I'm 40, right in the middle of Gen X; I can look forward at all the people younger than me, how they read, how they use technology, and I can look back at older readers, and how they're using it,” declares Geoffrey Jennings, a bookseller at Rainy Day Books, the independent bookstore his mother, Vivien Jennings, owns in Fairway, Kans., a Kansas City suburb.
“Customers look to the book in all its multiple formats. They want to be able to experience all of those different things,” Jennings insists. “But it all comes back to that one original product: the [printed] book.”
While his sentiments are certainly not unusual among those in the book-retailing business, Jennings is not your run-of-the-mill bookseller. Not only does he claim to read two or three books every night at a rate of 300 pages per hour, but he holds both an M.B.A. from the University of Missouri—Kansas City and a law degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Almost seven years ago, Jennings gave up his thriving solo practice specializing in small businesses to work the floor as a bookseller at Rainy Day, when he's not representing the retailer as its corporate counsel. Rainy Day, launched by Ms. Jennings in 1975 as a 450-sq.-ft. used bookstore, has transformed into a full-service general bookstore occupying a 6,000-square-foot building that “easily grosses seven-figures” in revenues each year. The store is renowned for hosting upward of 250 author events annually, with audiences ranging from 50 to a record 3,000.
His business savvy and legal background come in handy for Jennings's personal mission: to vociferously advocate for traditional print books in a rapidly changing industry focused on digitizing content for consumer use on Kindles, Sony Readers, even cellphones.
The publishing industry is “definitely having to adjust to alternate revenue streams and alternate outlets for books,” Jennings admits. In the next breath, however, he describes the trend toward making literary content available to readers in digital formats as “a problem” that will not add to, but will, instead, detract from publishers' revenue streams.
“Once you flip something into electronic media, there's nothing to stop someone who has the electronic version of the document from doing knock-offs back into the traditional form,” Jennings argues, pointing out that while this might not be feasible in the U.S. because of the economies of scale, it would be possible elsewhere.
“What's to prevent someone from taking the e-book version of the latest James Patterson, knocking off 200,000 copies and selling them in the Hong Kong airport?” he asks. “Publishers haven't thought much about piracy. It's not sexy.”
It's really all about the actual book, Jennings maintains, suggesting that publishers would create a more viable business model if consumers were compelled to purchase the print edition, rather than purchasing only the cheaper electronic versions.
Purchasing a book should not be like “ordering off a Chinese food menu,” he says. “You can't just say, 'I want the $2 version for my Kindle, because the $25 hardcover is too expensive.' Publishers can't afford that. Nobody can make any money off that.”
Emphasizing that the customer's initial book purchase would have to include the e-book version and/or the audiobook, because “they aren't going to keep paying for it,” Jennings points out that the retail price for this bundled product would have to remain the same to make his proposal viable from the consumer's perspective, with the book's format as either a hardcover or a paperback affecting its price. Hardcover sales would provide immediate access to electronic versions, and paperback sales would offer later availability.
“Publishers are all trying to adapt,” Jennings insists. “But they're failing to take into account we're not all going to shift to e-books.”
Despite Jennings's contention that publishers are “cutting their own throats by disconnecting the revenue stream,” when it comes down to it, he remains optimistic about the future of the industry.
“Independent booksellers close the loop between readers and books,” he says. “And they do it better than anyone else. No amount of technology, no amount of money, no amount of hype is going to defeat being able to close that loop.”