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.
Then Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius made this comment to my last post on the cultures of reading and buying:
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.
My guess is that fragmentation is the name of the game right now, especially when you add in the easy availability of used books online (bringing older books back into the mix). And yes, some data on this would be incredibly useful to authors, publishers, libraries, and engaged readers–but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.
For authors, fragmentation is problematical–in the publishing trade it’s leading to lower sales figures, which leads to dropped contracts (because a publisher’s got to make money), which leads to the author going indie, which is satisfactory for some but not all. For readers, I think it’s a boon–it’s never been so easy to find books at the price you’re prepared to pay. I don’t know how this is all going to shake out in the next ten years, but I’m on the edge of my seat watching.
I use the library a lot, especially for new authors when I don’t want to pay $8.99+ for a digital book.
I buy almost exclusively in digital now (though I still have a pretty high TBR mountain of print books).
I remember hardback books being heavily discounted back in the days of Waldenbooks long before they were bought/merged with Borders. So I don’t think it was Amazon that was the main factor there. And I used to buy a ton of hardcover books so I know I wasn’t paying $25 a piece for them back then.
I do appreciate that there isn’t a window period for new hardcovers to be available in digital any longer.
As for where I buy books, I bounce around between Kobo, Google Play, and ARe/OmniLit. I sometimes buy direct from Samhain and Carina Press, but am more likely to buy them from Kobo. I also have been shopping more at Harlequin directly since they introduced their new rewards program. I usually only pick up freebies at Amazon. And while I know a lot of authors who are using Kindle only (select? whatever they’re calling it), if your book is only for sale at Amazon that’s a lost sale to me. I can’t say I’d never buy one, but usually I just put them on my “maybe buy someday if it’s in ePub” list.
I put all of books in Calibre and transfer them to my device that way, so I don’t need to shop at any particular store.
@Jane Steen: I think it’s a bit of a mixed blessing for readers. On the one hand there have never been so many books available at attractive prices. On the other hand, finding the book you want to read means sifting through a lot of books you don’t, and given the problems with Amazon’s search process and recommendations, I know a number of readers who are so frustrated they’ve stopped using them. Meanwhile, authors fear their books being hard to find, so they try all kinds of means to increase discoverability, which sometimes helps readers and sometimes doesn’t.
On the subscription services: I’ve used all three, KU the least and Scribd for the longest, and they do have a lot of backlist and indie stuff (especially Scribd on the latter). And they’re very easy to use. But I worry that as people who can afford private subscriptions drift away from library use, libraries come under even more financial pressure because the people who need them most have the least political voice and influence.
For me, I love to use my kindle first, then ipad (when my eyes aren’t feeling strained), so I buy at Amazon. Of course, I still use the library a lot. I go to the library for books that I just gotta read but they are only in hardcover or if they are new to me authors and I want to give them a try. All of these books are either in e-book or audio format, I can’t read paper books anymore. I’ve also used KU and Scribd. I liked Scribd better ONLY because it had a better selection than KU, I just wished I could load their books on my kindle, then I would still have my membership. I found that I wasn’t reading enough books on Scribd to justify the monthly fee.
If I get a book from the lobrary, it’s usually a litfic book I’m not sure I’ll like. If I do, I’ll then buy it in hardback (if it’s available) to put on my shelf. DH and I have an informal, unstated policy of only buying print books we love and/or authors we love, and buying hardback wherever possible. He’s on collectors’ editions of Stephen King books and I’m into coffee table art books at the moment. We have very little nonfiction in the house.
I haven’t been to a library since I graduated uni. That’s because I read in English, and live in Hungary. Most libraries only have books in Hungarian, or a very narrow selection of English.
Same reason why I don’t buy at bookstores. Online bookstores have more, but they you have to think of shipping costs, times, and I can’t get packages at my workplace, so I have to use pick up points. The only time I buy books in Hungarian is when they are cookbooks. Those I get in print, because it’s much easier to get inspired than looking at something on a screen.
Regular novels are always ebooks. I get them from various sources, mainly depending on price, and what allows for downloads from Hungary. Though the prices are a lot higher than in the rest of the world, because the VAT is 27%. While on print it’s just 5%. Still, I’m renting apartments, so I’m not going to buy any more books in print that I can download and aren’t for cooking.
@Sunita: Good point. I don’t pay much attention to the discovery process because my TBR list is a mile long – I follow recommendations from Goodreads friends or from book blogs and such.
I’m about to try KU, which I wasn’t interested in BUT now I want to read a book I don’t think I want to keep, which isn’t available at the library and which costs $9.99. So I may as well do KU and zip through a few more of the books on offer on the same subject (writing craft/process) while I’m at it. I suspect a lot of readers get sucked in that way!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the possible long-term survival of libraries lately, and am trying to get my thoughts together for a little article. Yes, libraries are vital for readers without the resources to own e-readers or their own copies of books, but they’re so much more than that. Their emphasis is on what Robin called the “culture of reading” the other week, and they’re most relevant to readers if they’re radically different from bookstores by basing their selection not on what’s new and hot but what’s of real value and interest. If they could embrace the top tier of indie production (and there are a couple of new products out that promise a curated selection of indie books for libraries) they’d be a jump ahead of most bookstores.
I got interested because my own state, Illinois, is the first in the country where the libraries are giving an indie award (disclosure: I’m a finalist) and I can see this as a push to grow libraries’ roles as influencers and places of discovery. The more relevant libraries are to what readers want to read, the more funding they’re likely to get; and in an increasingly fragmented market perhaps libraries will have better chances than ever to become THE place where reading is centered. In my part of Illinois the libraries are incredibly good, and having lived in a country (Belgium) where libraries were almost non-existent, I’m eternally grateful for this particular use of my tax dollars every time I walk into one.
When I think of how much money I used to spend on physical books at Borders until they closed, and how little I spend now…well, I should have saved enough money to retire on. Somehow that hasn’t happened.
I use my public library to borrow mainstream publisher books, and Overdrive to borrow romance novels. It bothers me that my library doesn’t offer any m/m romance novels online. I have a Scribd subscription, which I consider a great bargain. I probably buy 4 to 6 ebooks per month from Amazon, but never pay more than $5, and probably 90% of the books I buy are 99 cents or $1.99.
Between Scribd and ebook purchases, I probably spend $20/month. When Borders was alive and thriving and putting out those great discount coupons, I probably spent closer to $50/month.
I like having numerous options for buying and reading, but I still miss those days of browsing through Borders.
I like the term “aspirational book buyer.” It sounds so much better than “book hoarder.” I definitely fall into this category. As I have said elsewhere, I probably have enough digital and print books in my TBR to last me for the next two to three years. As I read mostly in digital now, I buy from either Kobo or Amazon and I am dipping my toe into the Scrbd world. I have a basic Audible subscription, but my purchases from them are fairly limited and I’m considering dropping it (particularly now that the Canadian dollar has tanked and it’s far more expensive for me than $14.99 per month). I use my library mostly to borrow audiobooks, ebooks and some print books by new-to-me authors and/or for those books which the publishers have chosen to price at a ridiculously high rate.
With respect to Zacharius’ comments, I think part of the problem is that he and others in the upper echelons of the publishing industry have bought into the Kool-aid that books are “special” and therefore somehow immune from market forces. As a consumer who has a budget to meet every month, I simply can’t afford to buy the books I may want to buy at the prices the publishers are charging (and I am lucky in that I have a reasonably good income with which to support my habit). If I buy a hardcover or trade (or an ebook that reflects those prices), I’m not going to be buying any or many other books that month.
I have over 400 books on my TBR list but still purchase eBooks and borrow books and eBook from my local library. I borrow more physical books than eBooks as the selection in BorrowBox and Overdrive isn’t that great. I buy eBooks from several different places Kobo (but only if the eBook is ePub2 or DRM free), ARe, Dreamspinner, Smashwords, Bookstrand and even a couple from Txtr. I definitely don’t spend anywhere near as much as I used to before the enforcement of geographical restrictions, and more recently, the inflated eBook prices from UK publishers. If I can’t get the traditionally published eBook from my vendor of choice, in the format I want and at a reasonable price then I either stop reading that particular author or I borrow from the library. I used to also purchase eBooks from Harlequin.com but they no longer allow international buyers to purchase from their site and the only site I can use is the Australian one which doesn’t even sell the eBooks I want so I haven’t bought any Harlequin/Milks&Boon books for some time.
@ShellBell: oops, that should be Mills&Boon!
I feel so much better as an aspirational book buyer. Thanks for that.
And #2 in your list: I loudly complained about the prices of mmpb books, back in the days that I bought them. Borders always offered coupons then, too, which made B&N seem so short-sighted in their lack of general, buy-any-paperback coupons.
So it’s still read-at-the-library-buy-if-I-love-it for me.
“Aspirational book buyer”
Yes. That’s me! Not a book hoarder at all. :)
I’ve been tracking my monthly purchases lately and…my read to buy ratio isn’t so good. :( That still doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay $12.99 for an ebook pre-order.
@Jane Steen and @Sunita: In the wake of comments left on my last post and Sunita’s follow-up article, I’ve been thinking a lot about the library issue, and have made a small commitment to myself to re-engage with my local public library. Not only do I need to be more thoughtful about the books I’m buying (and more thrifty, for that matter), I really want to support that public space in a more personal way.
Also, I see a natural crossover for genre authors, even, perhaps, indie authors, in having speaking events at local libraries. I know that some of this already occurs, but I feel like there are myriad opportunities for authors and libraries to work together to promote community engagement with books and reading. Of course, it couldn’t simply be a marketing opportunity, but I know there are many authors who are themselves heavy library users, so maybe even something like a monthly book club featuring local authors, or a series on different types of books. So many things could happen at libraries, I think, that would bring together different book communities and members.
@library addict: My understanding is that it’s often the person who buys one hardcover a year who pays full price — like the person who buys a book in the airport bookstore, for example. Maybe that’s changed, though?
@Lynnd and @Darlynne: Until I read Sunita’s post, it really didn’t occur to me that I was buying more books because I was reading less. And since I recently re-discovered a UF series I had picked up and put down a couple of years ago (he Shadow Chasers series by Seressia Glass), I’m now in complete self-justification mode, lol.
@MrsJoseph: No way in hell am I tracking my monthly purchases, lol. And it’s definitely not hoarding if you don’t see the books!
You so need an intervention.
@Moriah Jovan: Oddly enough, writing these posts is serving that function right now. I realized that in the past couple of years, during which I was promoted to a job that is incredibly high pressure, buying (digital) books has replaced some of the pleasure I’ve lost by not being able to read as much. Since I started writing this series, though, my buying has definitely dropped. I even managed to avoid almost all of the dangers associated with that Avon/HC sale!
I’m definitely an aspirational book buyer. It was Jane’s book hoarding post that made me realize that I kept buying books that I aspired to read but never actually read (and in my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t going to actually read most of them) – mostly lit fic and non-fiction. I did finally read and enjoy Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, but I will probably never read The History of Salt (sadly).
I’ve gotten much better at only buying books that I’m likely to read and much better at reading them right away. I still make some aspirational purchases – especially books with unusual story lines etc that I want to support.
I don’t use the library much these days – I feel like book blogs and reviews have kind of replaced browsing for me. I will sometimes place holds, but I’m too impatient.
I have 4 library cards that I use regularly. 2 of them are for ebooks only, because they are ½ hr and 1 hr away. But they have the largest ebook catalog so it was worth the 1 time drive to get a card.
Not only do I need to be more thoughtful about the books I’m buying (and more thrifty, for that matter), I really want to support that public space in a more personal way.
I think this is something people often forget about libraries. We are about books and reading, but we are also about information and being a public space. And the idea of the library as a public space and a community center is central to my own practice as a public librarian.
As a library system, we are working to be better about acquiring and supporting indie authors. Weeding out what we want to buy and what we don’t is difficult in with the mass numbers of popular books (and excellent books we might want that aren’t popular). There are already established and trusted venues for publisher-supported books but that doesn’t exist in the same way for indie authors. And once we commit to an indie-published series, notification of new books in that series isn’t as systematized for indie books as for NY-published books (and our collection development author would cry at the thought of getting on authors’ mailing lists).
All of these issues can (and will) be ironed out, which will be wonderful. But I think it’s going to be a rocky road until then.
Ack. My quote didn’t work the way I wanted. the first paragraph was a quote of Janet.
@SusanS: You mentioned your library uses OverDrive – I suspect they allow for patron book suggestions? If you not already familiar with this, you can search OverDrive titles your library doesn’t currently offer if you go to the Advanced Search, enter your search criteria (perhaps publisher or subject) and then check the “Additional Titles to Recommend” box down at the bottom of the page. And from this list, you can suggest purchases and set up an automatic hold once/if a title is purchased. (Sorry if this is a retread of information already known!)
I prefer reading on my Kindle. Except for cookbooks, I haven’t read a print book in a couple years. I still read a lot of books and belong to 4 book clubs. Fortunately my county library has an excellent digital selection. I still buy from Amazon, if the price is right, but I’m getting at least half my books from the library now. Sure I have to wait awhile, but I have a huge TBR pile on my Kindle and the library is hassle free. When it’s my turn for the book, the library sends me an email. I log into the library branch to check out the book and have it sent to my Kindle.
I’m so happy with my library for their ebook selection, I now routinely donate money to the library and I’ve designated them to be part of the smile.amazon.com program where Amazon donates part of my purchase amounts to the library.
@ It’s Me :
You made a comment about reading on your kindle and your iPad ( if your eyes aren’t too strained). Is the kindle easier on the eyes than the iPad? I read on my iPad a lot and have been wondering if I should consider buying a kindle. I hadn’t realised there was any difference in terms of eye comfort.
I like you find the geographic limitations on availability of books here in Australia very annoying. I too found a Harlequin author I wanted to read and couldn’t get it on the Australian Mills and Boon site so I emailed them and they got back to me next day telling me where It was available. I’m not sure whether they added it to the site or whether it had been there and I missed it first time I searched but I think it’s always worth letting them know when you can’t find an author you want. Maybe if enough of us complain they’ll lift their game.
Re Overdrive: I understand it is an extremely expensive way for libraries to acquire ebooks, and the ebook has to be ” replaced” after a certain number of borrows. There is an interesting post on J.A. Konrath’s blog about a new scheme he is working on to make independently published ebooks available to libraries.
@SusanS: Depending on what state you live in, you can always get a library card for another city and use their OverDrive. My local library doesn’t have much m/m, but when I visited San Francisco I was allowed to get a card there as a CA resident. So, now I download tons of m/m from them remotely on *their* OverDrive system. I’ve also had good luck with Enkilibrary.org, which has some of the more indie m/m authors and publishers (Jordan Castillo Price’s Psycop series, some Jay Bell, a few JMS Books selections, and so forth)…