As the e-book revolution has undermined the publishing and bookselling business models, frustration, fear, and stagnation have set in. Instead of channeling this frustration into experimentation in publishing as a whole, almost all recent creativity has been directed to the digital world. It is understandable that such a disruptive technology as e-books would demand this attention, but as an industry we risk undermining the foundation of our success if we don't put some of that energy into nurturing, strengthening, and recreating the country's bookstores. It's time to restore a reasonable balance in terms of where time, energy, and money are directed: to take a fresh look at how publishers and booksellers can partner to sell more print books.
Whether we use Price Waterhouse Cooper's estimate of e-books being 22.5% of industry revenue in 2015 or Random House's guess of 50%, it is clear that the physical book and the digital book will co-exist for many years to come.
Of particular note is a recent Codex Group survey of book shoppers, which revealed that browsing in a bookstore was far and away the most common way people discovered books (28%). By comparison, browsing Internet booksellers was 6%, and the much vaunted "digital mega-media" (search engines, social networks, Twitter, video book trailers, etc.) was a lowly 1.9%. If we add in just half of the value from secondary categories that are highly influenced by bricks-and-mortar, the percentage of people who found out about their last book purchase from a real bookstore goes up to 37.2%. (Personal recommendation was #2, at 14.5%.) There is absolutely no question that bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still the primary vehicle for book discovery, even in the digital age. This is especially true for new fiction, nonfiction, and midlist titles.
The data support what we see in our bookstores every day: people discovering good books by browsing, reading recommendation tags, and talking to booksellers, and then leaving to purchase them elsewhere. To the degree that these sales benefit publishers and authors, the publishing ecosystem is strengthened and booksellers benefit. But the value provided by bricks-and-mortar booksellers as the showroom for books is not properly factored into current thinking or the business model. The role of the bookstore as showroom, as filter, as arbiter of taste is here to stay and needs nurturing.
To continue to get the benefit of sales from titles discovered in bookstores, publishers will have to put some energy and creativity into experimenting with new ways to support bookstore sales. It is clearly in publishers' best interest to do so, as bookstores are their best marketing and sales outlets.
Fortunately, there are business models from other industries that we can examine, adapt, and experiment with.
Foremost among these is scan and pay. In the scan and pay model, vendors own the stock until the sale is made. This allows the retailer to optimize inventory and increase sales. The current model forces bookstores to minimize inventory, using books as cash flow pawns, resulting in tens of thousands of titles sitting in warehouses instead of in bookstores in front of customers. Optimizing inventory through scan and pay allows publishers and booksellers alike to sell more books. Chelsea Green, a forward-thinking publisher of books on sustainable living, has been experimenting with scan and pay with Northshire Bookstore and others for almost a year now; sales are up 262% on average. Our five-month experiment with Inner Traditions has shown a 396% sales increase. Books & Books has instituted very successful scan and pay agreements with Assouline and teNeues.
A hybrid version of scan and pay is significantly delayed payment terms. If we buy enough merchandise in January, the toy vendor Melissa & Doug will allow us to delay payment until December. They get their product on our shelves all year in much higher numbers than they otherwise would, with the resulting sales. We both benefit. I know there are a couple of publishers about to experiment with programs as substantive as this, and I know the results will be positive.
I'm sure there are many other ideas we can steal from other industries or invent ourselves that will increase sales and protect the crucial role bookstores play in the discovery and evangelizing of books, whether they are sold in print or in byte. The alternative is following in the footsteps of the music industry: substantially shrinking overall revenues.
Chris Morrow is general manager of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt.