Wednesday’s BookExpo panel on the future of bricks-and-mortar retailing couldn’t have been scheduled at a more auspicious time for indies: the day after the American Booksellers Association announced a resurgence in the number of independent bookstores.
For the first time since 2005, there are more than 2,000 independent outlets in the U.S. Although ABA CEO Oren Teicher reiterated that statistic at the panel, the line that brought the largest applause and which spoke to the undercurrent of the show was his reference to the dispute between Amazon and Hachette. “We want to make books of all publishers equally available all the time,” he said. Teicher’s sentiment was echoed by panelist Michael Tamblyn, president and chief content officer of Kobo, who noted that, at Kobo, “all books are available all the time.”
But for moderator Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, the goal of the panel—which included John R. Ingram, chairman and CEO of Ingram Content Group, Lightning Source, and Digital Ingram, and Ingram Industries; Joyce Meskis, owner of 40-year-old Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colo.; and Mike Hesselbach, executive v-p and chief marketing officer at Readerlink Distribution Services—was to look at how bricks-and-mortar stores create an experience that’s magical and memorable. While much shopping has moved online, “mobile devices can never replace the in-store experience,” she said.
“To me,” said Ingram, “it’s really about engaging community and innovation—the things you already are doing.” He also used the term “relevance” in referring to programs like the literary summer camps run by BookPeople in Austin, Tex.; the way that [words] Bookstore, in Maplewood, N.J., serves special-needs people with books as well as educational and employment opportunities; and the Friday morning picture book readings at Vero Beach Book Center in Vero Beach, Fla.
At Tattered Cover that engagement with community translates into 500–600 events annually and cross-promotions with other cultural and writing groups, libraries, and schools and colleges. “We have really seen e-books level out,” said Meskis. “People are back in the stores. It’s hard to get a computer screen to pour a glass of wine for you at a Book Club Happy Hour.”
The task at Readerlink, which distributes to pharmacies, groceries, and big box stores, is not unlike that of indies, which have to get the attention of customers to come in their stores; except in Readerlink’s case, noted Hesselbach, “we’re competing with thousands of departments within our stores.” Readerlink has also faced the same declines in print sales due to e-books and been forced to cut back on mass market paperbacks. Over the past five years, Readerlink has begun carrying more hardcover and paperback bestsellers, as well as movie tie-ins. According to Hesselbach, it has more than doubled its market in these categories. However, he regards children’s as the real book department winner at Readerlink, which does 66% more business in children’s and YA than in 2009.
Other suggestions for growth focused on e-book bundling. For Tamblyn, bundling shouldn’t necessarily include a book with its digital edition, but a related e-book by the same or another author. Ingram concurred, noting that digital and print are not either/or. “The idea of making bundling work is a critical one. We haven’t found a way to scratch that itch,” he said. But Ingram is working on it, and he invited booksellers who would like to participate in a test to stop by the Ingram booth.
Ingram also recommended that booksellers start publishing books directed at their community, while Teicher reminded those who haven’t already added sidelines of their value. “Our Abacus numbers show, if you get in that 15%20% nonbook, you get to that profitable point,” he said.
Three years ago, Teicher challenged publishers to help indies reinvent the business, which had been done the same way for the past 50 years. “We’re not there yet. But there have been dozens of innovative things,” he said, citing consignment and co-op. “I think we have a long way to go,” he added.
But it was clear from the panel that booksellers have already made a lot of headway.