Serious Books, Serious Bookshops
My initial forays into serious bookshops happened my first year at college, 1982. The Union bookstore at the University of Kansas, while filled with the usual textbooks and t-shirts, also had excellent, scholarly books on a host of topics, from various publishers. Military History, medieval, Greek and Roman Loeb classics, and even a book on a Russian Viking that I still own to this day.
Later that year I discovered J. Hood, down at the bottom of the Hill on Mass Street. It was my first real venture into a real used and rare shop, and their stock represented exactly what you'd think a university town used and rare shop would have.
Do these kind of places have a future?
Recently in the Guardian online newspaper out the the UK (Do make their book section a stop on your regular web browsing - you won't be disappointed) discussed this very point. Titled You Can't Be Serious, Andy Beckett discusses the decline in publishing serious non fiction across the board, and especially in regards to shops. It touched on a number of important issues in books and bookselling I'd like to bring out further, along with some other issues I feel are related.
Serious books have always been harder sells, as the article points out, and they are not getting easier. There are recent examples of serious books having great success. However, the majority of the more serious, challenging, and scholarly titles have small audiences, sell more slowly, and require more from the reader. Not a formula for a beach read. Demand from libraries is declining as books budgets are trimmed to cover online resources costs, while bigger book chains go for titles with wider appeal and most small bookshops pull back or fall away. Both big and small shops face declines in sales as well.
Serious publishers themselves are facing more direct challenges in addition to declining sales. University presses are undergoing what amounts to an economic culling as states cut back support and universities re-prioritize their expenses. University presses are vulnerable because many do not make money or make little. Many universities want to put them on a profit basis, but unfortunately that was never the rationale for their existence in the first place. The schools seem to value expensive sports teams over academic endeavor. Smaller independent publishers in the US, without subsidies available in some other countries, suffer from a shrinking market as much as any other publisher and any grants or collaborations they have sought in the past are gone or harder to achieve.
The book industry is undergoing perhaps the most profound changes since the mechanization of printing nearly 200 years ago. A changing and struggling economy, internet challenges such as digitization and Amazon, and the ever increasing variety of media to occupy our free time are major factors in that change. The article points out that such a decline in serious books has happened before, and other works, such as Reluctant Capitalists by Laura Miller (mentioned by me before) confirm this. But this time change is occurring across the breadth and depth of the industry, and that has even more serious implications for the future. We are facing a new world.
The good news is that in this new world serious books will not go away. The old world has useful lessons for serious booksellers and book publishers if one takes both a broad and deep view. Like species, certain types of books thrive in specific environments. Whether selling new books or used, success in scholarly bookselling is about the books, about the people, and about the location.
For the books, it's not just what is new or rare or expensive. It is knowing which are the better books, who publishes them, and how they fit (or don't) with other books in the field. Sometimes the best books are out of print, or are just being published, often by a small publisher. It can be a challenge to find them, learn about a new publisher, to keep up with any given field and to learn its history and the printed milestones. But knowing those milestones provides a map of sorts, a tool to help shape stock, and make it better. I personally think that specialization is very important and that selectivity is key. These are even more important if one does not specialize and/or is selling new books.
People are not just buyers, but sometimes sellers and sometimes advisors. Bookselling, to me, is an industry where you are rewarded for what you know, punished for what you don't, and presented with opportunities to learn every single day. Readers offer to teach a bookseller every day by what they buy, by personal conversation in a bookshop or by email, through their online discussion groups, and more. Taking that information and continually shaping services and stock to a chosen clientele is perhaps the most important thing booksellers of serious books can do, both as a service to a community and as a sound financial effort.
The old saying is still true: location, location, location. For serious books and serious bookshops, I still think a storefront in important. The contact with the community, the opportunities for both selling and buying, and the discipline of running an open shop are important advantages, not to be overlooked. However, location now means more than just the physical premises, but where the business fits in the new and changing geography of bookselling. Amazon is not going away. The recession may dribble to an end, but job recovery will still be slow. Price pressures are greater than ever and not all of your market resides in one community. The internet, with all its mixed blessings, is important terrain to map and navigate for a bookshop. It is not only selling, but presenting the shop and its stock to specific communities to get on their maps. Finding both online sources - forums, listservs, websites - and actual live events - association meetings, shows, fairs, festivals - provides superb opportunities to interact with a select community. In short, walk in traffic is not just off the street, but off the internet as well.
It is not easy. These are challenging times. Small changes in the market can have major adverse effects for even a well-run small, focused bookshop. Selling serious and important books is perhaps one of the hardest and most challenging tasks for booksellers currently. But as Tom Hanks said, it's the hard that makes it great. Otherwise everyone would do it.