By Bruce Jacobs

(Bruce Jacobs is The Week Behind book reviewer and founder of Watermark Books in Wichita.)

During each of the last five Super Bowl weeks, the American Booksellers Association has sponsored a Winter Institute for 500 or so independent booksellers to meet and share experiences, discuss business conditions, and listen to publishers present their forthcoming books.

This year’s WI-V in San Jose, CA (It has even adopted the Super Bowl abbreviation format.) so closely mirrored this year’s SB-XLIV in Miami that it was spooky.  The underdog Saints carried the overwhelming sentimental support of America just as the country’s independent booksellers remain first in the hearts of Americans…but like the Saints, the independents will need a helluva game to prevail against their corporate adversaries.

In the heart of Silicon Valley with the campuses of the digital giants surrounding them, booksellers spent a day learning about the technology, marketing, and distribution of eBooks.  Apple had just announced its iPad, Amazon was duking it out with MacMillan over eBook pricing, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook was back in production and gaining market traction.  It was hard for independent booksellers even to feel like players in the $20 billion book business, much less winners…not many game faces in the building.  Booksellers huddled in the Doubletree lobby bar and murmured about how they have a special calling in life, but they were no longer sure anyone was really calling anymore.

The last few years have been hard on independent bookstores; even many large, famous stores with great reputations have gone down.  In the Bay area alone Kepler’s, Cody’s, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and Stacey’s closed (although community funded support helped re-open Kepler’s).  Across the country, the story is the same:  Schwartz in Milwaukee, Open Book in Greensville, Dutton’s Brentwood Books in Los Angeles, and Second Story Book Shop in Chappaqua, New York. are all gone.  Even the once most independent-like chain Borders is on the verge of bankruptcy.  Big city, small town…it doesn’t matter.

All this bookstore carnage has occurred even before eBooks have had any significant impact.  According to the February 9, 2010 Financial Times, eBooks only had a 1% share of the US book market in 2008, but are projected to have a 6% share by 2013.  While total book sales are not shrinking, the consumer is not buying them at independent bookstores.  The booksellers all sat around moping because they knew the people in the fallen stores, they knew where the world seems to be moving.

The next day some light broke through the clouds.   Jack McKeown of Verso Advertising presented their recent survey about the book buying behavior of “avid” readers (those who read more than five hours a week).  This group turns out to be mostly older than 45 (those of us with kids in the 18-25 range are not surprised), and more than 50% of them still prefer shopping for books in bookstores (split about evenly between chain and independent).  It is unclear if this indicates that today’s younger non-readers will become readers as they age, or if the generation of avid book readers is going to fade away leaving a generation of pod-heads (or pad-heads perhaps).

Finally the booksellers were treated to impassioned pitches for some upcoming 2010 books.  That’s right:  impassioned.  One after another editors and publishers talked about plot, writing, metaphor, characters – you know, the stuff that makes reading what booksellers do even when they aren’t reading.   Advanced reading galleys were given away and booksellers waited patiently for autographs from many first time authors on hand to make the pitches personal.   That evening the bar was empty as everyone was presumably curled up in bed reading.

The annual Super Bowl bookseller week is a time for reflection.  Despite the feel good close this year, the numbers don’t lie.  The ABA reports that the number of bookstore locations has fallen from 5500 to 2500 between 1990 and 2008.  No doubt it has fallen much further in the last year (and even in the last month).  You don’t need statistics to see the odds.  When the guys lined up across the line of scrimmage have names like Amazon, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and now Apple, Google, and Microsoft on their jerseys, you know who’s the underdog.

What’s the game plan?  America’s publishers and booksellers left Silicon Valley with their own thoughts.  The blocking and tackling parts are easy:  publish good books by good writers and put them in the hands of good readers.  It’s the distribution that’s confounding everyone.  As Google has shown all of us (even China), the internet opens everything to everyone at any time.  Unfortunately, “everything” is just that – the good and the bad (not that publishing hasn’t provided plenty of the bad over the years).  How will the economic pie get divided as a book moves from author to reader?

It will all get sorted out over the next few years (and likely will get sorted once again a few years after that).  If the independent bookstore is going to remain a key part of that sorting, it needs to remember that it is indeed a store – a bookseller has to sell something.  All the sentimental community support bookstores enjoy has to manifest itself in sufficient profits to provide its service.  It does no good to have a glorious goodbye party like Stacey’s had in San Francisco.

If authors want to write the books they so love to write, they need not to check their Amazon ratings so often or tweet their every thought, but sit down and write good books.  If publishers truly depend on the independent booksellers making a market for those new books they so love, they need to provide independents with enough margin to survive.  If booksellers want to continue to work at the jobs they so love, they need to attach themselves to the avid readers in their communities in such a way that their opinions, services, and products are worth a little higher price.   This game can be won by the underdog, but it’s going to take the whole team.

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