Remember when Amazon killed bookstores? Cool story bro.
Except for the fact that it is entirely fictional.
I came across it most recently in a facebook group where someone informed me that in 1993 bookstores (chain and indie) in his area were doing perfectly well. This is fine and it was true in our area too, more or less. More less than more, if you looked closely because the seeds of destruction were already sown, but we didn’t know it/see it, unless our lifes revolved around reading and writing. Arguably mine did, but only arguably, since I had a small child and another on the way, so I had more things worrying me than the current novel, let alone than what I was currently reading.
At any rate, in 93 I was broke, so buying a paperback could stop me being able to buy groceries for a couple of days, so most of what I read came from the free bookcases outside the used bookstores (you remember those, right? It’s where they put things that they’d turned down for trade, but the customer insisted on leaving behind. I spent two or three years reading a lot of Gothic romances, out of date biology manuals and some “history” on the level of ancient astronauts. On the bonus side I acquired a strange interest in cryptozoology that didn’t in any way imply I believed the sightings.
Anyway, onward. We were at the edge of paying off our debts (mostly the debt for the birth of #1 son by emergency caeserean while we were on COBRA, but also the debt for moving across the country.) and it would usher in five or six years where we went to bookstores a lot. In fact between us and our best friends we setup a weekly “date” in which we’d leave all kids with a babysitter and head off to the dollar theater. We’d buy tickets then kill two hours by going to Barnes and Noble and — if we were flush — to eat.
By 1997, we started referring to our bookstore trip as “going to be disappointed by Barnes and Noble.” Because largely it was. More and more, I found it difficult to find anything at all to read on the fiction shelves. When you consider that I read science fiction, fantasy, mystery and in a pinch various kinds of historical fiction and romance, this was nothing short of astonishing.
Mystery at the time was often in the grip of what I called “waves of crazy.” The one I remember best happened later, around 2005? and it was bookshelves filled with nothing but what I called “Sex in the city” mysteries, where the single protagonist obsessed on sex and shoes. It was bizarre, disturbing, and I still have no idea what the publishers were thinking, except that apparently a TV series translated to general readership.
Fantasy had fallen down a hole of “the poor deserving heroine gets a sword” and the fascinating, intricate civilizations that are, to me, the redeeming feature of heroic fantasy had vanished.
Science fiction… Well, our stores, both indie and B & N seemed to mostly carry game-related and tv-series related fiction. Since I’m not interested in either, I slowly stopped reading SF.
Oh, and indie stores weren’t better (and were often worse) than B & N. In my area (and I grant you we lived almost next door to a college) they were populated by people who spent a lot of time trying to radiate intellectual superiority. One stock phrase was “We don’t stock THAT.” And “that” mostly referred to the sort of books I liked to read.
I did buy — from the discounted tables — a vast quantity of history books, most of them “swords in the middle ages” type of general information things. Not deep, but the sort of thing a writer needed in pre-internet age, when you hit a point in the story and went “how thick was the blade in this time period, again?” Having set up my library this last week (I need to find the digital camera and get a picture of the shelf system that took forever and took over our garage for four months. The weird thing is that at eight feet high it looks tiny compared to the built ins. It will be replaced by more built ins, as soon as we have the money.) I came across a ton of them. Some I can now get rid of, but some are a source of highly targeted info that doesn’t allow me to be captured by internet squirrels.
But what we actually went there for, with ready money to burn, that we couldn’t find.
These years, say 93 to 98, I was buying fiction, but mostly used. In fact, (we lived in the Springs at the time) Murder by the Book in Denver was how we started our incredibly ritzy vacations. I.e. we went to Denver for two (or if particularly flush three. Though usually more like two and a half) days, stayed at embassy suites with the kids (because two separate rooms and free breakfast which if eaten at around 10 held the kids till early dinner at 5) hit the museums and the amusement parks, and generally painted the town a very pale pink. Before that all started and an important consideration for “when to leave on Saturday” was “Murder by the Book” where we stopped and (sometimes the guys waited in the car) I went in and filled two large bags (or boxes) with used books.
For whatever reason I read cozy mysteries like people eat popcorn. I will read one after the other, requiring nothing but momentary entertainment.
During this time I started noticing three things: one, most of the books I was buying were very old indeed. Like, first published in the thirties.
Two: most of the newer books, particularly the ones (I was learning to recognize this at the time) whose cover and numbers indicated they’d gotten “push” were almost unreadable. I remember the ones that took long breaks in the middle to preach politics, but it wasn’t even that. It was say the ones where the professor characters sneers at everyone not an academic. Or the ones where characters’ moral worth is assigned by political orientation or….
Three, I often found writers whose voice and worlds were engaging and set out to find more (often by researching in the still-infant internet) and found out they’d been published two or three years before (but had never been on my local new store shelves) had written three books and disappeared forever. As a reader this was frustrating and exhausting. Mystery readers, particularly the ones who read mysteries like popcorn, get very invested in “their” series. I hated falling in love with new surroundings and knowing there wouldn’t be any more. It made me reluctant to try out new writers.
I also bought other books, in the used bookstore I could push a pram to. One of the authors I found around that time was Terry Pratchett.
And I found others, too, it’s just that my rate of buys slowed to a crawl compared to when I had been able to buy books before.
In this net argument the same person asserted that by 2003 all these stores were in trouble, and it was self-obviously Amazon’s fault.
Now, I have a pretty good memory, and I was one of Amazon’s first customers. My desperate search for reading material sent me online, despite having to purchase with a credit card (for a while we kept an account exclusively for this purpose), having to wait two weeks for the books (no prime) and generally missing the browsing experience. But I could — and did — get the books I wanted. Even if most of the series died at three books.
But 2003 was before ebooks were a thing, and though Amazon was — I think — bigger than a really big bookstore, it was not the weight in the world that it is now. By and large it was “just a store.”
It certainly didn’t have the power to kill other bookstores.
And yet, I agree, by 2003 bookstores in trouble.
The thing to remember is that just because a model was succeeding it didn’t mean that the model that succeeded killed the failing model. Sometimes industries, models and general ways of doing things commit suicide.
Which is the best way to explain what happened to publishing and bookselling in the nineties and oughts, and hell, still today.
There were contributing factors, outside the industry(ies) scope, which I didn’t even bring to mind right away when we started the discussion.
I maintained the most important thing was that book publishers and book sellers forgot that their primary motive for existing was “making money by selling books.” Instead, they were publishing things they either thought would impress their NYC cohort or — often — things they thought “would sell” from a completely non-reader perspective. Hence the Sex in the City mysteries.
Which btw, speaking of yesterday’s post and provincialism, might seem weird to those of you not in publishing, but was part of how the business worked (and for all I know still does) to the point that when the Shakespeare series wasn’t doing well, they told me our only hope was that someone would do another “Shakespeare movie.” (Rolls eyes.) The model was apparently based on the idea that movie goers and genre book readers are exactly the same people, and that popularity in one translates to the other. Oh, and a total allergy to market research.
But there was more, and some of it, bizarrely, from outside the industry. There was the Thor tools case, for instance, which made it impossible to warehouse vast unsold inventories (or iow how careers in the field were made when your books, like mine, are “slow and steady sellers.” You keep the inventory and grow that long tail until eventually the writer is selling massive amounts per book on release.) Because, you see, you were taxed on those per cover price value, from what I understand. So print runs got ever tighter and laydowns smaller, and writers started being treated like lottery tickets, who either paid big money up front or were let go or had to change name.
The need to absolutely predict sales numbers, and the fact that even an inaccurate prediction that led to a bestseller could undo an editor’s career, in turn, made the booksellers embrace “by the numbers” stocking, aka ordering to the net.
Which is a brilliant idea, maybe, for a tiny bookstore. It sucks mightily for a large chain which then allows the publishers to manipulate laydown.
You see, ordering to the net is very sound, if all books got the same headstart. If you have a store full of books that each stock say five copies, and some only sell two copies, and some sell 5, it makes more sense to reorder the 5 and only order two from the authors that only sold two copies before. Of course it does.
What it makes no sense though is in a world where some books have 100 copies, others have 1 or 2 per stores. The chances of your finding, let alone buying that one copy are infinitesimally small even if you don’t throw in that many of that single or two copies WERE NEVER UNPACKED. As I found over my first series debacle, the books would show on stock on the computer (I was trying to do drive-by signings) but the massively overworked clerks never unpacked them. What that showed was stocked 2, sold none. The fact it would take a miracle to sell books that were in the closet (even when I showed up to sign it took days to locate them) didn’t matter to the computer.
Publishers, pressured to “print only what sells” welcomed this chance to manipulate what sold. They routinely told the bookstores they had high confidence and were printing 100k books (which meant they were actually printing 50k. It’s lies all the way down.)of those books they wished to push.
Which in turn led to push marketing.
All of this adds up to: between 93 and 2003 the publishers and bookstores colluded to push on the public ONLY what they believed the public should read.
The end result — which I’m sure shocks everyone — of books being chosen and pushed ONLY by an insular (provincial) NYC establishment is that the books — unexpectedly! — stopped selling and people were turned off from reading in droves.
This in turn led to… bookstores failing. Publishers are arguably still going (and I have ideas on how and what it means, but that’s something else again.)
So, apparently to the man on the street, this means that Amazon killed the bookstores (and video killed the radio star.) No, seriously.
What I say is that if you’re a business that forgets your primary concern is to sell, you weren’t killed. You committed suicide. In the market place. With a smug assumption of unearned superiority.
All Amazon did was exploit a vastly under-served market.