How independent booksellers failed to recognize the buying power of the mass market reader

How independent booksellers failed to recognize the buying power of the...

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Warning: The following contains generalizations. I realize that not all indie bookstores are the same and that some are very welcoming to romance readers.

A week or so ago, an independent bookseller tweeted on a message that (and I am going to paraphrase a bit so it is a little harder to track down the bookseller who said this) she had told a customer that she, the bookseller, hated the book the customer purchased and the customer could return if she didn’t like it. The bookseller then self described this action as being the best bookseller ever.

This took me aback and I responded to the bookseller that I found it a very odd thing to say to a customer. She replied that she knew the customer. But I had mini flashbacks to all the times I bought or tried to buy romances at an independent bookstore and was, well, given the side eye for bringing those dirty books up to the register.

Lazaraspaste is now in graduate school and is surrounded by dozens of independent bookstores. The one thing they all have in common is that there is not a romance section in them.

Here’s the thing disconnect between booksellers and romance readers. Yes, we like low priced mass market books because when you are feeding a reading habit that requires 10 books a month, you can’t spend a lot per book. But romance readers are readers, first and foremost and they buy books. In modern parlance, publishing professionals call us power buyers.

The latest installment of Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading shows a rosy outlook for publishing, with nearly three-quarters of e-book Power Buyers purchasing more titles overall. Further, nearly half of Power Buyers had more total spending on books in all formats.

Why do I use the word “us”? Let’s look at the demographic of the power buyer (PDF)

  • They are buying romance, fiction and mysteries
  • They purchase 4 or more books a month
  • They are largely female (over 60% in both print and digital)
  • Between the ages of 18 and 54
  • They are loyal
  • They represent 53% of all print books purchased and 60% of all ebooks purchased

What are the buying habits of the power buyer:

E-book consumers are increasing their purchase of books — both print and e-book formats — online and especially through in-app purchasing, and decreasing their use of brick-and-mortar stores. … The gains for these digital vendors come at the expense of brick and mortar bookstores, even independents. More than a third of e-book buyers decreased their spending at national chains and 29% said they are buying less from their local indie.

To summarize, the romance reader is a loyal buyer of at least 4 books or more a month and represent a sizeable percentage of the book buying market, in both print and digital.

Yet for years, independent bookstores have looked down their noses at romance readers.  I spoke with one indie bookseller and she said that there is a difficult balance between being an indie and serving the romance reader.  This is because non romance readers are book snobs, looking down on the romance reader.  Thus if an indie bookseller stocks romance books, caters to romance readers, they lose credibility with the lit fic crowd.

The thing is that romance readers buy more than romance books. I would bet that most romance readers buy books for Christmas.  I buy books for my friends and family for Christmas or for a birthday. I’ve given cookbooks and decorating books as housewarming gifts.  Joanne mentioned the other day that she had bought two gifts based off a posting here and she had 30 more to go.

Indie bookstores have been in decline for a long time and I believe it is because the pool of readers that supported the indie booksellers have shrunk dramatically  and indie bookstores, for the most part, never cultivated relationships with those power buyers.  Never made the power buyers feel welcome and comfortable.

The mainstream press and general public has done a good job of trying to shame romance readers, to mock us and make us feel guilty or stupid or tasteless for enjoying reading what we do.  Wouldn’t have been awesome if there were bookstores that embraced us?