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What will the publishing industry look like if all physical bookstores go the way of Borders? Publishing-industry observer Mike Shatzkin doesn’t know, but he thinks publishers shouldn’t want to find out for as long as possible.

Some publishers report that the growth rate of e-book sales seems to be tapering off, However, other publishers report that their own e-book growth rate continues. And as more e-books sell, physical book sales go by the wayside—and with them go the bookstores that are selling them. UK analysts, as reported in the Guardian, predict a 40% decline in all “high street” brick-and-mortar stores over the next five years—books aren’t the only things moving to on-line sales.

Shatzkin discusses a couple of presentations on the matter scheduled for the next Publishers Launch Conference at BookExpo on June 4th. One, from the Ingram Content Group, will cover the detailed statistics that company has compiled over the shape of the marketplace today so publishers can see what the current trends are.

We will also have a data-rich and sobering presentation from Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group . Hildick-Smith and his team have been surveying book consumers on a quarterly basis for nearly a decade. Their work is high-level and expensive and is normally only available to the big companies that can afford to subscribe. But Hildick-Smith sees a crisis ahead for the industry in his data, and he cares enough about our collective future to want to sound an alarm. He’ll be doing that our June 4 event.

And what he sees and documents is the critical role bookstores play in consumer discovery of new books and authors. He demonstrates with data and logic that SEO and social media are totally inadequate substitutes. Hildick-Smith thinks a future without bookstores will be very different than the present. He makes the case that author brands established in the bookstore era will be largely unchallenged when the bookstore ladder gets pulled up and future authors can’t climb it. And he believes that publishers don’t appreciate that all measures, even desperate measures, are called for to preserve the brick store base as long as possible.

The question is, how?

Shatzkin discusses a disastrously failed experiment from the 1950s on the part of his father, Leonard Shatzkin, at Doubleday. The elder Shatzkin thought it would be a good idea to reduce the discounts given to wholesalers (who just warehouse books until they’re ordered) in favor of retailers (who actually push them at the store-going public). As Shatzkin tells it, the wholesalers “went ballistic” and the policy was rescinded after a very short time.

But Shatzkin suggests the time might have arrived when publishers may wish to start reconsidering applying something similar. At the moment, bookstores, including small ones, don’t get the discounts that bigger wholesalers are offered—and Amazon, going for volume, discounts them all under the table.

We’ve already seen one large bookstore chain and one small Maine bookstore chain go entirely out of business. Barnes & Noble is managing to stay afloat for now, perhaps in part on the strength of its Nook e-book reader and online sales. But what happens if—or when—they all go away?

As Shatzkin points out, the thing that makes traditional publishers so powerful at the moment is that they have the ability to put authors’ books on retail store shelves. If physical stores go away, there’s not a whole lot they can do for most authors that those authors can’t do for themselves just as well if they’re willing to do the work. And where will the publishers be then?

I’ll tell you where they’ll be—even more at the mercy of Amazon.com than they already are. If publishers were so scared of Amazon they were willing to risk antitrust scrutiny by throwing over the entire accepted pricing structure of e-books, you’d think they’d be a little more willing to do what they could to prolong the life of bookstores.

 
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