Brick and Mortar or Plastic and Silicon?

by | Mar 28, 2007 | Business of Publishing | 31 comments

As I mentioned in last week’s “This Week in Publishing,” Borders is working on some new strategery that includes both the internets and their brick and mortar stores.

So this got me to thinking (a dangerous thing, to be exercised with great caution): which way do you see the future headed? Which way will things trend: will the internet inspire new innovations that make bookstores appealing destinations for browsing, hanging out and (hopefully) buying, or does the convenience of the internet and the ability to easily find new and obscure books make the bookstore obsolete? Will there be fewer but bigger book superstores or more but smaller niche bookstores? Will our robot overlords make us eat books for survival, and if so, will we be delivered daily rations or will we have to go to the book/grocery store?


I’d also like to give a shout out to one of my very favorite bookstores, Borderlands in San Francisco’s Mission District, home of Ripley the ridiculously awesome hairless sphinx and official mascot of Borderlands. If Ripley had been born a couple of thousand years ago we might all today be worshipping at shrines dedicated to her awesomeness and offering sacrifices of catnip and sunscreen.


  1. Liz

    Guess I like to have my cake and eat it too. I love to browse a good bookstore, large or small. I also enjoy surfing the online stores.

    I must confess, I do the majority of my holiday shopping online, books included. But other than that season, I’d much rather go to the store and purchase my books.

    That way I can indulge myself with a good cup of coffee. Maybe enjoy a yummy pastry. Plus, escape my house, hubby and offspring. At least until my cell phone rings. Being upstairs on the computer doesn’t allow any of the above benefits.

  2. Anonymous

    I foresee customers increasingly turning toward book buying online, but that could just be me and my friends, especially since I have heard that Amazon accounts for under 5% of an author’s sales, with the bulk of the sales coming from Costco or Walmart, assuming that the author has distribution in those places. So perhaps the real future is in books being marketed outside of bookstores; being brought to the customers versus the customers going to them.

    Jenny Maxwell

  3. Scott

    I love going to the local Borders and Barnes & Noble (especially when I lived around the corner from B&N). I enjoy browsing through books while I sit in the cafe, and I’ve always liked the feel of a bookstore. I especially like the feel and service in a good independent bookstore.

    Unfortunately, my work moved me to the hinterlands a few years ago. Last year, the last non-religious independent bookstore in the whole county closed its doors forever.

    That said, I do at least 75% of my book shopping online because I can find more obscure research material and the classics at Amazon, and I can store books that interest me in my way-too-big-to-be-of-use-to-anyone-but-me wish list. That makes it easy to find something I want when I have book money.

    Still, there’s nothing like the feeling of discovering something you didn’t know about at a bookstore, sitting down to browse through it, then spending more than you can afford to get it because you just can’t bear to leave the store without it. That doesn’t happen online. Not the same way. It’s too easy to come back for it later.

  4. Dave Wilmot

    The answer probably lies with the kids currently in k-12 and college. In Carnegie’s day the solution was to make one book accessible to many and in a sense that is exactly what the ‘net does except you don’t have to physically travel very far. and, as examples, are nibbling at the edges of the publishing pie and there is some big money in the background watching. Personally I think it will end up being a variation on how we acquire hard copy.

  5. Annalee

    I adore bookstores, so I’ll be sad if they go the way of the milkman. I don’t have anything against ordering stuff online, I just don’t really like doing it. Like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I appreciate the heft and smell of a book. And I want to appreciate those qualities while buying.

    If the price difference were as large as it is for fabric, I’d switch in an instant. But when you factor in shipping and the ‘having to wait for things to arrive’ part, the difference is negligible to me.

    As far as how bookstores can stay relevant in a world of cheap internet buys, there are a few things they can provide that the net can’t (besides coffee and instant gratification). They can provide a social space. Interactivity should be a lively bookstore’s buzzword– how can they build themselves a personal relationship with patrons? How can they build a patron community, the way some indy bookstores already do? Those are things they can provide that amazon really can’t. Sure, they’ve got their statistics-based recommendations and their review threads, but it’s just not the same and it never will be (and thank God for that, because if it were we wouldn’t have Rice’s flame wars to entertain us).

  6. Ilya

    I usually research my books online, then call the bookstore(s) and find out which one has it and ask them to leave it for me at the front. I walk in, pick it up and leave…

    Savings of a dollar or two do not justify waiting a few days. I would like to see the bookstores go in that direction. Borders already has online inventory of their stores but unfortunately B&N don’t…

  7. Anonymous

    As an ecologist, I would love to see books becoming virtual – paper replaced by pixels.
    Less pollution from shipping, paper making, printing, ink, chemicals, and less waste from unsold books being ‘recycled’.
    Books would be instantly available, easily stored, and no trees would be cut down.


  8. Annalisa

    I feel pretty much the exact same way as Liz. That is, I deeply love both browsing bookstores and ordering online. (Yay alliteration!) Like others have mentioned, I enjoy (over)indulging myself in both places.

    I also tend to do almost all my holiday shopping online, especially now that I live four states away from my parents but still go home for Christmas every year. It’s soooo much easier to tell Amazon to ship my Christmas presents to their house instead of buying, wrapping, and packing them into my car without scratching them up or leaving any behind.

    So, a lot of it is convenience, but also (again as others mentioned) it’s availability. Amazon just has more variety than any other store. And I can’t get enough of it.

    That said, I would never want to live in a world without bookstores. They are more important to me than newspapers, and you know how Thomas Jefferson felt about those. That’s me and books. My boyfriend and I go to Barnes & Noble together all the time just to browse and indulge in our love of books together. It’s probably the most romantic thing we do these days, haha. There’s also a local bookstore with three resident cats that we’d really love to visit again, but we can’t remember where it is.

    To sum up my rambling comment: Long live online stores AND bookstores!

    P.S. Who’s watching ANTM tonight? I’ve been looking forward to it all week!

  9. Len

    Both my wife an I have been booksellers by profession (me at Waterstone’s, Waldenbooks, and B&N), I’ve been known to have an opinion or two about the industry. For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

    Borders and B&N both make money year-in and year-out. Borders is clearly following B&N’s lead in phasing out Waldenbooks just as B&N has destroyed B Dalton, store-by-store. The mall bookstore will probably be a memory before long, although I need to check out whether Border’s Express (which is what Waldenbooks is being turned into) is more like Border’s, only smaller in scope or just a tatty paint job on a rundown chain.

    In short, I don’t see the superstores going anywhere anytime soon.

    The Internet tends to be the place for people who know exactly what they want, which is a surprisingly small share of the market. The great value of stores lies in customer service. For the customers who need to get a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” for their teenagers, but don’t know who wrote it (don’t laugh; I’ve waited on these people) and for the ones who need “a book on business plans for catering” or a wedding planner or any of the hundreds of other generic requests that booksellers handle every day, bookstores suit their needs by coddling them.

    For more sophisticated customers, the ambiance of a bookstore has meaning and a trip to a bookstore is a guilty pleasure. There is also the chance of coming across an unexpected treasure, something which is less likely when you’re relying on a keyword search. There’s also the chance to flip through the book, an activity that is sensual and resonant with sophisticated shoppers and of great practical value to the dolts.

    Independents are having a hard time of it, unfortunately, although I think that the better ones have created niches for themselves, either by serving areas untouched by the big boys or by specializing. there’s a new one planning to open near me in Decatur, Georgia, which is just adjacent to Atlanta. We’ve got our fingers crossed.

    Costco and WalMart and Target sell bestsellers below cost as loss leaders. This is why B&N and Borders sell bestsellers at such deep discounts. It is also an area in which independents have no chance to compete.

    So, in sum, I would say that you will continue to see the big superstore chains doing well and the independents having a hard time. I think bookstores are here to stay.

  10. Annalisa

    …Oops, I realize that our preferences aren’t really the issue here. You want to know about the possible future of bookselling. Hmm. I think that the numbers of bookstores may diminish (sadly), but brick-and-mortar stores will never become completely obsolete. Online bookstores may be aided by e-books and e-book readers, although I certainly don’t see myself converting from books to those things. My boyfriend would probably want one though.

  11. Jaye  Wells

    I grew up in bookstores and love visiting whenever I can. However, my four-year-old seems to suck all the relaxation out of browsing for new titles. Thus, Amazon is my friend.

    I wonder, though, if the increase in convenience-buying online might be an opportunity for independents who cater to niche markets.

  12. Liz

    Len writes, “For the customers who need to get a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” for their teenagers, but don’t know who wrote it (don’t laugh; I’ve waited on these people)”….

    No laughing here. Those same folks visit local libraries, reading lists in hand and have no idea that fiction books are shelved in alpha order by last name or that non fiction has a call number.

    I think you’ve hit on a possible reason why the bookstore will never disappear. Customer service will keep them in business. People are lazy and want to be catered to and in some cases spoonfed.

  13. Laurel Amberdine

    I glazed over trying to read that strategy paper, so I have no idea what Borders is planning.

    I’ve found, after a few years of shopping solely through Amazon, that I feel blind in a brick-and-mortar store. How can I find books that were shelved wrong? How do I find something when I can only remember the title? And most of all, what did I want anyway? Where’s my wish list!?

    Since I couldn’t manage to read the Borders release, I don’t know if they’re addressing my troubles. It would be nice if walk-in bookstores could add some of the services that the online stores offer: flexible searching, comparisons, reviews, and personalized lists.

    I do love to hang out in bookstores and browse shelves. I always wind up buying books… but they’re usually ones that dazzled me with a pretty cover, not books I’d been meaning to buy. Oops.

  14. Jennifer McK

    I love going online and finding the more obscure stuff that’s tough to find sitting on the shelves at bookstores.
    But nothing beats the smell, the feel and the sound of a bookstore. I have two different kinds of bookstores that meet two completely different moods.
    There’s a used bookstore that has the well loved, the first editions and the inexpensive waiting to be picked from the proverbial branches.
    Then, there’s the big, overwhelming bookstore with comfy chairs and foofy coffee.
    I love them both.

  15. Anonymous

    I adore browsing the shelves at the bookstore and finding a random treasure. I shop online for specific books, and rarely browse the website because it’s difficult to get a true sense of a book without being allowed to riffle through it. Especially books with lots of pictures. There is something very satisfying about holding a book and looking at gorgeous photos on heavy shiny paper. I don’t get that same feeling when I look at books online.

    That’s one reason why I think there will always be books printed and bound in the traditional sense. Electronic books are a fine idea for novels, but what about nonfiction books? For example, I bought the collection of National Geographic magazines on CD-ROM a while back, and while I love having 120 years of magazines in a package that weighs just a few pounds, the electronic version pales in comparison to the printed version. I wouldn’t pop in a CD and browse randomly for hours, as I would be inclined to do if I had a bookshelf full of magazines in front of me. It’s functional and practical to have them on CD-ROM, but not as much fun.

    So, I like going to the bookstore and holding a book in my hand. I am much more excited to buy that book than one I purchase from a fuzzy cover photo and some stranger’s recommendations. I may end up buying my books online, but I don’t think the physical bookstore browsing experience is something that can be replaced.

    My local bookstore has a nice used book section, which makes for great impulse buys since I know I can’t find it online for much less.

  16. The Anti-Wife

    If you’re looking for something specific and have the time to wait for it to be shipped, Amazon is a great way to go. The variety is amazing and the prices are good.

    If you just want the most current bestseller or Oprah’s latest book club pick, Costco and Walmart are quick, easy and cheap – instant gratification.

    If you want to see and touch the books – take your time to browse through the sections, pick a book and read a chapter to decide if it’s really what you want, then the superstores with their comfy chairs and cafes are great. They offer variety and ambiance.

    I believe that these 3 venues will continue to prosper for the forseeable future.

    The stores that seem most in danger of extinction are the small independents. Considering the overhead associated with bookstores, they will be unable to compete financially. It’s a shame because some of them offer the most personal purchasing experience, but the fiscal realities of our economy will eventually cause them to shut down.

  17. Peter R

    As a business analyst in the financial world I have struggled with the ‘clicks v bricks & mortar’ issue for many years. There are a number of broad trends that have emerged. 1) Customers expect to buy cheaper online. 2) Physical shopping has become a recreational experience. 3) Successful click companies tend to develop a b&m presence. 4) Successful b&m companies extend their range in cyberspace. 5) small b&m companies need a nieche. How does this translate to the world of books: Large bookstores must enter cyberspace to survive on both cost and range – the likes of Borders were mad to let Amazon develop a virtual monopoly, the fight back will now be long and hard. Physical bookstores must offer customers a shopping ‘experience’ – there is no substitute for flicking through a real book, but customers often need an extra reason to enter the store. That experience must be uniquely different to their competitors or they will be forced to amalgamate. Small book stores must offer the unique personal touch and build up a client base of loyal customers who know that if they don’t ‘use it they will lose it’ – reader groups, civic book of the month promotion, writer’s circles, mini book fairs, arts promotions, town writing competitions, workshops, loads of contacts with schools, meet the local author events, (including those who have self published/published on I don’t see a lot of local stores that do this at the moment, but those that do are thriving.

  18. Peter R

    PS. Ripley is awesome.

  19. Janet

    TV was going to kill movies too. And then videos were going to kill theaters… Granted, they did shake things up, but movie theaters are still around. Home systems can’t reproduce the huge screen, immense sound, and a crowd to share it with.

    In the same way, the Internet will not kill bookstores. It’s nice and efficient when you know which book you want and you’re going to order enough to eliminate shipping fees. When that’s the case, I buy online.

    But when you want to browse, look for a new author that seems promising, leaf through books to compare, nothing beats a bookstore. My husband and I go on bookstore “dates”, starting usually with a trip to the Starbucks and followed by an hour or so of browsing in different sections. There’s no way you can get that online.

  20. Meiran

    To the person who asked how they are supposed to find a book that is shelved incorrectly or where it is if they can only find the title:

    Ask a bookseller. That is far and above (as others have said) the thing that will save bookstores if they bookstores pay attention to what they have. It’s a golden resource. If a man comes in to the store and says “I need a book for my 14 year old daughter, but I don’t know what…” I can say “What does she like, what’s her favorite movie?” You can be as vague as you want, you can know almost nothing about a book, and it’s entirely likely we can help you.

    “There was a lady on NPR the other day…her book was something sister? Sister something? I don’t remember what show she was on, or what her name was, but it sounded good.”

    Yes, I’ve gotten that, and yes we did find the book for her and put it in her hand.

    As for shelving wrong, I know most of the common shelving mistakes, plus what displays a book is likely to be on.

    Long ramble made short: if bookstores make customer service and qualified experienced booksellers their priority, they will always have a place in the world. Brick and mortar and a person to talk to will always win in my world, mostly because I’ve had nothing but trouble from Amazon proper, and since I work at a bookstore, I can navigate them extremly easily.

    Plus, as someone else pointed out: Borders and B&N are still making money.

    (Also, I’ve been in a few Border’s Express, they seem to be Border’s Light on the outside but who knows what they’re ordering and backroom systems are like).

  21. mkcbunny

    Borderlands rocks. I happened in there the other day after work, not knowing a reading was scheduled. I wasn’t even sure who was speaking at the time, but I had an hour to spare and sat down to listen.

    That never happens at Amazon.

    P.P.S. Ripley rocks. You can get Ripley postcards, too.

  22. Maya Reynolds

    You asked for predictions. Here are mine:

    1) Niche retailers (mysteries, sci-fi, etc.) will move entirely online. The virtual marketplace overcomes the geographic and economic problems of small numbers of enthusiasts widely disbursed plus the heavy costs of bricks-and-mortar.

    2) Big box stores will continue their focus on volume sales of best sellers. Instead of expanding to mid-list, these stores will also carry books in various languages appealing to the immigrant population (Hispanic, Indian, Asian) in the immediate locality.

    3) Electronic books will continue to grow in popularity in direct relation to the development of more sophisticated e-reading devices at cheaper prices.

    4) Large bookchains (and independent booksellers who survive) will focus on book-related events and membership in clubs of varying prices and interests. Customers will be invited to join at the level that suits their needs.

    Author events will come with a price tag (whether it be paying full price for an autographed book or paying for a guaranteed seat). The chains will focus on building communities by giving workshops and offering space for bookclubs to meet.

    Thanks, Nathan, for this exercise. I enjoyed it.

  23. Heatheness

    Such interesting comments. Pardon the length of this one.

    I own an independent, brick and mortar, used and rare bookstore. I started it around 2 years ago with less than $5000 and under 1000 books. It’s in an east coast, rust belt city’s Little Italy neighborhood. I wrote a 3 year business plan, conservative as I could make it; I expected no significant profit until the end of year 3.

    When I opened at the end of 2005, I became the 4th used and rare shop in this supposedly dying town. I had no scanners, no searchable database, hell – no cash register. A recipe for failure? Hardly. I turned my first profit at month 13. I constantly have fresh stock because I trade vigorously, engage with book scouts, buy whole private libraries, and donate all the superfluous crap. The stock I carry has very little resemblence to what I thought I’d sell…but I know that I survived because of two things – my only mission was ‘to serve at the pleasure’ of my city’s readers, and second, I enjoy the support and comraderie of my colleagues. They and I know one another’s stock (and specialties) well, and tend to treat each other’s stores like our own back rooms. I have yet to go through a week without giving or getting a referral. There are readers enough for us all, and our cooperation is our strength.

    We do have competition that hurts us however: strip mall, off-price, overstock/remainder outlets; and the online heavy hitters: Amazon, ABE, Powells, though I often buy from them myself to fulfill special orders. (There is a huge demogrpahic over 50 who fearfully refuse to buy anything online and cheerfully pay me to do so for them.)

    The malls, Walmart/Costcos, Barnes and Noble, and Borders are all suburban here. They have a negigible effect on us in the city.

    But I confess – I am not all cooperation and live-and-let-live. I have made it my personal mission to put the last remainder outlet in town out of business. It’s within 2 miles of my store and I hate its existence with a burning white hot passion. It has horrible stock, the worst I have seen outside of an airport giftshop. It feels barren and weird and temporary, all fluouresence and cheap metal, as if at any moment it might turn into a cube-filled call center. Their employees know less than nothing – they make the average Barnes and Noble cashier look like a head librarian at Trinity College. Simply, this store must die. And it will. During my short tenure it has shrunk from 4000 square feet down to 1000. I can’t wait to dance in front of its FOR LEASE headstone.

    Anyway. I forgot to mention the best part. There is no downside. When it’s busy the store is a playground full of book people giving me good talk and money, and when it’s quiet, I write. So you other writers, save some start-up bread, quit the day job, and open a used bookstore already. You won’t regret it.

  24. Maya Reynolds

    heatheness: While I appreciate your joy in your used bookstore, understand that the proliferation of secondhand bookstores is viewed with dread by most writers, who fear such operations are cutting into their revenue. Writers are, of course, only paid on the sales of NEW books. The writers’ fear seems to be that the purchase of a used book *may* prevent the purchase of a new book.

    I think the flip side of that is that used books are often the place that writers can pick up new readers. A reader who is unwilling to risk $25 on a new book may very well be willing to spend $12 for that same book. And, if the bookseller deals in rare books as you do, that sale is unlikely to take dollars away from anyone but your own competition.

    Everyone is balancing on a thin wire. Publishers worry about the cash flow problems created by the “returns” system and about answering to their corporate parents. Bookstores worry about the thin margins created when big box stores or internet operations deeply discount the best-sellers. New writers worry that both publishers and bookstores will be unwilling to give them a chance since best-selling authors are less risky investments.

    I actually think that, as bricks-and-mortar chains like B&N and Borders seek new ways of boosting revenue, they might look into selling used books alongside the new books. In my opinion, that is a better move than selling unvetted self-published books, which Borders appears to be considering.

    I guarantee you–the first time I purchase a badly written self-published book in a Borders (not recognizing it as such), it will be the last time I purchase a book there.

  25. Heatheness

    Maya, do you think that authors view used and rare bookstores as competition for THEIR profit? Really? I’ve never heard that. Not once. Not anywhere.

    I hazard to contradict you and say that real writers don’t think that. At all. Ask any published author if they’d rather see their used or remaindered books destroyed rather than turning on a new reader. Because that is the real choice here: garbage or new reader. The existence of used bookstores does not hurt an author’s ability to reprint. The only thing that effects THAT is the quality of the writing and the risk the publisher was willing to take on them in the first place. Used bookstores have nothing to do with it.

    What the self-published writers do and think is of no concern to me, either as a bookstore owner, or as simply a reader of good books. FWIW, apart from the chapbooks of local poets, I don’t carry self-published ANYTHING, and neither do any of the other bookstores in town.

    Is this common in other parts of the country? Maya’s post seemed to imply that used bookstores can be veritable warehouses for self-published “books”. Sorry, but this is a foreign concept to me.

    Although, as a writer myself, I say let the self-published go right ahead and throw their good money after their bad writing. That’s their right. And continued power to them, because they make you and me look all the wiser. Darwinism. It’s evolution, baby.

    That said, the used and rare bookstores I know ALL promote real authors exclusively. We frigging HAND-SELL their books, giving those authors new readers on a silver (albeit dented and somewhat dog-eared) platter. I sell books of theirs that would have otherwise been a strata of landfill. And since I read them, collect them, compile them, clean them, price them, shelve them and sell them, I think I more than earn the right to make a few cents.

    Just out of curiousity, do you view thrift stores as bottom feeders on the apparel industry? Or aluminum recyclers as sycophants on the beverage industry? How about used cars? Is that wrong too, is it hurting the auto industry irreparably?

    I just don’t get your beef at all. Why aim a shot at used bookstores and not at every single person who lists their already-read books online and resells them? Those people aren’t a stablizing force in their communities as I am. Those people, selling their books for a cent and then making $3 profit on the shipping, how do you figure that they’re more acceptable and author-loving than a store such as mine that actually preserves the appreciation of the writer not to mention the value of the book itself?

    Because I made a pittance off a book that was never going to see penny one of any further profit, reprint or otherwise, anyway? Whatever. Go back to Borders, then. And stay there; you might as well, because surely none of their profit does. Whereas ALL of mine, little as it is, stays right here. So put that in your conglomerate owned big-box, book-buying pipe and smoke on it.

  26. Nathan Bransford


    Actually, in my humble opinion used books really are something the industry has to contend with. I don’t think the problem is so much with used bookstores, but potentially with the fact that Amazon and other online retailers now sell used books along with new — it’s now extremely easy for a consumer to buy a used book now, much easier than it used to be. In an industry with very small profit margins to begin with, both for publishers and authors, it’s yet another thing to contend with.

  27. Heatheness

    I understand your point, Nathan. I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree with it. I already mentioned the like examples of thrift stores, recyclers, and used cars.

    For what you said to be true (about us negatively affecting the take home pay of an author) you’d have to also say something retarded like libraries are hurting the bottom line of authors too, as soon as they lend the book more than once. And do you say that? Of course not. Libraries serve a further purpose, that of promoting literacy (and thus all writers), as well as promoting individual writers whose books are desired by the local population of readers. Which, funny, is exactly what I do, except I charge nominal amount and you get to keep the book.

    Yet I also pay the taxes and attend the fundraisers that make libraries in my county possible. You won’t ever hear me complain that they’re my competition, or even that I’m the least unhappy to do it; I’m not. The more readers, the better. And I say that as a citizen, not just as a bookstore owner.

    Listen, what you describe is an apocrypha. There aren’t ANY readers or independent booksellers who DON’T want authors to make more money and sell more books. To say a store like mine and/or readers who resell something they already paid retail for once are taking money from the pockets of authors….it’s just not so.

    There’s much more to the world of the reader and life of a book than what takes place in retail. It’s enriching for society, not enpauvrating for the author. That’s all I’m saying (even if I had to make up a word to do it).

  28. Nathan Bransford

    Libraries are a somewhat different case because they tend to only buy one book, and it constrains the number of people that could read a book for free.
    But mostly it’s a volume issue. If someone can go on Amazon and choose between a much cheaper used copy and a new copy, if they chose the used copy that’s a potential sale, and royalty, lost for the author. A couple of sales, then hey, no big deal, but if thousands and thousands of people do this it adds up.

    Publishing is a very small margin industry, and while I appreciate your overall point about literacy and about an author building a fan base, I also don’t think ignoring the effect on publishers and authors is the whole story.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really love bookstores that sell both new and used books (such as Borderlands), I love the Strand, etc. etc. I’m not trying to cast a stone against all used book sales. However a consequence of the digital age is that it may become too easy to buy a used book via the internet, and that could potentially be cause for concern.

    I put my money where my mouth is on this one — I have not bought a used book since I became a literary agent. I want the author to benefit from the fact that I read their book.

  29. Heatheness

    In my sorta rabid ranting I forgot to mention that I agreed with what Nathan said about online sellers simultaneously offering new and used copies. That does divert the profit flow in gross favor of the online entity at the clear expense of both author and publisher.

    I don’t know what to do about that either, except participate as little as possible. As a reader, I don’t buy my own reading material online, and as a bookseller, I don’t offer my stock online because I’m much too busy concentrating on providing my neighborhood what it wants to read.

    Advice for the publishers? I don’t know, adapt? Join forces and pressure amazon to do what you want, whether it’s pay more for new books, or make it less profitable for readers and warehousers to sell used books that are still in print. Just please don’t blame recycling readers and brick-and-mortars anymore for the difficulty behemoths face in adapting quickly to market conditions.

  30. Maya Reynolds

    Sorry, I’ve been occupied with other things and just got back to this post.

    Heatheness: As Nathan says, this IS an issue. Important enough that the Book Industry Study Group did a huge study on it about 18 months ago. Their findings indicated that, in 2004, about one out of every twelve books sold is a used book. They projected that, within five years, the number is expected to be one out of eleven.

    The Associated Press said in 9/05 that “this is a troubling trend when sales of new works are essentially flat; [and] authors and publishers receive no royalties from used buys.”

    Nathan is exactly right. Readers once had to drive from one used bookstore to another to find a book because inventories weren’t computerized. Nowadays, buying a used book takes seconds on the Internet.

    I suspect that you were so outraged by my original comment that you didn’t read my post carefully. I did not connect used books and self-published writers at all. I DID say that Borders is considering getting into the self-published business, and I DID say that I would not be happy to find myself accidentally buying a badly written self-published book.

    Nathan made the other points I would have made in response to you.

  31. Heatheness

    Oh my God, how funny. These are some of the biggest fiscal and philosophical challenges to face modern publishing, and we killed the thread – dead – just by discussing it. Yay us, Maya (and NB) for trying to hash it out anyway.

    But listen, come on now, let’s be cool. I read and dug what you said without any problem whatsoever. (I simply don’t agree.) And I have no issue with the results of the BISG thing either; I’m just a wee bit perplexed there was a need to do a study on it in the first place. I mean, there are used books floating around that retain some value?? Ya think? I wonder what that totally obvious conclusion cost them. They could find nothing better to research with that money and time? (tongue in cheek, tongue in cheek… I’m sure there were more detailed reasons and results.)

    Anyway, I think we can agree that many used books exist and accumulate, not too many for the whole world, but definitely too many for publishers to realize growth in profits by using a strategy that focuses on new books alone.

    But maybe (ok, not just maybe) there is a direct, BLOODY NON-COINCIDENTAL correlation between there being TOO MANY NEW books THIS year, and TOO MANY USED books the NEXT.

    In other words, YES, too many used books today means that yesterday there were too many new ones.

    And my main bitch is that books are not single-use napkins. They never were, and they never will be. So how dare publishing EVER blame anyone but itself and its own decisions for not being able to maintain profitability without requiring that “A” – the authors and/or other publishing workers starve, as well as “B” – the readers burn Peter’s books in order to make room for Paul’s.

    You guys seem so nice and intelligent, wherefore comes this mental block between cause and effect here? And why so loathe to lay the responsibility for publishing’s precarious state of affairs at the feet of the corporations who created the conditions?


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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