Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Told Ya So: The Sequel

I hate to say I told you so, but... well, I love to say it in this case. Back two and a half years ago, on July 25, 2012, I posted this at 

"Another spate of ominous statistics have been in the press lately. Again, I am struck by their repetitive and somewhat contradictory nature.

If hardbacks have been eclipsed by e-books, why are their numbers flat or slightly down year over year? Not much of an eclipse. If this is the case, then adding the number of readers necessary to say that they are being outsold by e-books means an awesome number of people are now reading books who were not previously doing so. Some among them will inevitably discover that actual books are better for them and they will become actual book buyers.

There are also statistics in the press (now I am thinking of Campus Marketplace, a NACS publication) which show a clear and strong preference for actual books among college age people. This is striking on so many obvious levels I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that this group is as important to all of us booksellers as any, and they don't like e-books anywhere near as much as they like real books.

In July of 2010 Amazon said something like paper would be eclipsed by e-books by the end of 2011. Now an oddly similarly worded phrase shows up at Huffington Post. Still trying to eclipse, they're not quite convincing everybody.

Let's just keep reading our real books. The market will sort itself out."

And a year earlier, more of the same with a darker slant since the rosy picture had not quite yet come into focus, and with more about the paper-mind connection:

"While the press last week focused on how the book is dead and the masses have moved on, I was thinking of my visit to a friend of my son, who needed a guinea pig in an experiment his lab was running, something about looking at how people make choices and what they do with the results. As we sat talking, I was struck by the layers of sticky-notes covering the walls and other vertical  surfaces in his office, some linked by arrows pointing to others, some stuck in patterns to indicate they were part of the same idea or train of thought, while some were alone. My eyes wandered to one wall of the office, half covered by a large white board, scrawls of different hands in various colors everywhere, only where it was not also covered by sticky notes. On one end of the table where we sat across from each other there was a stack of legal pads, seemingly full of scribbles and diagrams, doodles, drawings, notes, and more stickies.

And, between each desk, desks on which sat state of the art computers, there were bookcases, some full of books. Many of these were to be expected, "The Access 2010 Bible," "Visual Guide to Excel 2007 Macros," "Visualize This," "Learning Monotouch," but then there were the occasional thriller, one cookbook, and I think I saw a complete Yeats, but maybe it was Keats.

I asked about this preponderance of paper, and after being met by a blank stare, my computer scientist interrogator said that paper is better because you can handle it. I thought about this, and later did a little reading on the subject, and it seems that there is a link between handling the language, literally putting your fingers on it, moving it about, ripping off a corner to pass to a colleague, penciling a note between paragraphs, and how well the information settles in your mind.

I have since discussed reading habits with doctors , other computer scientists, and a pharmaceutical sales rep, and have found that very few of them have embraced e-readers. They say some similar things. My doctor even said that he remembers books in the best way if he smells the pages. This was before he knew I make my living by wholesaling remainders and overstock books to booksellers and others that sell books. He just volunteered his experience. 

Now, I am not deluded enough to think that my industry and livelihood are not taking a big hit from the current infatuation with e-books,  and I also believe we have a long way to go before we figure out how those of us who hang on to this ancient traffic in scrolls and books will survive, but I do not believe this is being plotted out on the music industry template. There are so many people writing about this who have no knowledge of the way books have been sold for the last 500 years, and very few of us have looked at what the paper/mind connection is and what it does. Humans have been doing their thinking with paper for thousands of years, long enough to somehow be in our genes.

So maybe we will become a tiny industry, selling books to the smartest people on the planet. I'm in."

Now, back to 2015, it appears the trade press and others are realizing books, real books, are here to stay. E-book sales are dropping, real book sales are rising, the hundreds of thousands and millions of additional book readers that e-books have created (thank you so very much, e-books!) have been picking up real books and saying "Wow! These are amazing!" and going to their local bookstores and buying them and local libraries and checking them out.

When I started making this point about real books and reading almost four years ago, I thought I could express it once and be done with it, but kept coming back to it as I would see the negative press regarding real books. I felt like I had to say something on their behalf. Now I am hoping this will be it. Apologies for the rehash, but I want the positive vibe to carry forward and if my small voice can help that happen, so much the better.

The turmoil in our industry is not over and will never be over, but if your bottom line is not where it should be, if you're hanging on to your bookstore by your finger nails, please try to hang in there a bit longer. If you have had a phenomenal couple of years, but still wonder if this is some strange last hurrah, maybe instead you should wonder if it is time to expand. 

Just make sure when you do to put in a lot more space for bargain!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Back Home at the End of a Very Long Day

This last year was full of changes and adventures for me, some professional and some personal, so I'm going to try to do a bit of a wrap for 2014 and share some news while I'm at it. Probably more news than wrap, but who's counting.

Most of the booksellers I know and do business with had a very good year, some had record years. In previous quarters some attributed it to Borders' closing, or added revenue streams in internet or print-on-demand, or increasing focus on events, both in-house and off-site. The one constant I saw was the intense effort they all made on all fronts. Public relations, social media, outreach, and community involvement all played bigger parts in this increased success than in previous years. Just the sum total of so much effort by so many employees, owners, and partners over so many years seems to be culminating in the last few quarters. 

All I do is sell remainders to a few (hundred) customers in this industry, but I do get to talk to lots of participants in this bookselling success story who are not involved in bargain buying, and it strikes me that all of them are so professional and hard working that a positive result is not surprising. It is because of the constant engagement in every process on every level of business by so many of these people that customer bases are increasing and readers are coming back to bookstores to buy their books. 

Up until early October when I had to take a few weeks off, my sales had been going up steadily because of my customers' successes. More buyers seem to be buying across the board, rather than staying within their old comfort zones. Children's buyers have turned into general buyers, cookbook buyers are buying more nonfiction. There is more willingness to try new things. There might also be a willingness to try old things too; I've seen an odd uptick in faxes and mailed copies of orders.

My days as an independent sales rep have come to an end and I have returned to Book Country Clearing House, where I was from 2004 to 2008. It feels good to be back home, and after all this time away to see how far they've come in so many areas. I will devote my next post just to Book Country, but suffice it to say it's good to be back and I'll make sure it is good for my customers as well.

Writing this blog has been a fulfilling and unexpectedly positive experience. I have been at trade shows where someone will see my name tag and say "Oh, I read your blog and I love it!" I'm just writing about bargain bookselling, so you can imagine my surprise. I thought about how I could continue it now that I am employee, working for one wholesaler. The challenge is to keep writing about the industry and the extended family of booksellers who keep it going, while at the same time working to bring more and better business to my new employers. This was one thing I could not think through without help, so I talked to the owners, Richard and Sandy Roberts, and they both said "please keep doing what you do," so, with their blessing, I will continue. Thank you Richard and Sandy!

And thank you all for your business and support over the last year. I look forward to working with you to make 2015 even better than 2014.