On the Changing Roles of U.S. Bookstores and Libraries
When I first started this series on how people read and buy books, I was surprised by how many readers still claim to use the library as a discovery channel and screening tool. I’m not sure why I was surprised, because it makes perfect sense, especially with the vast number of books available for sale and the elevated price of hardcover, trade, and some traditionally published digital books.
The entire price discussion was brought on by publishers by themselves. There used to be a set progression and pricing structure of first releasing a hardcover, for bigger authors. If the reader was a real fan, they would pay the $25.00 for the book at a retailer. Then Amazon started discounting the hardcover edition to around 13.00 and sometimes even below cost. Next came the iPad and Apple insisted that publishers not be allowed to “window” the release of the book. This means that they had to release the ebook edition at the same time as the print book. This helped the huge book in ebook sales and caused the huge decrease in physical sales. In turn, this caused bookstores to closes and the cycle continues. It used to be the voracious romance readers or other category readers wouldn’t mind waiting for the book to come out in mass market. Even though most of the mass market books are now $7.99, they are discounted at Walmart, Target and other retailers too. There was never the complaint heard about overpaying for these books because ebooks weren’t available for $.99-3.99. There weren’t self published books competing for the reader’s attention either. The market has to settle out yet and it will still take some time for publishers to figure out how to handle pricing. But the price of the ebook has no correlation to the price of manufacturing. It has to do with making sure the publisher recoups their investment in the author.
And several things occurred to me at once:
- Despite the fact that genre readers have many digital books to choose from, including lots of self-published titles, independent bookstores are actually on the rise again.
- I don’t ever remember readers not complaining about MMPB prices or waiting patiently for the MMPB version of a hardcover. I do remember talk of checking the hardcover out of the library and then buying the paperback; buying a used copy of the hardcover; or even sharing the cost of a hardcover among several friends and passing the book back and forth.
- If ebook prices are related primarily to the “investment in an author” that a publisher makes, how was that investment returned before digital books, and is traditional publishing now doing better because of digital books? (note that in his comment on another post, Zacharius notes that it costs a mere $1.35 to manufacture a hardcover book.)
I know that Zacharius doesn’t represent all publishers, but I was still struck by how different his perception of reader preferences is from my experience and that of other readers I’ve known and heard over the years. Some of this, of course, may be a function of the fact that it’s historically been retailers, not consumers, who have constituted the “customers” of traditional publishing companies. And that many of the publishing employees who do a lot of the heavy lifting with authors and readers – acquiring editors, copyeditors, etc. – are often overworked, underpaid, and isolated from corporate decision-making on issues like pricing. Not to mention the fact that despite all of the predictions that traditional publishing is near extinction, it’s still the perceived gold standard for many authors in different genres.
We talk a lot about the print v. digital divide, but what I’m actually more curious about now is the way in which readers are discovering and acquiring books, particularly in regard to bookstores and libraries. In other words, maybe it’s not the format that counts, but rather type of book and type of venue and the way readers engage with different resources to acquire and read books.
For example, Sunita wrote this great piece on “extravagant” book buying, where you purchase books beyond reasonable restraint. I have to say that I definitely fit under that definition, and reading through her post and the resulting comments, it’s somehow inversely related to the amount of time I have to read. In other words, I’m an aspirational book buyer, and it’s important to me to buy books, because I can then hoard them for future use. And because I’m mostly buying digital at this point, the hoarding can be disguised, even from myself. So while I remain a heavy library user, I don’t use the library for fiction browsing or reading. And because I’m a Kindle user, I buy most of my digital books from Amazon. And what’s really screwy is that I have a membership in Kindle Unlimited, but I often choose to buy a book that’s available rather than check it out under the program, because I have some fantasy about being able to read it at my leisure. It’s economically irrational behavior that I justify because I do hunt through my massive TBR and often discover or re-discover books I passed on the first (or second, or third) time around.
But I don’t think my own habits conform to average bookstore and library use. For example, the Slate article on the resurgence of independent bookstores claims that,
Not only have numbers of stores increased, but sales at indies have grown about 8 percent a year over the past three years, which exceeds the growth of book sales in general. One of the strongest categories last year and into this year is hardcover nonfiction, and that has not been the most robust area for Amazon-dominated e-books. Amazon’s sales have been strongest in mass-market fiction. No independent bookstore could thrive on mass-market softcover sales. Instead, they do well with hardcovers, illustrated children’s books, cookbooks, and the like.
This 2013 PW survey also tied the number of U.S. independent bookstores to the popularity of Christian booksellers, which I don’t think is a surprise to anyone.
By contrast, Pew’s comprehensive three-year survey of U.S. public library use found that 54% of Americans used the library within the year, that 72% of Americans belong to a “library household,” and that browsing for and borrowing books, as distinguished from “research resources,” constitutes the most popular use for libraries. Although more library patrons are using online technologies to do the browsing and reserving, most are coming in to pick up a borrowed book. And more than half of library users are unfamiliar with the availability of digital books in their library, suggesting that print books are still the format of choice.
Then there are the subscription services like Scribd, Oyster, and Kindle Unlimited, which I see as quasi-libraries, except that they work on a pay-to-play basis, rather than relying on tax revenue. Scribd has more than 500,000 titles, which is pretty robust, given the recent innovation of this digital service model.
In fact, I wonder how much of an inroad these subscription services are having in terms of digital borrowing. In the comments to Jane’s post on possible market contraction, librarian Hapax cited data indicating that physical book borrowing is down across public library systems, and digital increases are not comparable to the decreases. It’s especially interesting, since the Pew study found that 76% of American adults read at least one book within the year, and only 28% read an ebook, which reflects the general consensus that print is still dominant in the U.S. market.
I know that people complain about how Amazon is taking over the known universe, but do we really lack for alternatives? Between independent bookstores, digital publishers that sell direct to readers, e-book subscription services, public libraries, and digital bookstores like Apple/iBooks, Kobo (which has expanded in its holdings quite a bit this past year), and Smashwords, not to mention the usual big box stores, I kind of feel like readers have more choices than less, even with the death of venues like Borders, Fictionwise, Books on Board, and Sony. And that perhaps the relevant divisions are more related to what kinds of books are being acquired in what venue, and how readers are using different venues (and platforms) to acquire books. How are readers engaging with books right now, and how many different venues and platforms do readers frequent?
In other words, is the book market contracting, or is it merely fragmenting, and should we be paying more attention to how and where readers are getting books, which would also give us data on format and price, but would have the added benefit of letting us see how we’re engaging with books now, and what that might mean for the future of reading, and not just buying and selling.