisher’s suggested retail and most books in stores sell at the price the publisher printed on the book. (It was actually instructive in a recent NY Times piece decrying the reduction of discounting at Amazon to see that even academic books with very limited audiences were being sold at some discount from the publishers’ suggested price.)
With handheld devices that can check Amazon (or any other online) prices now ubiquitous, capitalizing on showrooming isn’t surprising consumer behavior, but it keeps bookstore retailers from “capturing all the value they create” as their own revenue.
Ultimately, illustrated books and the publishers who create them will be the most affected by these changes. There are two important reasons for that. One is that “straight text”, narrative books that are read from beginning to end work just fine as ebooks. That means they’re already cheaper and it is easy for more and more consumers to purchase them this way. (And from the publisher’s perspective, their margin is — at least for the moment — fully replaced when a sale migrates from print to digital.) The other reason is that a novel doesn’t need to be seen or touched to be considered for purchase. Even with the capability to “look” or “search” inside the book, many illustrated book customers really want to examine the printed version to make a buying decision. As there are fewer stores carrying them, that gets harder and harder for the consumer to do.
One of the changes we’re living through is that content as a “pure play” is getting less and less viable at retail. For Amazon, “media” (i.e. content) is no more than 20% of their business. It’s what got them started and it is still very valuable because the content people search for and buy sometimes can provide important clues about what else you can sell them. At least some of Amazon’s success against online media competitors is due to the fact that their base is broader than media.
Selling media alone has become a dinosaur in brick-and-mortar. Stores selling music and renting video have all but disappeared. Retail shelf space for books isn’t ever precisely measured, but what’s available in book-centric stores must be less than half of what it was five years ago, when Borders was still in business and before cutbacks in shelf space that are visible in Barnes & Noble and others. One of the hopes for traditional publishers is that smaller independent stores will pick up some of the slack. But the kind of stores they’re envisioning would probably carry less in the way of illustrated books, particularly illustrated how-to books.
All of this should spell opportunity for other retailers, particularly those who are in “verticals” where there is a lot of publishing: gardening, home repair, and crafts, as examples. Just about every retailer could benefit from a customized selection of books that would both attract and excite their core audience, often stimulating them to buy the other things the store sells.
But doing that is hard because buying books is hard for all retailers to do but it is particularly challenging for non-book retailers. They get foiled by the unique characteristic of the book business that frustrates just about everybody coming into it from the outside: its sheer granularity. A store that wants to carry 100 or 500 SKUs on gardening, home repair, or crafts will most likely need books from several, perhaps dozens, of publishers to have the best selection. And they’d be selecting from 10 or 100 times as many titles as they want to carry. New titles will be issued every week. Each individual title might have a sales potential in any one store of $150 or $250 or $500 at retail, less than any other single item that store has ever carried or thought of carrying.
The biggest publishers of illustrated books in the categories that can benefit from non-book merchants are all quite aware of their importance to their future. If you talk to people at companies like Abrams, Chronicle, Quarto, and Workman — and I have — they will all tell you that “special sales”, the industry term for sales outside the bookstore trade, are critical to their future.
Of course, publishers have been doing special sales for many years, certainly including the five decades that I’ve been involved in the business. They have done it in ways that aren’t necessarily optimal. They’ve forced stores to “buy”: select the titles and quantities and place orders for each shipment they get. That’s an unacknowledged bottleneck. It has also engendered two sales policies which are counterproductive but well-established. Special sales accounts customarily buy from publishers at high discounts (lower costs) than bookstores but, unlike bookstores, don’t get the rights to “return” unsold stock. This has “taught” some publishers that returns aren’t “necessary”; retailers should just mark down what they can’t sell.
And it has taught the retailers to expect unrealistic margins. Of course, those margins are also largely unrealized, because they are buying stock without the right to return and end up marking down a too high (but unknown to the publisher) percentage of what they buy.
Of course, stores that don’t return any other merchandise don’t know anything’s missing in their terms. But, ultimately, it reduces those stores’ ability to experiment and it reduces the publishers’ ability to get stock in place on speculation. They can only sell “sure things”, and even those end up not being sure things.
But that’s not the biggest constraint. The challenges of mastering the mechanics of buying are. Non-book retailers simply don’t have the inventory management systems or the ordering practices that are necessary to manage books, where good practice might be to bring in one copy 20 times over a year to get 20 sales. Why? Because the book might only sell 1 or 2 or 5, and putting in 20 to sell 20 would result in overstocks most of the time.
There is a better way for distribution to work for non-book retailers, and that’s with vendor-managed inventory, relieving the retailer of the need to manage complexity challenges greater than they face in their core business for what amounts to a sideline. So far, we are only aware of one distributor — West Broadway Book Distribution — that offers that capability. (Full disclosure: West Broadway is our client, and we had a lot to do with creating their offer and their system over a decade ago.) WBBD gathers books from many publishers for their retailer clients. That’s also almost always necessary because very few publishers have enough titles in any category to stock a store adequately on their own.
The future of bookstores is challenged. The likelihood is that those that survive will be smaller (or, like today’s B&N, devoting some of their floor space to things other than books). The book-centric retailer will be increasingly inclined to stock “writerly” books rather than “practical” ones. That creates an enormous opportunity for non-book retailers to create a traffic magnet, incremental margin, and a stimulus for their customers to buy their principle lines of merchandise by creating book departments. More of them will, but the challenges of buying will continue to be a constraint in the market.