Rocket Bomber - article - retail - publishing - The Age of Industrial Bookselling - 1931-2011

The Age of Industrial Bookselling, 1931-2011

filed under , 26 September 2011, 18:22 by

Big Box Bookstores, RIP.

I. Origins


see also:
“The Rambunctious Revival of Books”, Time Magazine, 30 October 1978

Industrial Bookselling doesn’t have an exact date we can point to as an origin — though if I had to pick a year, it would be 1931 and the inception of the paperback — which then languished for a bit until business models caught up to technology. [I leave the direct comparison of paperbacks to ebooks as an exercise for the student; pull quote from wikipedia: “then-huge print runs of 20,000 copies to keep unit prices low”]

The lower price points caught on with a penny-conscious consumer (there was a recession on) and slowly the new format was fully embraced by readers — but even before consumption patterns (and resultant residual persistent demand) were apparent, whole new genres of books made possible by cheaper production costs and concommitant lower barriers of entry appeared [once again, I leave the direct comparison to ebooks as an exercise for the student; pull quote from wikipedia: “While the steam-powered printing press had been in widespread use for some time, enabling the boom in dime novels, prior to Munsey, no one had combined cheap printing, cheap paper and cheap authors in a package that provided affordable entertainment to working-class people.”]

Decades before the first nationwide chains, technology opened up publishing in both directions: both downward in price, and laterally — across publishers, genres, and markets. Books were available on racks at newsstands and drugstores; books became a popular entertainment, and not just the purview of the literati.

So — important point — prior to the chains, there was demand: massively increased demand fueled by the cheaper format and many new genres enabled by new technology. At the same time, larger societal changes [a century-long shift away from the general store, town square, and mail-order catalog toward shopping ‘malls’ and strip centers and other car-enabled options] were apparent in the ways we shopped for everything, not just books.

Seen in both the larger context of retail [regional shopping centres] and publishing [paperbacks enabling a new rennaisance] the emergence of nationwide book store chains in the 60s was a given. Obvious. Well, obvious to folks like me.

II. Explosions

1987 B. Dalton sold to Barnes & Noble
1992 formation of the Borders Group, following purchases of both Walden Books and the original Borders Books by K-Mart

see also:
“Book-battling looms as Bookstar invades competitive local market.”, Los Angeles Business Journal, 2 December 1991

(I’d link direct to a wikipedia entry for Bookstop/Bookstar, but for whatever reason the company has been de-wiki’d and re-directs to Barnes & Noble’s entry, with absolutely no mention of Bookstar — note: at one point a national chain, an Austin-based company with it’s own history and which contributed to the book-superstore-concept B&N leveraged to nationwide prominence. In fact, one could argue that before 1989, B&N was a college bookstore chain trying to figure out how to expand, and that Bookstar was the catalyst that differentiated B&N from, say, Follets — with multi-billion-dollar consequences. Guess that’s not ‘relevant’ enough for wikipedia.)

The shift from mall chains to “Big Box Books” is less obvious, but even more awesome to behold. I’m going to quote myself, from years ago

And starting 15 to 20 years ago, the independents (and Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, too) were about to discover what a major chain really is: while a number of firms (Crown, Powell’s, BookStop, even Barnes & Noble at the time) were opening up ‘discount’ bookstores — warehouse stores full of current bestsellers on sale, remainders, and other discounted titles — this isn’t necessarily what the public wanted; or rather, not everything we wanted. B&N took the downtown New York bookstore and cloned it, throwing up huge boxes in suburbs and smaller cities across the U.S., selling us books and coffee and CDs and most importantly: atmosphere. Other chains quickly followed suit, re-purposing old brand names and converting the discount store of the 80s into the Book SuperStore of today.

B&N wasn’t necessarily first: lucky urbanites have long had such superior bookstores as City Lights, the Strand, or Powell’s City of Books — and the best of the indies are arguably better than yet another cookie-cutter box out by the mall. The point isn’t that the BigBoxBookstore is better, the amazing thing is that they’re everywhere. (Well, almost everywhere; my apologies if you don’t live near one, or if your local is in danger of closing)

Collectively B&N, Borders, and Books-a-Million operate 1500 or so outlets that are touted as superstores, and if we add in another 100? or so large independent (often landmark) bookstores then there are more places to actually find and hold, even read, a book then ever before. Obscure titles, novels, reference, classics, even comics — hundreds of thousands of titles. It’s a great time to be a bookseller, and reader. It’s a great time to be alive.

III. Repercusions


see also:
Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, isbn 9780226525914, University of Chicago Press, 2007

In the 20th (let alone the 21st) century, it’s impossible to run a ‘local’ bookstore. There are at least six million books in print, and at least another 12 million books available used — and if you can’t quite wrap your brain around that: your local grocery store carries at most 60,000 SKUs — so a bookstore has to manage 200 to 300 times as many items as a supermarket, and no other retailer comes anywhere close to that number of items stocked. It’s not only ridiculous, it’s impossible.

Bookstore inventory management was only made possible by computers. In this one case, “industrial” practices were only enabled by information revolutions. Perhaps it is because book retail is removed twice from production: once, because demand must be communicated from customer to retailer (assuming the customer even knows they want something: there is no demand without knowledge) and twice, as publishers produced books in expectation of demand, without knowing for sure if this year’s slate was in fact what the reader wanted. The Major Leap made in the 70s [made by Borders, in fact] was to apply analysis to sales and tailor stock in local stores to fit.

Computerized inventory drove sales across all chains through the 80s and into the early 90s, when major players parlayed their success and segment knowledge into the New Big Box Bookstores. It seemed bulletproof: build upon years of sales data across authors, publishers, and book genres to stock shelves in new footprints two-to-five-times the size of existing bookstores, with expected increases in profits.

What the chains ignored (or perhaps, did not realise) is that their computerized models could be used to build computer-only bookstores. Amazon showed up in 1995 and proceeded to eat everyone’s lunch.

[It wasn’t guaranteed: Amazon didn’t report an annual profit until 2003 — they had 8 years of ‘free passes’ from investors and honestly, I don’t know why. Any other company, even a dot-com 2.0 start-up, would have been closed after 5 years of losses and sold for parts. 98% of Amazon’s success has to be attributed to ‘being in the right place at the right time’]

My complaints about Amazon aside: they show that advanced computerized inventory models can serve physical bookstores very well — but that computer models best serve web retailers even better.

Decades of bookselling, advances in inventory management, hand sales and impassioned bookselling, market expansion and careful curation of niche markets – all this just fed into Amazon, and the new [parasitic] model that was determined to put us out of business.

Amazon is a parasite. Sure, they prosper while the whole organism [Books, publishing, book retail, and impassioned handselling] prospers, but they provide nothing to enable the organism to grow. Amazon does everything I can do, but better — but also, only in a derivative, [dare I say, stolen] second-hand way. When both Borders and Barnes & Noble are gone — will Amazon really be able to fill the void?

IV. Fallout,52871/

The whole industry is in flux, no one knows exactly what is going on…
Well… unless they are students of history and looked at the last format change: the introduction of paperbacks in 1931.

The new format that threatened to overturn publishing was, in fact, thoroughly adopted – and subsequently expanded commercial publishing into new markets, new genres, and to new heights.

My bookstore may, in fact, die. [not looking forward to it] But ‘bookselling’ seems to be an activity independent of actual sales; if Amazon doesn’t recognize the skill or chooses to to ignore it, well, I have a Plan B.

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