The Bookstore Conundrum: Value Propositions Part Two

Earlier today, I wrote about value propositions, mostly in reference to the reader/bookstore and writer/publisher relationships. Almost as soon as I clicked post, I started thinking about bookstores and how we perceive what they do. More importantly, how the talk coming from some quarters there is actually producing contradictory results to their stated aims. Basically, some of them seem like they don’t really want to succeed, they want someone else to assure success for them. Now obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations. But that’s what we trade in here in publishing land; generalizations. Big Publishers, indies, writers, readers, traditional, legacy, hybrid…these are all broad generalizations, just like bookstores. All these various groups are built of diverse collections of individuals. Your experience may vary.

We have this notion of bookstores as historical artifacts, a gut feeling of their necessity to literature and the publishing industry itself. But it’s not accurate. Certainly they’ve played an important role to get us to this point in time, but at the risk of sounding callous, what have you done for me lately? Just because you played an important role in my life in the past isn’t reason to belive yourself entitled to that position or one like it in the future.

I used to love going to Blockbuster, too, and record stores! I remember the first time I set foot in a Borders. A book store and a music store! Together! Can I just move in? I’ll sleep on a couch in the cafe. I spent huge sums of money in Borders over several years. But eventually, I found the urge to go less and less prevalent. There were even times I went and left empty handed, a possibility I wouldn’t have even considered before. I had stopped spending money in Borders years before they finally went belly up. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they stopped providing what I needed to get me in their doors.

I’m not even sure what it was they did wrong, maybe nothing. What they were doing just lost all relevance and attraction to my life. That’s where bookstores are finding yourselves right now. You’re still there, providing what you’ve always provided, offering the value we used to love and not be able to live without. But we increasingly aren’t interested anymore. We no longer value you the way you think we should. It’s not your fault, it’s us. We encouraged you to keep doing what you were doing for our own selfish ends and now that our interests have changed, you’re understandably confused about how to win us back. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can tell you one thing for certain, doing more of what you used to do, that made us love you in the first place, isn’t going to work.

Take a hard look at the ground many of you have staked out; you don’t have any true allies. The Amazon hatred at all expense, even against the interests of your own customers, is alienating the emerging independent writer community. The 1% traditional writers are saying nice things about you, mega-best seller James Patterson even giving out $2 million in grants to bookstores. Sure, it’s divided up amongst so many stores that it’s in increments too small to be of any real help, but every little bit helps. You just have to ask exactly who that little bit helps. Is it the bookstores getting checks so small in some cases that it wouldn’t even cover a couple months rent or is it the image of James Patterson, literary philanthropist; a man who sold 50 times that total amount in books last year alone? It’s like me walking into 40 or 50 bookstores, handing them a $10 bill and saying, “this is for your future.” Ask yourself why he isn’t giving $25,000 or $50,000 grants to these stores, amounts that could actually help. He can certainly afford it. Is this about helping bookstores or is it about a rich guy’s tax write-off and good PR from the illusion of helping bookstores?

The publishers are also out there saying nice things about protecting bookstores and you’re importance. But why in the world would you believe them? Not long ago, they sold all your asses out to the big box stores and discount warehouses, quite literally putting a Target on your back. The carnage got so bad and so prevalent, it became the subject of a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com, for God’s sake! Did you forget all that? Just block it out of your memory once they started complimenting you again?

You know why publishers are being so nice to you right now? They need your shelf space to prevent a mass exodus of writers because brick and mortar print sales are the last value hook they’ve got to hang their own hats on. The second they don’t need you anymore, they will throw you out like last week’s trash. They’ve done it before. At nearly 40 years old, one of the things I hold as a near immutable fact of life is that if someone has the will to do something to you once, if you give them the chance, they will do it to you again. Publishers are not your friends, not even by association. I’d have thought the past couple decades would have taught you that only too clearly.

It makes the indiscriminate Amazon hatred many of you show even more absurd. You should be thanking Amazon. They did you a massive solid by killing your most immediate threat, the big box stores. Amazon bought you crucial time to figure out a way to adapt and survive. If you’re just gonna sit around and bitch that people aren’t buying books like they used to, you will get burned. It might be Amazon that gets you, or the publishers. And that’s only if your own so damn customers don’t burn you first.

You could have allies on the indie side if you drop the Amazon spite and lose the last remnants of the bias toward self publishers you developed back in the true vanity press era. But instead you seem to just enjoy whining on about how things were better back in your day and the doom you claim we’re all heading for. Bookstores are for-profit businesses, and as such, the entire point is offer something people are willing to pay enough for that you can keep your doors open. Bookstores that struggle don’t do so because people arent buying books, it’s because they’re not buying books from bookstores.

The industry won’t collapse without you. In fact, the industry is actively moving away from you. Book sales aren’t plummeting as you make fewer of them. When you call for “the need” to help bookstores, what I hear isn’t someone saying help us to adapt, it’s someone saying help us keep doing what we’ve always done because it’s valuable. Here’s a hint: if, as a business, you can’t sustain yourself on what you offer, then it’s not that valuable. If we help you keep alive a model that is getting less and less economically viable now, when does it stop? Are you proposing we make bookstores permanent charity cases? If so, how does that make you different from libraries, which we already support for all the same reasons you cite for supporting bookstores?

And full circle back to my point from earlier today, what’s the value proposition for readers then? It’s not selection, knowledge, convenience or price; we’ve found all of that elsewhere. What is it, exactly, that you think benefits us by saving you? Or is it as I suspect, you don’t really care about benefitting us, just assuring your own continuation with a minimum of upheaval? If the latter has any truth to it at all, then that, not Amazon, is your biggest problem and the answer you’re looking for. Do you see it?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Value Propositions

Here’s the thing, we can all talk until we’re blue in face about ebooks, bookstores, publishers, writers, et al (a point some would say we already reached sometime in early 2012) but none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that matters is the value proposition offered to us and how that informs the choices people make. Everything else is bluster. Worse yet, it’s meaningless bluster that far too frequently merges with wish fulfillment of the person doing the blustering. “Ebooks are dying.” “Bookstores are crucial to the future.” “Writers need publishers to be the best they can be.” And my personal favorite of wishful thinking bullshit, “Amazon is evil.” None of those things are true. They also aren’t necessarily false in all situations. It depends on the context in which those lines are parsed. And that context depends entirely on the value proposition to the individual.

Twenty five years ago, if I wanted a new book, I had a few choices. There was the library (a brick and mortar bookstore that’s basically free for readers), used bookstores (brick and mortar store that’s cheap but whose offerings are dependent on readers getting rid of their old books), rotating racks of best sellers in retail stores (having little to do with book discovery and everything to do with pushing already known entities to impulse buyers) or bookstores themselves (who offered the best selection and knowledge about books available at the time).

In that environment, the value proposition to readers was on the side of bookstores. The time, effort and extra money necessary to patronize a bookstore was a fair trade off for what we got in return; a wider selection of books to choose from. Today, however, that value has flipped on them. Bookstores, with their real world physical constraints, inherently offer a limited selection of books. Online, however, has no such trouble. Online, you can find and buy every book. All of them. So now, bookstores have gone from having the best selection of books available to having a limited subsection of books. I know it’s frustrating because they haven’t really changed. The environment they operate in has shifted beneath them. What was once their greatest strength has now become a weakness to overcome through no fault of their own. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a weakness.

With ebooks, online print book sales and rapidly approaching explosion of print on demand technology, the value proposition to readers of frequenting bookstores is a problem. When they had the best selection and a knowledgeable staff that wasn’t easily reproducible, we thought nothing of the outlay in time and effort to shop there. We didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars on the price of a book to support their infrastructure when they provided a service that we valued. Today, though, shopping at physical bookstores requires readers to sacrifice. We need to give up our time and effort to get there, then pay those extra few dollars for the privilege of shopping in a limited pool of material. We need to choose to give up value available to us in order to use bookstores. I can find any book I want online, without the premium price they need to pay the rent and employee salaries, without ever leaving my couch. Hang on a second…there, I just did some book shopping, bought a book and now it’s open to chapter one in another window on my smartphone in slightly more time than it took me to type those ellipses. But only slightly.

When the value proposition changes from one where I pay out because you bring me value to one where I pay out to bring you value, that’s not going to end well for you. You can discuss bookstores’ place in literary history and culture all day long, it doesn’t change the simple fact that the value you once earned your coin with simply ain’t what it used to be.

This applies to the publisher/writer dynamic as well. Twenty five years ago, if I wanted to be a published writer, I had to go through the slow slog of querying agents, editors or whomever, piling up rejection after rejection until I get lucky enough to be offered a contract that paid me pennies on the dollar from the revenue my work generated. Not only did writers accept this, we fetishized it to the point where there are still writers who have inexplicably fond memories of taping rejection letters to their bulletin boards. The fact was, if I wanted to be published, that’s what I had to do. The value proposition of going through that crucible was worth it because it was the only way to reach the goals we wanted. Today, though, I can write, format, and offer a book for sale to anyone with an Internet connection without so much as saying hello to an agent or publisher and be selling books tomorrow. The value proposition of the publishing industry gatekeeper-rejection logjam has been gutted. The time, effort and low pay you offered to get published seems vaguely insane now that getting published and selling books at much higher compensation rates is as simple as clicking a button. Publishers, like bookstores, didn’t change, the circumstances around them changed through no fault of their own. In fact, it’s changed and is still changing despite their concerted efforts to fight those changes. Pissing into the wind may be a popular corporate response when social behavior shifts leave them behind, but that doesn’t make it an effective response. It only makes your pants wet. And smelly.

Publishers and bookstores carefully crafted the value they brought over decades, some would say centuries. It does seem a bit unfair to people who have dedicated their lives to those ends to see that value knee-capped in less than 10 years. But that’s life. Sometimes, the things we value are life-long, sometimes they only last a matter of days or weeks. The thing is, you can never really tell when that value is going to vanish. And once that happens, you have to look toward the value you actually possess today and going forward.

When you hear people talk of the role of bookstores and their value to society, ask yourself, are they referring to the value they offer right this moment or the value they offered a quarter-century ago? Same with publishers. Is what they do today valuable or are they still treading on what they did that was valuable two or three decades ago? It doesn’t matter that Borders had a great selection of books that made people happy to shop there in 1995. They’re bankrupt and gone now, not coming back. It doesn’t matter that publishers frame themselves as great curators of the written word because of their gatekeeping of the past. Their gates have been kicked down and trampled into the dirt.

What matters is that when I want to buy a book as a reader or publish a book as a writer, what I’m willing to put up with to do so. That’s the value proposition you offer us and, increasingly, it’s one that isn’t trending in a direction that’s helpful to past paradigms or the dominant businesses that profited from them.

Take a long, hard look at what people value today and what they’re willing to do to acquire that value. That’s where the path to the future rests. Reminiscing about the value people appreciated in a different time and a different place, and doubling down on nostalgia isn’t going to fend off the bankruptcy judge for very long.

Read Part Two of “Value Propositions, The Bookstore Conundrum” here.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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