Grocery racks and mall book stores

Kevin J. Anderson — guesting on Dave Wolverton’s newsletter — recently pointed out that traditional (paper) publishing has been sort of stuck in a rut, working very hard to sell to the existing book-buying public without trying to reach out to the overall consumer market and pull in what you might call casual or secondary readers — people who don’t buy tons of books and read voraciously, but who still nab a paperback on the way to the airplane or at least go through several novels (or more) per year. It’s assumed that these people may be buying for their Nooks and Kindles now, but when I think about my lifetime buying habits, I realize that the two primary sources I used for books practically don’t exist anymore.

Grocery store racks, and mall book stores. Does anyone remember when your local grocery had a half-way decent selection of paperbacks on one of the aisles? When I lived in the north of Seattle there was a local grocery called Larry’s Market up on Aurora Avenue that had a superbly-stocked paperbacks segment with a very large selection of science fiction and fantasy books. And when I was a teenager before that, I used to shop almost exclusively at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were mall stores I’d hit on a routine basis while patrolling through the mall with my friends.

Well, the distribution collapse and consolidation of the 90s murdered the grocery story racks, and the rise of the super-mortar stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble more or less murdered the mall stores. Last time I saw a bookstore in a mall, it was a used/discount store that was decidedly NOT set up to pull in the lay reader or the impulse shopper. It was clearly designed for the bibliophile searching for cheap books (used) or rare and/or out-of-print material. Nice store for that kind of thing, but the few times I went in it was dead as a doornail and there was precious little foot traffic. How or why that store stayed open is a mystery I still haven’t figured out.

But the disappearance of these outlets for books explains — for me anyway — why paper publishers have been seeing declining paper sales since even before the Kindle and Nook boom began. If you don’t stock the books where the average consumer can pick them up and find them — grocery check-out stands, hello! — how can you expect to have the kinds of sales figures that you once did 20 or 30 years ago? It can’t all be explained away by diversionary media, gaming, television, or other 21st century entertainment mediums. That’s like hiding the candy aisle at the far back of the store, around the health food, and then wondering why M&M or Snickers Bars sales have suddenly declined. You have to put the merchandise in an easy place for customers to pick it up and make the impulse decision, otherwise you’re just catering to the choir — the hard-core, dedicated readers.

Of course, pricing has a lot to do with it too. I have in my hand a 7th printing of Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s debut SF novel STEN. It’s a Del Rey paperback from when Del Rey was perhaps the top science fiction publisher in the paperback game, and this volume displays a cover price of $3.95

Okay, yes, it’s been over 20 years since I got this book from a B. Dalton, and there is inflation and the rising costs of various aspects of production and distribution. But when a comparable contemporary paperback — I have a new novel also in hand that displays $7.99 on the cover — that’s a big difference in the calculus of the consumer impulse sale. $3.95 is an easy splurge. You spend more than that on a fast food meal. Even people of modest means can plunk down $3.95 for a book, especially if they’ve gotten hooked into a series they love to read on break at their job, or in between classes on campus. But $7.99 makes people pause. It’s double the price from 20 years back. For the same product. Double! Not such an easy impulse sale anymore. $7.99 kinda makes the average consumer stop and think about it — precisely because there are so many competing (and cheaper?) alternatives to reading.

Will the rise of the e-readers and the ability of independent sellers to low-ball the paperback industry bring overall prices down? I am not sure. I do think e-readers allow some lay consumers to buy on the periphery, but to buy for an e-reader you actually have to have one first. And how many lay readers have one? And how many people are really going to read a book — a whole book — on a pocket device like a Droid or iPhone? For me, those screens are just two damned small. And while I’ve seen tons of people playing Angry Birds or texting on their mobile devices, I haven’t seen anyone thoroughly engrossed in a novel.

Which gets me back to wondering if paper publishing — in its attempt to survive the new era — shouldn’t find a way to go back to its roots? Put the “mass” back in mass-market, with a determined effort to streamline distribution and break down the barriers that eventually locked 90% of paperbacks out of the grocery chains. Put some book stores back into the malls, where people wandering and buying can cruise in and snag some books. Those consumers are still there, and I believe they’d still buy just like they always bought in an earlier publishing era, circa 1990 or thereabouts. Re-entering those lost markets combined with a price reduction could redeem paper publishing from the (much discussed) electronic onslaught.

Or at least that’s my edumacated opinion. Who knows, I could be wrong. But it’s at least worth considering, if you’re a paper publisher eyeing a diminishing bottom line. Bookstores too.


11 thoughts on “Grocery racks and mall book stores

  1. The last time I was on a plane, two people near me were using their phones… to read. It was cute to watch them turn the pages with a finger flick. I’m just sad I couldn’t see what the books were.

    But yes, it would be nice if paperbacks were all over the stores again. And cheaper. If we could just get rid of the stupid returns system, maybe then prices could come down… sigh.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. It used to be such a treat when my mom took us into B. Dalton at the mall when we were shopping for other things. We’d run down the aisles, begging for all sorts of books and then stare at the huge wall of magazines as Mom was checking out. The “kick” today was wonderful–it really made me think about marketing and the book industry. Wonderful stuff to ponder.

  3. Brad,
    B. Dalton was not big here, and Waldenbooks – when they boycotted gun, mens’ and other non-PC magazines, I boycotted them – and their SF/Fantasy section was horrid anyway. Haven’t set foot in one in over a decade, if not more. B&N and Borders, on the other hand, don’t censor – they sell anything. Amazon, ditto.Even the local King Soopers has a half row dedicated to magazines, and about the same dedicated to paperbacks and some hardbacks. Amazon tracks what one likes, and suggests authors I’ve never heard of, plus authors like you, Corriea, Ringo, Weber, Hamilton, Kim Harrison do a great job of not only talking about your work on your various sites and blogs, but new up and coming authors. You all don’t act like to market is a zero sum game – and it’s most definitely not. My favorite authors can’t keep up with my reading speed, so I am constantly looking for new authors for relaxation. I have plenty of technical, scientific and engineering reading, but there is a limit to how much of that one can stand in a given period.
    The local B&N – we have two in Colorado Springs – have a different flavor for each, even to the point of different magazine selections. The Borders is different still.
    Your comments on price are kinda on the mark – if the economy had not tanked, most of us techies would still be buying $200 books a month. Seriously. Now, we have to watch the local Goodwill, decide which books we are going to target, and for hardbacks and to escape taxes, go to Amazon for bigger purchases [no shipping for Amazon Prime!]. Yes, this is unfair to the local brick and mortar stores. Borders personnel seem to care less in their stores – B&N people do seem to care, so they get more of my local business. Amazon has automated a lot of their customer care, and it’s very well done and targeted. It’s damned near impossible to get masters, doctorate and post-doc technical books at B&N, at least the one near me. In the RTP area, NC, there were often college level books of this caliber in the remainders section on sale.
    The check stand material is almost totally crap, anywhere locally. The “news” magazines are all propaganda mouthpieces for someone. They are stuffed with gossip rags and Hollywood BS. There’s not even a decent slutty tabloid. Cosmopolitan is OK, I guess. My wife prefers Elle.

  4. Excellent post, although it made me wistful for the good old days. I remember those spinning racks in the grocery store that looked like they were made out of wire hangers and lurched from side to side depending on the size of the paperbacks they held. When those disappeared, I was at the mercy of the small bookshelf in the drugstore next to the supermarket. Once a week, I’d go there and pick out a paperback or two. I kind of miss those days.

    And I completely agree that publishers are idiotically ignoring the casual reader. I’m fine with them diving headfirst into e-books. It’s good to try to stay ahead of the curve. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of tried and true selling methods. If you put a paperback within reach of customers, give it a great title and a lurid/exciting/sexy cover, people will buy it. That’s the way it’s been for decades and they way it should be know.

  5. I had this wonderful, long, drawn out post and now it’s all gone. Stupid interwebs. Anyhoo, I’ll try again.

    I actually really enjoy reading books on my Motorola Droid. Yes, the screen is only 3.6″ and I did originally think it would a pain in the arse to read on something that small, but really, it’s not. I hardly notice unless I’m running ot of battery. The words are legible and I can always change the font size. When the Motorola Droid 3 comes out, I’ll have a 4″ screen. More words per page! Woohoo!

    Let us not forget that readers can also download the PC apps. While not as portable and convenient, it still allows them access to ebooks. And laptops and netbooks are also very portable, though not as convenient, and much more expensive than an e-reader. Then there’s also the tablet which ranges anywhere from the price of a color e-reader to the price of a laptop or netbook.

    Still, you would be surprised how common place smart phones are becomming. When I worked for a cell phone company (who shall remain nameless), it was surprising to me, at first, how many families had smart phones. Both parents, their children, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. We even had an 80 year old grandmother call with a Blackberry. Prices are coming down and they’re becoming more affordable (we won’t talk about the actual data plans you have to get with them). Cell phone companies actually want all of their customers to have smart phones because the profit margin is higher. If they get their way, you won’t be able to find a regular cell phone because the stores won’t carry them and the manufacturers won’t make them. Cell phones are at nearly 100% market saturation. People will have e-readers, one way or another.

    However, having said all that, I’m not saying I won’t ever buy a paperback or a hard back. There are authors I will only buy in paper. Peter F. Hamilton will always be a hard back on my shelf. Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey will always be in paper as well. But then, there are authors that I don’t care if they’re paper or electronic as long as I get to read them. Let’s just agree that New York publishing has stuck their fingers in their ears, then stuck their heads in the sand and proceeded to hum real loud in attempts to ignore the massive tidal wave that is e-publishing that will eventually crash into the beach they’ve buried themselves under.

  6. Hey, I remember as a kid back in the late 50s and 60s when paperbacks were less than a dollar and, yes, the local “candy store” and such had a rack of paperbacks. The problem today is the volume of selection available. What to put on that rack, if it existed. would be a major issue.

  7. You should try buying a book in New Zealand! Paper backs are around $30 NZD (~ $24 USD) and hard backs are around $60NZD these days.

    I only ever buy books on sale. Not that I actually have time for reading. If I get a spare minute (in my dreams) i focus it on the writing.

  8. The local chain grocery store (Shaws aka Star Market) has a 1/2 isle of paperback books located next to the greeting cards by the pharmacy counter. From what I have seen when I walk by on my way to the bread isle, it’s something like 90% bodice rippers. Maybe that makes sense given the majority of their customer base, but it doesn’t give me much incentive to actually enter the isle in search of something to read. Then again, I get most of my books from Amazon or the local public library. Now I am going to have to double check the grocery store books the next time I’m there to see if there actually is anything on the shelves catering to my tastes.

  9. You raise a good point that has a little bit of backing already in the video game industry. There was once a time when you had to shell out hundreds into thousands of dollars to have access to what was essentially cult media. And then there was the Wii.

    With inferior games and inferior graphics Nintendo managed to survive against the Sony and Microsoft behemoths because they abandoned the hardcore market in search of the casual gamer. The Wii made it okay for people other than the 18-35 male demographic to play games. Now the majority of production dollars of all three major console brands goes into creating games that the casual gamer will pick up.

    This could be applied to print. When I worked at Wal-Mart I saw first hand how much traffic their book rack handled. If made available and convenient people would buy paperbacks again.

  10. I hadn’t realized that the Wii gets that much focus these days, but I can totally see how the Wii’s penetrated with the “casual” market, whereas hard-core gamers are sticking to XBox and PS. In all honesty, the Wii over at my parents’ house — for the grandkiddies, you see — is the only modern console I ever play. And than, I am playing downloaded retro ports like Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2, and Castlevania. (snicker) Yes, I know, I am a total dinosaur.

  11. Well the Wii isn’t as popular now as it once was. (A new Nintendo console is in the works, actually.) But it was the Wii that Nintendo used to pioneer the Casual Gamer market – something that didn’t really exist as a buying power before hand. Even the XBox and the PS3 are gearing toward casual gaming as a result. All those people who played Halo and now play Call of Duty are casual gamers by traditional standards. Any game that takes you less than 50 hours to beat is casual. That’s most releases in the last 2-4 years.

    My point being that I agree with the idea of increasing the focus on casual readers.

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