At the May 25 U.S. Book Show panel “Post-Pandemic Bookselling: Hot-Button Issues Facing Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstores,” panelists engaged in a discussion on the state of bookselling today that ranged from prosaic matters to Amazon and the need for publishers to step up against predatory practices. The panel was moderated by Publishers Weekly bookselling and international editor Ed Nawotka and featured booksellers from across the country: Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Ill.; Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan.; Bry Hoeg, store manager at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore.; and Kwame Spearman, co-owner and CEO of Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo.
The session kicked off with a discussion of pandemic protocols, including when and how these stores are reopening to in-store traffic and whether or not masks are being required. Caine, disclosing that the Raven is re-opening next week, was adamant that masks will be required so as to better protect children.
The conversation quickly moved on to challenges that booksellers have faced throughout the pandemic, such as supply chain issues and the shift of sales toward backlist titles. Hoeg noted that Powell’s has emphasized selling backlist as supply chain hiccups and smaller print runs make it more difficult to replenish frontlist—an issue amplified by obstacles to stocking up on used books. “We’re also seeing that people are reading the classics more,” she noted: “Moby Dick, Charles Dickens are flying off the shelves.”
When the conversation turned to online sales, Caine said that online sales were up 2,600% in 2020 over 2019 at his shop. The Raven will continue to operate as a hybrid bookstore post-pandemic, he added, emphasizing both in-person and online sales. In contrast, Spearman remains a strong advocate for “the experiential elements” of bookselling, such as emphasizing more local authors in programming.
Amazon: An Industry-wide Problem
Asked by Nawotka to comment on the class action case against Amazon, Barrett, the lead plaintiff, held up a hardcover copy of 150 Glimpses of The Beatles by Craig Brown, which retails for $30. She noted that it sells on Amazon for less than $15. “It’s harder to make value arguments anymore,” she said. “We’re in the position every day of apologizing for a price that’s printed on the book by the publisher.”
Pointing out that the industry in general has done well this past year due to a spike in book sales, Caine asked: “If the industry is doing so well, why is it so hard for us? There are increases in book sales this past year, but [the money]'s not going to us.”
Barrett pointed out that it isn’t just Amazon’s predatory pricing that's the issue: publishers themselves can be complicit. She recounted her discovery of the publisher of an author appearing at her store who was selling the book directly to consumers at a discount. “What I’m worried about going forward is a certain trend, that their way of dealing with Amazon is to start their own direct-to-consumer operations,” she said. “I don’t know where that puts us.”
Caine agreed: “We need help with the Amazon problem. We need help with the pricing problem. If the value of books goes down because the biggest retailer is artificially depressing the value of books, that’s bad for everybody. I would like to see more partnership on the Amazon problem with publishers. Seeing this as an industry problem, not just a bookstore problem, is vital in curbing Amazon’s out-of-control monopoly and power.”
Hoeg added that, while the Book Industry Charitable Foundation is doing excellent work supporting booksellers in need, “it’s not enough. Supporting booksellers is not supporting businesses; it’s not supporting the authors who rely on book sales. It puts the onus on us as booksellers to take the book and sell it, to build that relationship with the publisher.”
Nawotka wound up the session by exhorting author Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, who has been giving away some of her huge fortune to various organizations this past year, to consider bookstores when thinking of where to donate her money next. “If anybody is more deserving of her charity and attention, it’s bookstores,” he said. “I hope somebody can get to her and say, ‘You should be donating some of this money that was won off the backs of the existing bookseller community back to the booksellers who make this business possible—and made your ex-husband’s business possible.’ ”