Thursday, October 03, 2013

Where Is This Thing Going?

I love bookstores. My wife and I both do. Roaming the aisles, picking up books that catch our eye, then meeting back at the cafe for a latte has been a favorite date night activity for a long time. It's been especially fun over the last 5 years, since my own novels have started showing up on bookstore shelves (that's my newest one on the right...shameless plug). But I've noticed some unsettling trends in the past few years when we visit bookstores.

Perhaps you have, too.

  • We don't see as many people walking through the aisles.
  • Or as many book titles on the fiction shelves.
  • Or as many copies of my books, or my author friends' books, on the shelves.
In the last 2 years, I've been reading poll after poll, survey after survey, blog after blog and they all seem to be telling me why. We are in the midst of a massive, tectonic shift in the publishing world. Or maybe better said, in the book-buying world. Things are moving increasingly toward online stores and Ebooks and away from the traditional bookstore.

Let's take a look at the hottest-selling books in the Kindle store on Amazon at the moment, see if we can learn anything about what's selling and why:
  • 7 of the Top 10 Bestsellers on Kindle are full-priced books (in the $10-11 range). Most are "brand name" authors like O'Reilly, Stephen King, James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks.
  • But if we extend this list out to the Top 20 Bestsellers, we find 9 books priced at $2.99 or less.
This tells me that lots of people are still willing to shell out decent money for authors they already know and love. But even more readers are willing to buy books by less well-known authors if the books are drastically reduced in price. Another factor...all these books averaged 4 to 4.5 Stars (or better), so it's clear good ratings matter, too.

What do we find when we narrow the focus to Amazon's Top 10 Bestsellers in Christian Fiction (again, looking at Kindle sales)? As far as pricing goes, it's a little different story:

  • Only 1 of the Top 10 Bestsellers could be considered "full-priced," although 2 are in the $8 range. But 5 of the Top 10 are significantly discounted at $2.99 or less.
  • Extend the list to the Top 20, we find 12 (the majority) are discounted books at $3.99 or less.
Once again, all 20 of these novels have reviews averaging 4 to 4.5 Stars (or better). So once again, solid ratings are another thing that really matters (not just low price).

When I look at numbers like this, it's no wonder sales at brick-and-mortar bookstores are in serious decline. People are able to instantly preview, then download well-reviewed books for $2-4 a piece. That's several dollars less than what mass-market paperbacks used to go for.

And it's not just Ebooks that are selling well. Readers who love to turn real paper pages are increasingly buying their books online rather than at the bookstore. Whenever I get with readers to chat I ask them about their book-buying habits. I keep hearing the same thing. More and more are buying them online, for two main reasons:

  1. Price - they often get print books at much lower prices.
  2. Availability - they can instantly order whatever book they want (complain they often can't find what they want at bookstores anymore, especially when buying books in a series).
I hate to say this but...unless we experience a horrific solar flare or a huge asteroid knocks out all our internet satellites, I don't see a bright future for the traditional bookstore. It seems like it's just a matter of time before this massive shift in the book-buying world relegates the bookstore to the ranks of the Smith-Corona typewriter, the horse and buggy or old wooden ships.

Am I overstating this? What do you see up ahead? Where do you think all this is going? What kind of things do you think will stay the same? What kind of things will permanently change?

Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 8 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, Remembering Christmas and The Dance. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 2 Selah Awards. Six of his books have been Top Picks on RT Reviews. Two were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year. Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take long walks. To connect with Dan or check out his books, go to: http://danwalshbooks.com

17 comments:

jubileewriter said...

I realize even more how true this is. Recently I went to the library with my granddaughter to get her some books. I had to renew my library card. It had expired three years ago. I was shocked. My reading habits have not changed. I several books a month. The difference-I got my Kindle three years ago and I can find many books free or as you say at drastically reduced prices. A a few years before that I found myself ordering books online to save money. A used copy has the sames words as a new one.
Yes, Dan, times they are a changin'.
Cindy Huff

Dan Walsh said...

You're right, Cindy. I hadn't even brought up all the changes with libraries. Many of them are making Ebooks available to 'borrow.' When Ebooks first came out, that was one thing put forth as a benefit to writers, afraid their incomes would disappear if people could buy Ebooks so cheaply, then be able to allow others to read their copy. Back then, everyone had to buy their own copy. Not anymore.

Gina Holmes said...

I think you're right. But, I hope a new kind of bookstore emerges. Because I love browsing, holding, and the atmosphere. Maybe one where you can browse and read and drink a cup of coffee and download the books I find on the shelf right to my ereader from there, thus they earn a commission? Not sure.

Nicole said...

Dan, let me speak to CBA bookstores first. I come from a retail background so I'm well aware of overhead and profit margins. Most Christian bookstores I've attended (and I've worked in two stores in the distant past) fill their stores with paintings, nicknacks, jewelry, T-shirts and other limited clothing, etc. They're not fully bookstores in the classical sense. The mark-up is considerable even though most of the help receives minimum wage. Some of the stores have warehouses which can reduce the overall costs by keeping reserves. However, every quarter these stores can also return books for credit (so wrong), and some of those were returned by customers who didn't "like" them. If they reduced their inventory and maybe their markup margin and decided to keep their books at competitive prices, they might not be in this predicament. Granted, competing with $2.99 or Free ebooks is impossible, but many readers prefer bound books to ebooks but don't want to pay exorbitant prices for a book they might feel less than enthusiastic about. Paying a cheap price for a Kindle copy and not liking it is much like buying a bad cup of coffee: oh well.

Ebooks give readers an opportunity for inexpensive trial and error. Buying "real" books in this economy doesn't afford them that luxury. It's a trend that is being strengthened by the less than competitive prices at bookstores.

I preferred Borders to Barnes&Noble, but they didn't practice sound business and had to fold. B&N is treading water as we speak and might also go by the wayside. Christian bookstores are closing stores all over the country or being bought, often by other businesses. It takes good business skills to survive in this economy. Reducing fiction, in my opinion, is the oppositie of what should be done because many readers need escapes from the current state of our country and resort to stories to alleviate their stresses.

Just my opinions on this sore subject/trend.

Nicole said...

Dan, let me speak to CBA bookstores first. I come from a retail background so I'm well aware of overhead and profit margins. Most Christian bookstores I've attended (and I've worked in two stores in the distant past) fill their stores with paintings, nicknacks, jewelry, T-shirts and other limited clothing, etc. They're not fully bookstores in the classical sense. The mark-up is considerable even though most of the help receives minimum wage. Some of the stores have warehouses which can reduce the overall costs by keeping reserves. However, every quarter these stores can also return books for credit (so wrong), and some of those were returned by customers who didn't "like" them. If they reduced their inventory and maybe their markup margin and decided to keep their books at competitive prices, they might not be in this predicament. Granted, competing with $2.99 or Free ebooks is impossible, but many readers prefer bound books to ebooks but don't want to pay exorbitant prices for a book they might feel less than enthusiastic about. Paying a cheap price for a Kindle copy and not liking it is much like buying a bad cup of coffee: oh well.

Ebooks give readers an opportunity for inexpensive trial and error. Buying "real" books in this economy doesn't afford them that luxury. It's a trend that is being strengthened by the less than competitive prices at bookstores.

I preferred Borders to Barnes&Noble, but they didn't practice sound business and had to fold. B&N is treading water as we speak and might also go by the wayside. Christian bookstores are closing stores all over the country or being bought, often by other businesses. It takes good business skills to survive in this economy. Reducing fiction, in my opinion, is the oppositie of what should be done because many readers need escapes from the current state of our country and resort to stories to alleviate their stresses.

Just my opinions on this sore subject/trend.

Karen Barnett said...

I'm afraid you're right, Dan. Bookstores and libraries are my favorite places in the world, but I'm also buying more and more of my books online. I cringe every time I do it, but there you are.

I wonder sometimes if the key to sustaining bookstores is in encouraging community. If they had a cozy area for book club meetings, critique groups, kid story-times, and such--wouldn't that draw people in? And people who love books as much as they do? I don't know that it would solve the problem in the long run, but it might help for a time.

Dan Walsh said...

You might have something there, Gina. The best of both worlds. Buying online is great for the pocketbook but it's nothing like the bookstore experience.

Dan Walsh said...

I appreciate your perspective, Nicole. I see 2 real challenges with the Ebook craze, one that hurts the bookstore model and one that might even help. First the bad news, I know quite a few skilled and polished fiction writers are beginning to self-publish because they've figured out that even at $3.99, they are making as much per copy (or more) than their previous royalty rate with the "middlemen" of a publisher and bookstore. Readers buy these books and get a very good read for very little money.

On the other hand, virtually anyone can write a book and self-publish now (even people who'd be turned down flat by traditional publishers because they're just not ready). This has resulted in tons of poor-to-mediocre Ebooks flooding the market, also priced very low. That's one thing bookstores have going for them. The books that are that bad don't make it onto the shelves.

Seems like, for now, there's not a one-stop-shop on the internet where readers can find the great books vs the slop. Something like a Rotten Tomatoes site for movies, but for books.

Dan Walsh said...

Karen, I agree, they'd need to do SOMETHING to offset the huge price/availability/convenience challenge. I don't see many bookstores, though, working that hard to build what you're suggesting.

I believe some bookstores are, just not many. Nora St. Laurent is a friend who's been working in a Christian bookstore for some time in the Atlanta area. Sounds like her store is doing a lot of those kind of things to draw the readers back into the store, and succeeding. So it can be done.

But in the end, unless the economy dramatically improves and people have a lot more discretionary cash, I think price is going to win the day over other things.

Ane Mulligan said...

What's so interesting to me is that in my local LifeWay store at the Mall of Georgia, they have at least a half dozen shelve stands (each with 4 shelves and 2 end caps) filled with fiction. In those rows between the shelves are lots of people, looking for novels! Do I live in a great place or what? :)

Dan Walsh said...

They need to find a way to export whatever recipe they've come up with there, Ane. I haven't seen anything like that in any of the bookstores I've visited in the last 2-3 years. Most are in FL. But I rarely see anyone in the aisles.

David N. Alderman said...

I think physical book sales are going to start shifting to used bookstores. Paying full price for a book, versus half price, just isn't making much sense nowadays when all you have to do is go down the street to the nearest used bookstore and pick up the same book you'd pay $12 for at the traditional bookstore for only $6 at the used, and it's still in decent condition. As far as physical books going away altogether, I don't think that will happen...anytime soon. I for one love physical books over digital, just because I love to 'collect' them, and I enjoy reading a physical book far more than I do a digital. Are digital more convenient? Yes. But I'll deal with the inconvenience of carrying a physical book around so I can enjoy reading it that way. Great post, by the way.

Dan Walsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Walsh said...

Thanks David. There's just one thing I think you should factor into your equation (not that I fault your logic, because it's sound). If what you said happens, the well runs dry down the road aways.

That's something a lot of fiction-lovers don't seem to get with this cataclysmic shift we're talking about. Only 5% of published authors make enough from their books (with the OLD system in place) to live off their writing alone. 95% have a "day job" and write in their spare time. Only 1% of published authors make mega-money (like Castle on the TV show).

Without readers willing to pay a reasonable price for books, the source of the reading entertainment (authors writing books people want to read) will, by necessity, dry up. We can't write books if the money isn't there to support us using our time to write/edit, etc.

I'm not a mega-selling author (not yet anyway :). I am fortunate to make enough to make ends meet, but not much else. I'm pretty sure if these current trends continue (and if what you suggest becomes a popular trend), I'd have to quit writing altogether and do something else to pay our bills. So would every other published author (except those who've already made a mega-fortune and can handle that kind of financial blow).

This would be a direct consequence of a) books selling so cheaply, the cost to produce them can't be recovered, or b) people keep reading books they haven't paid a reasonable price for. If the money stops flowing in to free up the writers to write, the books will stop being written.

Does this make sense?

Dan Walsh said...

Sorry, deleted my own comment because of a typo.

Ellen Andersen said...

I'm with David. A printed book trumps one on computer any day.

Bookishqueen said...

It seems to be the way things are, but I don't like it. I love to walk through the stores and look at books. Sadly, I have stopped going as often because the selections are shrinking.