The Outlook for Bookstores

The news about the health of bookstores has been pretty downbeat during the last couple of years.  Between 2000 and 2007 about 1,000 independent booksellers closed.  I was therefore pleased to see an article in Independent, the journal of the Independent Book Publishers Association.  The article, by Linda Carlson, was pretty full of good news, but somewhat lacking in statistics.

The one statistic which was reported: according to an article published in Slate, the membership of the American Booksellers Association increased more than 20% from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014.  While 20% is a substantial increase, the average annual increase is about 5%.  Still, this is healthy growth.  To put this increase in perspective, Donna Paz Kaufman, an industry consultant is quoted as saying: “Fewer entrepreneurs are stepping forward to own independent bookstores, even at a time when many communities throughout the country long to replace a Borders or Barnes & Noble store that proved too large to be sustainable.”  She goes on to say that some would-be entrepreneurs have family members who are risk-averse and cannot justify investing the family’s wealth in “something that still seems iffy”.  My impression is that the apparent ‘growth’ in ABA membership is actually the renewal of lapsed membership, rather than new members. Nonetheless, this is a good sign.

So, what is driving the improvement in outlook for independent bookstores?  Shane Gotwalls, of Gotwalls Books in Macon, Georgia says, “Feedback from our customers tell us that they are tired of impersonal on-line shopping. . . . We hear more and more often that there’s nothing like the smell of a bookstore. . . . We try to give the best service possible, and we believe our customers keep returning because we are successful with this goal.”

WinterRiver Books in Oregon has kept its sales from slipping with a policy of discounting hardcover editions of best sellers by 20%.

Mirian Sontz, CEO of Powell’s bookstores in Portland, Oregon says that the store sold almost 10,000 copies, prepublication, of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, after Hatchette authors Stephen Colbert and Sherman Alex recommended, on air, that it be purchased from Powell’s in response to the Amazon-Hachette conflict!  Sontz says, “The conversation about conscious on-line shopping continues, thanks to this increased awareness.”

Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse in La Canada, California reports that they provide core literature for the La Canada school district.  “We work very closely with public school faculty and staff and we stock titles on required reading lists.”  Flintridge also emphasizes local history, geography, and culture of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills.

Espresso Book Machines are a drawing card for several bookstores which have them.  While only a fraction of the inquiries received by the bookstores result in orders, many writers who use the machines return again and again for additional print runs.

Other tactics for drawing people into bookstores include hosting story hours for kids and YA book clubs.  Some bookstores offer tickets to author events.  The ticket may require a book purchase or offer a discount.  Elliott Bay Books now hosts 500 events a year and says that “events keep us in mind as a cool place to visit . . . but having customers buy books in order to attend can backfire by discouraging people from attending.”

In summary, each successful indie bookstore seems to have its own special identity and offerings which appeal to local customers.  It offers personal service to frustrated on-line customers, and the touch, feel and smell of actual books!

Living the characters

How does one, as an author, decide what a given character says or does?

For me, the answer is: I try to get inside the character’s skin.  What this means in practice is that I try to feel what the character is feeling at that particular moment, and I ask myself, ‘what is s/he thinking?’  While I don’t explicitly bring it to mind, I’m aware of the character’s background, his/her values, personality and ambitions.  This process is particularly necessary when a character is suddenly put in an unexpected or difficult position.

Fir example, in Efraim’s Eye, the principal character, Paul, is suddenly asked by Naomi, “Do you love me, Paul?”  By way of background, Paul and Naomi had become lovers two days previously.  She is a very pretty and sweet charity worker, a rootless, lonely, thirty-something.  Paul is a London-based widower in his fifties, a financial consultant who has a girlfriend his own age.  Naomi and Paul are not an obvious match, but Paul finds Naomi enchanting and Naomi sees Paul as a secure, reliable father figure, who, nonetheless, wakens her dormant sensuality.

The story continues:


Unprepared as he was for that question, Paul knew that there could be only one answer. “Yes, yes, of course I love you.”

Naomi’s head tilted, and her gaze fell to the table cloth. Uncertainly, she asked, “Why do you love me?”

Instinctively, Paul knew that his answer must not include the word ‘beautiful’ or one of its synonyms. He said, “You’re a very sweet idealist, Naomi. You are a woman with great talents as a linguist, as a musician, and in dealing with people. But for me, best of all, is your joie de vie. Life is a great, pleasing adventure for you, and it’s delightful to be with you.”

For some moments, Naomi gazed at him, apparently repeating his words in her mind. She asked, “So you think I’m a sweet, talented, adventurous woman?” She pronounced the word ‘woman’ awkwardly, as if it were a term unfamiliar to her.

He smiled. “For a four word summary, that will do.”

Paul knew the answer to the reciprocal question. She loved him as a daughter loves, and he had awakened her latent brilliance as a lover. But, for her part, she had wanted to know whether she, herself, was a person who could be loved.


Paul’s response, ‘Of course I love you’ leaves room for doubt about the depth of the feeling behind it, and in the days ahead, he begins to doubt the durability of the relationship.  His response to the question, ‘why do you love me, Paul?’ manages to avoid the artificiality of a ‘because you’re beautiful’ response.  He recognises that she has a hunger to be valued for more than her looks.  His answer, from his point of view, is both truthful and recognizes as strengths what she may have seen as weaknesses.

So this exchange between Paul and Naomi, while unexpected by the reader, helps to define these two characters, and begins to open a path to the future for each of them.

Amazon vs. Hachette

Regular readers will know that I have been following the dispute between Hachette, the French-owned publishing house and Amazon.  The two companies have now signed a deal to end their long-running price dispute.

According to the Daily Telegraph: the two firms had disagreed about the price of ebooks which can be read on Amazon’s market-leading Kindle device.  Amazon believed most new ebooks should be $9.99, which many in the traditional publishing industry said was not financially sustainable.  It also wanted to restructure the way revenues were split between the publisher, author and  itself.  Hachette refused to back down on lowering prices.  The dispute gained public attention earlier this year when hundreds of authors supported Hachette.  They argued that  Amazon’s pricing tactics were damaging writers and high streets around the world. The online retailer responded by increasing shipping times on Hachette books, blocking pre-orders, and redirecting customers to other publishers.  In August a group of 900 writers paid for a full page advert in The New York Times criticising Amazon’s actions: “These sanctions have driven down Hachette’s authors’ sales on Amazon by at least 50%.  Amazon has other negotiating tools at its disposal; it does not need to inflict harm on some of the very authors who have helped it to become one of the largest retailers in the world.”

Under the agreement which has been reached between the two companies, Hachette will have responsibility for setting prices of its ebooks, and “will benefit from better terms when it delivers lower prices for readers,” according to a joint press release.

Hachette said: “This is great news for writers.  The agreement will benefit Hachette authors for years to come.”

David Naggar, vice president of Kindle, said, “We are pleased with this new agreement as it includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver  lower prices, which we believe will be a great win for readers and authors alike.”

How can all three of the statements in quotation marks, above, be true at the same time?

The short answer is, I don’t know.  But I have a theory.  Suppose under the old deal at $9.99, Amazon got 40% and Hachette got 60%: $4 for Amazon and $6 for Hachette, and suppose that Hachette pays its authors a one third royalty from its revenue: $2 per copy.  And suppose, under the new deal, Hachette prices its ebooks at $15 per copy and gets 55% of the selling price, while Amazon gets 45%.  This would give Hachette income of $8.25 per copy, and the author would get $2.75 per copy: a better deal for all three parties assuming that the volume of the ebook is not price sensitive.  But, if for example, only half as many copies are sold at $15 as at $10, everybody is worse off.  This is where Amazon’s obsession comes in: the lower the price the more you sell!  I’ll bet that the deal is structured so that Hachette’s share of the sale increases as the price is lowered.  In this example, for each dollar reduction in price, Hachette would get one percent more of the selling price.


Statement no. 1 is true: Hachette gets better terms as it lowers its price (not better revenue, but better terms)

Statement no. 2 is true: Hachette authors will benefit ($2.75 vs $2 assuming that the volume of sales are not particularly affected at the higher price)

Statement no. 3 is true: lower prices are a win for authors and readers alike (assuming lower prices mean greater sales volumes)

It seems to me that this dispute boils down to different views on the price elasticity of books.  Amazon believes that price is very elastic: the higher the price, the less you sell and the lower the price the more you sell.  Amazon apparently has some data which supports this theory.

Hachette believes that, within a certain price band, the price is inelastic: volume is largely unaffected by price.

My own view is that Hachette is probably right.  They have experience with their authors and their genres to be able to predict volume, and they have a pretty good idea of where the price band should be.  They will be quite sure that if they price a book at a third of its normal price band, it won’t sell four times as many.