A Chinese abacus
A Chinese abacus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently mentioned on the Kitchen that I was participating in a survey on book discovery and purchasing. The results are in, and can be viewed over at the O’Reilly Tools of Change blog.

I contributed some thoughts on the results, mainly commenting on one item, the fact that print seems to play a larger role in the book business than many now believe and that bricks-and-mortar bookstores remain excellent venues for learning about new titles.

The problem we have now is that the new online venues have not yet made up for what we are losing as bookstore after bookstore closes down. When all of publishing becomes virtual, will the publications themselves be deemed to be less central to our lives?

Speculation on this topic is invited.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


20 Thoughts on "The Results Are In — A Survey of Book Purchasers"

The demise of the paper book is bogus. People will always want books, especially the young. This reporter seems to forget that you can buy books on line which is why traditional book stores are closing. No expensive overheads to jack up the costs when selling online.
Industries all go in cycles. Did the introduction of TV kill radio or movies as was once predicted? No, publishers will regroup and flourish after getting rid of some of the dead weight.

Mixed emotions on this post. Great up to, “…you can buy books on line which is why traditional book stores are closing. No expensive overheads to jack up the costs when selling online.
Industries all go in cycles. Did the introduction of TV kill radio or movies as was once predicted? No, publishers will regroup and flourish after getting rid of some of the dead weight.”

Actually, that is NOT the reason traditional bookstores are closing. They are closing because the giants in the bookselling business, online or bricks and mortar, get special prices from the publishers, so they can offer (sometimes quite large) discounts, so economy minded readers (and who isn’t economy minded nowadays?) shop the traditional bookstore to see what’s out that they want to buy, then go to the Internet and buy it for less. Since this cuts deeply into the traditional booksellers sales and profit, many are finding it to be unprofitable to stay in business.

The solution? I can’t say I have one for a free market economy, but surely the publishers, independent distributors and booksellers can come up with something workable. We all just have to work at it. I am a small, niche publisher AND a bricks and mortar bookseller, so know whereof I speak. Every day I see reports from my independent distributor showing as much as a 15% difference in discount that the big guys, particularly Amazon. This is pretty discouraging to an independent bookseller, as, in reality, those biggies have as much or maybe even more overhead (huge receiving and shipping warehouses and staff to support the operation) than a traditional bricks and mortar bookseller.

I apologize for the double posting, but this blog didn’t show that they received it the first time, so I rewrote it, slightly differently, and posted again. The second posting is by far better written than the first, where I was hurried in writing. Sorry!

A great post, up to here: “…you can buy books on line which is why traditional book stores are closing. No expensive overheads to jack up the costs when selling online.” This just isn’t true. The economy minded book buyer (and who isn’t economy minded these days?) goes to the traditional bookstore, shops and discusses books while deciding what to buy, then goes to the Internet and buys it cheaper, often much cheaper. THAT’S what is putting the independent, bricks and mortar booksellers out of business.

It isn’t due to less overhead, as the big online booksellers have at least (huge warehouses, huge inventories, lots of staff to process the shipping and receiving) as much, if not more overhead than the independent bricks and mortar bookseller. Those big Internet booksellers can offer those (sometimes ridiculously large) discounts because they are getting as much as 15% more discount from the publishers and independent distributors than the independent bookseller gets. I am an independent bricks & mortar bookseller AND a small, independent publisher (a real publisher, not one just self-publishing) who has a big independent distributor, and I see daily reports showing those big guys, particularly Amazon, getting as much as 15% more discount on my books than the independent bookstores are getting on the very same books.

End result, the sales drop off at the independent bookseller and once he becomes unprofitable, he closes the doors.

The solution? I’m certain that I don’t know the answer, but surely in the coming months/years, the publishers, independent distributors and the independent booksellers should be able to come up with SOME sort of solution that would work in our free market economy.

In some cases it’s less a question of discount than one of margin. A huge bookseller can get by on a tiny profit per item if one is selling an enormous number of items. That’s Amazon’s modus operandi in a nutshell. It should also be noted that Amazon, like Walmart and other big box retailers, is frequently willing to use books as a loss leader, selling them at a price below cost to bring buyers into the store who will likely also purchase other items that are more profitable. And don’t forget that shipping is a profit center for most well run businesses as well–sell the books at cost and then make a few bucks by overcharging for shipping.

But you’re right, like Walmart, a store that big can get away with making demands on a producer that a smaller store can’t. What publishers really need to do is be willing to sacrifice in the short term in order to benefit in the long term. More details here:

Books won’t disappear. They provide too many tactile pleasures, never run out of power, hardly anybody wants to steal them. But ebooks are convenient. They are especially good for impulse buys—something you just heard about or read about in a review.

The paper book market will stabilize once the mass bookstore chain (Barnes & Noble) experiment is over. Turns out the bookstore experience is not scalable. Readers like small, quirky bookstores staffed by other readers who are thoughtful and knowledgeable. Price is an issue, but perhaps not always a decisive one: The quality of the shopping and buying experience is worth something.

Our clients who published first in eBook form are now coming back for a print version. They report that their buyers are asking for a “real” book. I hope print is here to stay. eBooks are ugly, and I don’t want to contemplate the demise of the beautifully composed book page.

We do a great deal of ‘gazing at our own navels’ in the publishing world. Expectations of paradigm shifts abound and the demise of printed books, along with the ubiquitous ‘celebrity’ onslaught, are often heralded as the portents of a new age.

In reality, our literary world will probably look much the same in twenty years time.

As a previous commentor stated; printed books remain highly popular for a variety of good reasons, not the least of which is that they are visually appealing and don’t require batteries. EBooks will also flourish as an alternative (for those who require technology for everything) and as a pragmatic solution for those who wish to travel with their library. They will also enlarge the reading market due to the price point of publications and multi-media capabilities that will become increasingly available.

These are all surely positive moves.

Bricks and mortar stores have adjusted their inventories to the demand for celebrity, but they may need to ‘right size’ if profit margins continue to be squeezed and they may need to react quickly to changes in thus demand or suffer the consequences. Niche book stores need to add value and ensure they makes sales, either from books, or that added value. There remains a healthy opportunity for this who do. None of this is unique to the publishing world.

There will be winners and losers but that’s life in any industry, let’s be a tad more optimistic about the future.

As a small publisher living and printing in Laos — not an average country and one where citizens have no developed reading habit and only a handful of titles in their language — I get by well enough. With a small print run of 1,000 books, each works out at about $2.60. I sell for $10, a bit cheaper than the same books on electronic version. Trade price to other outlets is $6, still over double my costs. With large print runs there should be no problem reducing prices to below that of Amazon. I also sell second hand books — a new book has a second hand value, an electronic version does not, and a book can be sold second hand a dozen times. With a bit less greed, real books can be made available to people at a fraction of the price seen in W.H. Smiths etc. Setting a book on a computer is quickly learnt and a book can be out in real form in days, not years. The big publishers have only themselves to blame for falling profits. What else in the world can provide the pleasure of a $10 good book — or a $4 second hand book?

I wonder if your business model can be applied to countries where printing is more expensive, but book buyers are used to paying more. A profit of $3,400 to $7,400 (minus author costs) per book is handsome for a small print run. A list of even 10 books is a nice living.

You make an excellent point about second-hand books. Ebooks have no aftermarket. But publishers will surely figure that out someday. Because they are electronic without need for warehousing, they are potentially always in “print.” Presumably publishers will soon decide the electronic storage space is too expensive for that, if they haven’t already,

Possibly my example cannot be applied to other countries with tougher regulations and tax and many of our advantages might disappear with ‘diseconomies of scale’ if we grew too large. We do pay author royalty costs at the usual 10% — although by agreement with author and his agents we provide this to local charity (literacy promotion), and I am myself author of three of our steady bestsellers. As a small family business, storage is a bit of a problem — we live above the shop and share living space with stock. Other problems are the weather and ants! (They literally eat into profits.) There is also just one ‘regular’ bookshop in the country selling new books at above the market price and having understandings with ‘foreign’ publishers that they will not sell to any other retail units in Laos. But the regular bookshop buys from us at trade — since it is cheaper than ordering from the USA etc and they get a delivery in ten minutes not 3 months (and do not pay entry/import charges, since we print only within Laos — and I do a lot of the work with the printer). While we stock second hand books on all subjects and mainly English, French and German, with some Lao, our new books are only on Laos. So we are a specialist shop (I have even exported my book The Hmong to the USA). We currently have a stable of 15 books and increase by two a year. We know many of our customers personally rather than email Amazon type communications. While small, we are the second biggest bookshop in the country and the only one publishing and printing in the country — so 2/3 of what we print is sold by other outlets including the airport departure lounge. We also carry all maps on Laos. In many ways we are the friendly neighbourhood bookshop — but we gave up serving free coffee (!), — having a niche market is very important to us. We are open 7/7 for 12 hours a day but it is fun and does not feel like work. I can see our model applying in London and Paris as a specialist bookshop with a personal touch — we have a lot of repeat customers — but a 1,000 print run does take two years to sell, so time is a factor. And if we had VAT and greater staff costs, the venture might not work. But it has done so for 7 years and we feel comfortably established. Specialisation and personal service are qualities the customers appreciate — and even Lonely Planet gives us a good write up.

As an author and publisher I can tell you that the future of bookstores and ink & paper novels are, sad to say on the road to the same fate as a buggy whip. The reason as I see it, is because that the as the younger generation becomes more accustomed to their Kindle’s, Nooks, etc. and the technology that supports them, their demands will create a price structure that will slowly and surely make it impossible for tradition publishing companies to be competitive or to exist. The costs of traditional business practices in the industry cannot compete against the new technology that allows any author to upload a word processed document one time and offer it for sale at a cost far, far less than a multi-paged, well designed book covered book that sits on a shelf in a brick & mortar store that pays exorbitant costs to rent the space, pay employees and other related costs. It is inevitable.

In some ways I agree with you James, but in others I disagree.

I feel that although the new technology will eventually win out, but not as quickly as that which happened to the buggy-whip business. The absolute majority of book-buyers (excepting textbook buyers) today are folks in the age groups of 45 – 80+, and even though they buy Kindle readers, Nooks, etc., for traveling, the great majority still prefer the actual printed books (not necessarily hardbacks). I have a small, bricks and mortar bookstore, so I do have a handle on this, as every single day one or more customers tell me just that.

When you write, “…the new technology that allows any author to upload a word processed document one time and offer it for sale at a cost far, far less…,” you are only technically correct, as the MAJOR costs of producing a quality book, be it a digital book or a printed book, are 1. the costs of editing (I am a professional publisher and editor of both printed books and eBooks, and I have yet to see ANY self-published book (eBook or printed, i.e., POD, book, except a very, very few best selling novelists with deep enough pockets to support their own “publishing company”, that was worth my bothering to consider making any approach to the author to become his or her “publisher”, 2. the costs of interior book design, which is just as important in an eBook in a printed book (although slightly less, as typesetting—assuming that the eBook won’t be published in a PDF version—is unnecessary), 3. professional cover design (although a bit less than a printed book, as you don’t have to worry about a spine and a back cover) and 4. professional proofreading.

Since 99% of all author-published eBooks (and POD books) don’t usually do these things (or do them poorly), that 99% is just not worth reading. No matter how soon or how late the new technology is in coming, ALL of these things I have listed are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, or there will be no way for a book buyer to differentiate between a GOOD BOOK, A GREAT BOOK or the ABSOLUTE CRAP that is flooding the market today.

I was glad to finally see a numerical snapshot of book buyers that showed how the decisions are made. It’s critical now, for especially booksellers to find a way to tool up[ for the changing playing field and remain profitable. It’s not going to be easy, but the large middle percentage of the survey (37%) that showed they buy BOTH print and eBooks indicates that there is still a possibility for booksellers to find a way to remain or try to reach profitability. I see it as a call to manufacturing engineers. Think back twenty-five years, when if you wanted to process a roll of film, it would have to be sent to a distant, large-scale photolab for processing and printing. That was replaced overnight, very suddenly by the quick adoption of in-store, stand-alone processing equipment that would process and print for you while you waited. The equipment successfully made the shift over to all-digital, when the time came, and many Staples and Office Depots and UPS stores now offer full ranges of digital printing services. Today, the call will be for the equivalent in a stand-alone, high-quality digital Print on Demand System. I can see the bookstore of the future still offering a comfortable waiting area with lattes and pastries while you wait for your book to be printed. Booksellers would receive the digital POD files from publishers, and would have the option of printing some inventory if they foresaw or felt sufficient demand. It would eliminate lots of inventory storage and liability and the terrible drag on the bottom line that unsold inventory creates. A large section of their bricks and mortar showroom could be given over to multi-media book promotion and excerpt, but the possibility for a print book would always exist. I believe it can be done, if the engineers are up to a challenge.

Analogy with digital photography is most apt. It must be added that people who never took a photo in their lives now snap away and send each other pics on their phones. But they never seem to get around to printing out a traditional photograph. The advent of tablets means they can keep endless pictures and flash through them to find what they want to show others, and show them in reasonably large format, horizontal or vertical. The showing is important — it is like the communication between writer and reader — and I understand hard copy prints can be made if wanted. I do remember that the first digital cameras were poo-hoo’d by professionals as unable to deliver quality. I stuck to my film and enlarger and carried around my Nikon reflex — until one day I found I could have a camera that fitted into a shirt pocket and did the same job without the expense and time related to film-photography. And personal editing on a computer is infinitely better than going to a photo-shop. On the other hand, SLRs have made a comeback — the latest ones offer much more than the old ones, although they don’t (yet) fit into a shirt pocket.

The horse and carriage still exists. It is no longer essential for transport. It serves other functions. And having a city full of horses was expensive and polluting. So if we are out of business in a few years, or if our business is reserved for those few who want a trip back into nostalgia or collection of ‘antique’ items, there’s nothing much to be done about it. As Darwin said: it is not the most intelligent or strongest who survive but the most adaptable.

The problem with the idea that bookstores are “excellent venues for learning about….” is that if the discovery is not matched by a purchase then the bookstore looks much more like a free library than it does a viable business

Strategyptic makes the first mention so far of libraries (or learning resource centres as they are too often called). That’s a bit surprising really. If readers are buying from the internet and using kindles because they are cheaper and can hold a thousand books — what could be cheaper or better stocked than a library, most of which are completely free and many of which will obtain any book not in their stock through inter-library loan in a delay much the same as getting a book from Amazon. Libraries with free use of books have been around a long time — and in most European countries are easily accessible, comfortable and combine social aspects of a community. Are libraries also affected by the internet? During many decades I don’t remember any book-seller complaining that internet sales affected bricks and mortar bookshops. I don’t now live in a country with libraries, but I am curious to know if existing libraries in the west could purchase electronic copies of a book and make these available on the same basis as real books.

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