The economy is finally showing some signs of life again. Consumer spending on technology is inching up. And yet, with a few exceptions, overall sales in the computer/technology book category continue to slump or remain flat at best, according to buyers for booksellers across the U.S.
"Usually we start to see some sales improvements in August and early fall," says Jim Treitman, owner of Softpro Books, a computer/technical bookseller in Centennial, Colo. "But so far, we've seen no improvement at all. If fact, things may have gotten a bit worse."
At Stacey's, a general-interest bookstore in San Francisco, the computer/technical category has been hit the hardest by the recent, prolonged economic downturn, according to buyer Lauretta Cuadra. During the late 1990s, computer books accounted for 30% of Stacey's book sales, she says. Today, tech titles represent under 20% of store sales. One reason for the decline, explains Cuadra, is that the commercial real estate occupancy rates in downtown San Francisco, where Stacey's is located, have remained low. The lighter store traffic has, in turn, caused a noticeable dip in computer and other business-related book sales.
"This recession has hit us in the middle of the forehead," adds Bill Szabo, buyer and co-owner of Quantum Books, a technical bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. Many of the store's corporate buyers have fired large numbers of employees, Szabo says, thus reducing demand for its computer and technical books. What's more, government agencies—traditionally among Quantum's best customers—have seen their budgets slashed, additionally dampening the store's sales.
"Anyone who sells technical books will tell you the same thing," Szabo reports. "We're all suffering."
While computer book retailers are singing the blues, there are a few upbeat notes. Macintosh titles, particularly those relating to Macintosh OS X, such as Mac OS X: The Missing Manual (O'Reilly), and graphics-related books, such as those on Adobe Photoshop, Web publishing, digital photography and digital video, are selling well, buyers report. Sales in the latter area are up partly because the costs of digital cameras and CD/DVD burners have dropped significantly in the past year, notes Don Stahl, technical book buyer for Page One Books in Albuquerque, N.Mex.
Ebay-related titles, interestingly, are enjoying consistently brisk sales. Of the top 10 titles for home computer users at Barnesandnoble.com in late August, seven had to do with selling on eBay.
Other areas showing signs of life include books on Sun Microsystems' Java programming language and the Linux operating system, as well as computer security. "Cryptography and security is our biggest selling section today," notes Natalie Elias, manager of Reiters, a scientific/professional bookstore in Washington, D.C. The recent rash of computer viruses has helped fuel sales in this niche, she adds.
To stay afloat, booksellers—particularly independents—are not taking anything for granted these days. "Before, we assumed everyone at M.I.T. knew about us," says Szabo of Quantum Books, which is near M.I.T. "Now, we're reaching out to the community. We're being aggressive in our promotions. We're making sure they know about us."
All told, it's important for booksellers to keep things in perspective. Though sales for computer books are noticeably down, the figures by themselves aren't terrible, says Stacey's Cuadra. The tech boom of the mid-late '90s was by all accounts a high point for computer booksellers. "If we hadn't climbed that peak then," Cuadra adds, "we wouldn't think we were in a valley now."