Anyone who’s been in publishing for long knows that everything cycles out. Certain genres are all the rage for a time, then they ease back into the shadows while something else catches the public’s fancy. Bram Stoker’s fame wanes for a time, then Anne Rice emerges. Then vampires retreat again back into the dark shadows, only to later see Stephenie Meyer bite into stardom.
Of course, my generation is the bridge between the golden years of print newspapers and now, for better or worse, news by iPhone. Nothing in publishing is as consistently unchanging as change.
Change is the norm as well in other facets of publishing. Take the Freddie Krueger-like reputation of big-box retail giants like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Wal-Mart. For years I’ve heard Nervous Nellie bookstore owners whine about the competition and complain about the price under-cutting practiced by certain retailers when it comes to books.
Well, guess what? America was built on competition and innovation. Challenges are meant to be embraced and met. And when I hear independent booksellers complaining about big-box retailers pushing them out of business, I am reminded of a great bit of wisdom my mother dispensed once.
We live in Wal-Mart country. The business maverick Sam Walton, a generation ago, decided that people would buy cheaply priced goods. Over time, after being mocked, Walton was vindicated; we all know the Wal-Mart story.
In the town where I live, I heard retailers decrying a move by Wal-Mart to put a store on the outskirts of town. “They’ll kill business!” was the usual cry.
But my dear mother said, “They complain about competition from Wal-Mart, but I remember when these mercantiles were the only game in town and they raised prices because they knew people had little choice. So the story goes both ways.”
She’s quite correct, of course. Which brings me to the real state of book-selling in America: Nobody is so big they crush smaller competitors forever. Often, as with everything else in life, one needs only some good old-fashioned perseverance.
It was reported some months ago that the Borders chain was experiencing severe cash-flow problems. It’s hard to believe, if you see the gleaming stores from the sidewalk and then venture in to partake of the easy atmosphere, coffee and treasure trove of books.
Still, the retail icon has been beset with severe problems.
Then this week, it was announced that B&N wasn’t immune from trouble, either.
In a Wall Street Journal article by James Stewart (I especially liked him in “Rear Window”), we learned that B&N is not eternal:
“The giant bookstore chain, whose superstores once struck fear into the hearts of independent booksellers everywhere, put itself up for sale this month,” Stewart writes, “rendering it the corporate equivalent of the remaindered books it sells at a discount.
“The company said it made the move because its shares are undervalued, but to me there was an air of desperation about it,” he adds.
Stewart (I was kidding about the movie thing; he was clearly better in Westerns) then outlined several blunders the retail giant made in losing market share:
“The simple explanation for Barnes & Noble’s decline is the Internet, which spawned Amazon.com, e-readers and digital books. But that didn’t have to be the end for B&N, which had a dominant market position and should have out-Amazoned Amazon, leveraging its brand and innovating when it began marketing and selling books online.
“I know exactly when B&N lost me as a customer,” he writes. “Some years ago, to compete with Amazon, B&N began offering free same-day delivery in Manhattan if you placed your order over the Internet by 11 a.m. I did so several times – and not once did the books arrive when promised. Everything I have ordered from Amazon has arrived on time or earlier. Then came Amazon’s game-changing Kindle and instant delivery. Nothing I’ve read about B&N’s belated rival Nook has tempted me to try it.”
I spend quite a bit of time schlepping through airports, and while I do want, as my geek brother-in-law mocks, a computer the size of a matchbox (“Yes, I do, Brent”), I want it because my love of reading puts straining weight on my luggage. I’d trade four hardcover books and shoulder surgery for an e-reader.
So Stewart rightly observes that technology and cultural changes have been a weapon against the once-feared (and loathed by independents?) big-box retailers. Which proves that no one is a Goliath forever, and things cycle out.
Hear Stewart again: “I can’t say I miss physical books. My shelves are already groaning and can’t accommodate any more. I do miss the bookstore I grew up with in the Midwest and the small stores that once dotted my neighborhood. Could B&N’s decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller?”
Isn’t that interesting? Fascinating! We’ve come full-circle. For decades, independents enjoyed their own monopolies, as book buyers dropped in from rainy sidewalks to spend a lazy afternoon reading and purchasing. Then Sam Walton appeared and contributed to worried independents peering through their window blinds to see if anyone might come in today. Then technology emerged from the almost creepy minds of people like Steve Jobs, and voila, the scary creatures dominating malls and city blocks were themselves victims of declining market share.
And here we are again, perhaps in a brave new world in which e-readers co-exist relatively peacefully with that once-frightened independent bookshop on the corner.
We already have disappearing Borders. I can’t wait until Wal-Mart offers discounted e-readers!