I met my wife for lunch in the heart of downtown and afterward decided to treat myself to a visit to a bookstore. Most of my reading in the past year and a half has been specifically for school and, as a result, constantly checking out books from the library.
But I love bookstores. I boasted at lunch that if money were no object I could probably drop $1000 in an hour. I could probably spend $500 a day for a month in bookstores. My eyes are bigger than my reading stomach in that sense; I long ago realized that if I did nothing but read for 18 hours every day for the rest of my life I’d never get through everything I wanted to read. And that’s just books published as of right now.
So it’s probably been years since I was in a large chain store. I’d been away long enough to not only have forgotten what they were like,but since the collapse of the economy and the rampant fear that Kindle is killing the book industry I was able to walk into the store with fresh eyes. The problem with the publishing industry is the same thing that’s wrong with the book retail business.
There was a time when bigger was better, when being able to cater to the largest number of people was the desired effect. Billions served. Hundreds of channels. One on every corner. The problem is that saturation dulls the senses. There is nothing special about being everywhere, nothing noteworthy about being general interest.
This Borders I went into was a pit. Being large makes it a focal point for a large number of people, but that means nice table displays are constantly in disarray. Tables of books collected by themes that only vaguely connect titles. Workers running around with headsets on asking me every two minutes if I need any help, but when they are asked they have to walk across the floor to a console to look up the book’s location only to walk back to the exact spot where they first met you to find the book you were looking for face-out on the shelf. It has the appearance of customer service, but the appearance of service wasn’t why I was there, and the end result was I left without spending a dime.
When I left I felt I’d wasted my time. I didn’t want a store where someone could find a title I requested, who wanted to talk to me not because it’s their job to speak to every customer they see, I wanted someone who could hold a conversation with me – without some dumbass headset on to distract them – and suggest a title I was unaware of based on my interests. None of these people knew books any more than a burger flipper at a fast food joint knows the country of origin of the meat they’re flipping. It’s all units per hour, making the most efficient turnaround between consumer and their money. I wished I’d spent my time in a smaller store, a specialized store, one where a person who reads books could actually hold a conversation with me.
Walking the street afterward was when I realized that if bookstores and publishing are to survive they need to revisit their purpose and downsize. Dramatically.
I counted more than fifteen employees in the Borders. That wasn’t including the cafe or the music section. That’s enough staff to run five smaller stores, five stores that could specialize in subject, five boutique stores that could cater their stock, sales, and energies on those people who are there specifically for them. I would have rather visited two or three smaller stores and divided my time that way. Without the distraction of things I have no need for I might have better found what I never knew I wanted. Chances are I would have bought something at one of those boutiques.
Likewise, publishing’s future probably rests in the boutique house. The industry lost its way during the go-go days of mega-mergers and media conglomeration. The business was built on something much smaller and more personal. Houses were built on editors and the relationships they built with writers. No one buys books by brand, and so a large publishing house and its name means nothing to the consumer who still buys one book at a time. They buy for content, and for author, and no one checks the spine for the publisher and says “Ooo! Random House! Yum!”
Bigger is not always better, and right now big is what’s toppling top-heavy corporate thinking in the book industry. The future of books, and bookstores, is small. Smaller. Boutique. Not elitist, but specialty. Targeted. Niche. Modern marketing and networking will get the word out just as effectively, no need to rely on large chains to guarantee saturation and maximum market coverage. In fact, there is nothing about chain retailing of books that guarantees anything.
Small is the next big thing. It has to be, or the next big thing in the publishing industry is no publishing industry.