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.