The Battle to Save Bookstores

This photo taken on Dec. 7, 2012 shows Bryce Hoogland of Boise, Idaho browsing books at the downtown Tatered Cover book Store
This photo taken on Dec. 7, 2012 shows Bryce Hoogland of Boise, Idaho browsing books at the downtown Tatered Cover book Store in Denver. You wouldn't know it from the marketing materials festooned with skiers and beer, but Denver is one of the most highly educated and literate cities in the country. That much is obvious inside Tattered Cover, a celebrated independent bookstore with two Denver locations (and one in the suburbs) that dwarf most superstores. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

The New York Times recently ran an article about the lack of bookstore orders across the board, but in particular for lesser-known authors. Though many might see the benefit in that -- I mean, why take up shelf space for authors who don't (yet) have a following? -- the catch is this: every author was once considered lesser-known. If we limit shelf space to only those mega-bestselling titles where will that leave us? Probably with a pretty vanilla buying experience. Lots of repetitive authors we may or may not read. Can you imagine rows and rows of E.L. James' books? The stomach lurches at the thought. One of the reasons I love hanging out in a bookstore is the process of discovery. Finding new authors I hadn't considered before, snooping through rows and rows of books all begging to be read.

The New York Times posed an interesting question: Should publishers step in to save bookstores? The answer, without question, is yes. But it's bigger than that. Consider my take on this very real problem: While publishers simply will be lost without bookstores, many people underestimate how much we'll lose if these stores go away, and I think a lot of authors miss the point of a bookstore. It's more than just a place to sell books, it's an eye to the industry, a place to check out the competition, book placement, end cap displays, etc. So let's take a look at what the real issues are:

eBooks Fad or Future? Statistics show that eBooks are sliding. Well, not sliding per se but leveling off. They just about had to, didn't they? The challenge with any "hot new thing" is that it's bound to fade, even slightly. Studies of Kindle readers show that the first month of owning a reader leads to a huge surge in buying, after that it sort of dies down for most owners. With new e-readers coming on board and the convenience of a "quick read," eBooks were hard to deny, but they won't put print out of business. They are, however, a major competitor to their paperback counterparts. Consider this: what if bookstores offered a way to buy the eBook after you browse, thereby still making the sale? You're in a bookstore, you find the book you want but decide you'd rather have it in digital form. I've done this, quickly emailing myself the title to go home and buy it from Amazon. What if I could get it right then and there, would I? You bet I would. Interesting to note that indie bookstores are already doing this, via a deal with Kobo, though Barnes & Noble is still lagging behind which is interesting considering they have their own eReader.

Amazon: Let me start here by saying that I'm not one of those people who spends their life bashing Amazon, but I do think they have some responsibility here and with Amazon Publishing a steady competitor in the market, they need bookstores. Ah, but there's one problem. They've been banned from Barnes & Noble. So, here's the deal. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble need to go on a time out and then come back to the table and figure out how they can peacefully coexist. I had a conversation recently with someone who works for Amazon and I said, "You know Amazon needs to spend a little bit more time making nice with this industry, one day it's going to come back and bite them in the ass." That day is now here. Should Amazon care if bookstores go away? Yes, they should. They are a publisher now, not just a mammoth online e-tailer. Stop being so cocky and get in there and fight for the bookstore. Otherwise we'll end up with nothing more than Target and Wal-Mart books which are relegated to a few shelves, shoved in the back of the store. When was the last time you discovered a great new read at Wal-Mart? My point exactly.

Publishers: Should publishers step in to save bookstores? You bet. They did a fabulous job of saving book review departments. Okay so I'm being snarky here. But the reality is this, when book review departments at newspapers started failing, few if any publishers upped their ad budget. I think even a small concession here could have helped keep these review departments going, but that's all water under the bridge now. What isn't gone (yet) are bookstores and publishers need to do whatever they can to save them. What does that mean? Publishers have spent a lot of time (a lot) fighting the DRM battle and figuring out how to price eBooks. What if they took some of that energy and put it into bookstores, instead? Here's an example. Our local Fry's store has this big area that they use for game display and they have set up several of the newer, interactive games for kids to try. Even an elaborate Wii set up. This area is always packed with kids and adults trying these out. The displays are fun, colorful, and engaging. Here's a question: what would it take for a publisher to put something like that together for bookstores? Engaging the readers in a new and different way. Imagine having had that experience with any of the Harry Potter books? I'm not taking about a big gaming display, but perhaps a colorful system that would engage the kids and keep them occupied while the parents perused the store - or, even better, the kind of engagement that was so fabulous that kids actually insisted the parents take them to the bookstores to experience it. Would this cost a fortune, I don't know, but I do know that many authors are doing this online (and at a relatively low cost) to keep readers engaged and coming back to their websites. People want engagement, but it doesn't always have to be on the Internet.

Readers/Authors: Let's face it, even if you're not in a bookstore you need bookstores. We all do. Go out and support your local bookstore. Stop in a Barnes & Noble and do some shopping. Is that all it will take to save them? No, but it's a start. Authors, if you are lucky enough to have your books in bookstores then push readers to them. List on your site the stores that carry your book and send readers in there. And speaking of authors, there are many authors who made it because of bookstore support. Now it's time for the authors to do their part and support those bookstores - for the mega-selling authors, why not include some financial support? The millions of dollars earned by the top authors couldn't have occurred without stores. While it was heartening to see Jodi Picoult take to Facebook recently to promote lesser-known authors whose books weren't being carried in Barnes & Noble, that's just one small step. Authors like James Patterson, Stephen King and others who are bookstore staples, let's step up and support our bookstores.

Government's role: In France, the government plans to subsidize bookstores. Why can't we take a page from France and find a way to provide financial support for bookstores a la our federal subsidy for PBS? Maybe you are shaking your head thinking that the government has better things to do. Well, perhaps but that's the point of this piece, to get the discussion going. My take is that, candidly, with all the money we throw at things we shouldn't, wouldn't it be fantastic to have a "Save the bookstore fund?" Or perhaps we could have a check box on our income tax form that let us donate $1 to saving bookstores instead of allocating it as a political contribution. Cool, yes? Could you imagine when your kids grow up asking you "Mom, what's a bookstore?" The idea makes me shudder.

Discovery: We all scream about discovery. You can't walk into a single writers conference without hearing that word a million times. But what happens if we move all discovery online? How many readers will we lose in the process? What happens if the bookstore recommendation goes away? We've already lost a good measure of these but what if they all go away? Where will we find our books, in Target? Wal-Mart? I've seen the various ways that books can be evaluated online, from Amazon's "look inside the book" to sample chapters and other forms of electronic browsing. Still, nothing beats the actual stores in my view. Maybe I'm a little too tethered to this, maybe I need to get over it and just move on and enjoy this new, modern way of exploring books. Still, I think there's a happy medium here. Is Barnes & Noble doing everything it can to survive? I don't think so and they are certainly not without fault here. But the point is this: we're so quick to jump on fun, new trends (oooh, Pinterest, oooh Kindle Fire) let's consider whether the new can support the old.

As I cited earlier on in this piece, buying eBooks while in the bookstore, finding new ways to engage readers while they shop. Electronic displays that let readers experience the books they are considering, right there in the bookstore. Imagine the fun you could have with a "take this quiz" in the self-help section that promoted your book.

Maybe these are all pie-in-the-sky ideas. I'm not here to sell anyone on anything; what I am here to do is to encourage us -- all of us -- to pitch in and rescue these stores while we still have them to rescue. A world without bookstores? I'd rather not imagine that.