A Bookstore Stimulus Package?

Here’s a letter that Roy Blount Jr., a wonderful author (all football fans should read his Steelers classic About Three Bricks Shy) and president of the Authors Guild, recently sent to Guild members:

I’ve been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren’t known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don’t lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn’t in the cards.

We don’t want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let’s mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that’s just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they’re easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children’s books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they’ll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: “Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see…we’re the Authors Guild.”

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.

If the government isn’t going to bail out the auto industry (yet, at least; give it a few more days), it’s certainly not going to bail out bookstores or the suffering publishing industry. (Nor journalism, although some wish it would.) But people who lead lives of writing and reading surely wish that someone could do something.

My fear is that the market has spoken just as loudly about books as it has about American cars: they are not a necessity, and therefore they are bound to suffer when times are tight. This doesn’t mean that certain high-quality or trendy products won’t be rewarded; this doesn’t mean the industries will vanish; nor does it mean that they might not come roaring back, in some fashion. But as much as I would like to think that Blount’s plea will have a massive and good effect on bookstores, publishers, and authors, the rationalist in me fears it will not.

What do you think the effect of this “buy-cott” will be?


Randy

In San Jose, the local paper (yes, there's still a printed Merc) sponsors a "gift of reading"... consider it pay it forward charity. Go to a local bookstore, buy a book for an underprivileged kid. Leave it there, and the book gets collected. Natch.

RZ

There seems to be a recent movement of supporting independent sores, buying local, and/or buying "green" for Xmas. I think this fits in neatly. But who knows how much people will follow this advice? When the economy is bad, it's that much more tempting to shop at Walmart.

Erico Calixto

Hello guys.
I'm from Brazil and have just stumbled upon the blog earlier this week. So far I've had a terrific time reading the posts and I'd just like to leave the comment to let you know you've got another fellow reader dropping by everyday.
About Roy's plea, it would be wonderful if it worked out, but I guess people are just too used to eletronic media and the internet. Even I, who am reading more than usual to prepare myself for some big exams, find it a hard habbit to get used to.
It's a great idea anyhow.

Gavin

Me? I'm buying more books these days and I couldn't be happier about it (don't worry, I already have my copy of "Freakonomics"). And what's more, my city has a GREAT independent store.

But I don't buy there anymore. That store has cut stocks noticeably in response to shrinking business and I don't exactly buy the Times' best sellers, so what I want is rarely in stock. Sadly, I'm hooked on instant gratification, so my response to supporting the book industry is NOT to support my wonderful local, but to spend more and more at Amazon.

The same goes for my local independent music retailer...

Josh

I wonder if there is any evidence that libraries have been more busy with the economic downturn? Either because people want to read books but can't afford new ones, or there are more unemployed people who have nothing to do but read books.

cognitive dissident

"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."

(Desiderius Erasmus)

Bobby G

Quite frankly, he's asking for cannibalization of future sales. I don't see a market failure in the book market either. Demand is changing. If you're writing books to make money, you have to write something that will be in demand or else you won't sell too much. If you're writing for fun, or for the progression of the craft, then you shouldn't care as much about making it big.

Best case scenario, his suggestion might have a lift in sales in the short run, if it is successful, but in the long run sales will fall, since people who buy books stocked up, as he said, for 12 months. Giving books as gifts is a good idea... when the person wants to get a book as a gift.

Unless Mr. Blount thinks there is some market failure in the demand for books, which I doubt, there's not really anything the industry can do. Demand is changing... suppliers have to adjust accordingly. The bitter side of economics.

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Justin James

@4 - I've experienced the same. I recently bought a book at my local Barnes & Noble (which should have the benefits of volume), for full cover price. A few days later, I was on Amazon, and saw the same book for roughly 33% off. I also have Amazon Prime, so if I order it, I get free shipping and the book usually ships within 12 hours and arrives 3 days after my order. It is maybe once a year that I need a book sooner than that, and I have books I bought to read for pleasure more than a year ago still on the shelf, so I am in no hurry. As you say, the same applies to my local independent music reseller.

That being said, some local bookstores get a TON of my business: used book stores. Sure, I can buy used books online, but after paying for shipping and handling, a $3 used novel becomes $6, and my local used book places have the same book for $3 too. Again, this applies to my local independent music store; they have an extensive used music and DVD selection, which I always look to first when I want a CD or movie. Why pay even Amazon's heavily discounted price when used will suffice? Even better, used books, CDs, and DVDs are an example of buying "green" actually being cheaper.

J.Ja

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Diana

I'm an avid reader. I buy about 2 new books a week even now that we're going through hard times. I do, though, find myself waiting for those coupons at Border's so I can buy them.

My problem is that I can't buy books for gifts. In the past, hardly anyone read the books that I bought for them. Maybe Bount should have mentioned gift cards from bookstores, like Borders, then people would be forced to buy some.

JTapp

You could think of book buying as an investment in human capital (assuming everyone reads their books and becomes more educated from reading them). In that case, you could have supply-side effects...

charles

It will be meaningless. However I don't see the market going away. The book market seems to be like a picky fish, sit and wait and then BOOM! The fish eats Harry Potter. The best way to serve this market.....Amazon.

kip

Why should I subsidize local bookstores with small selections and high prices when I could order from Amazon? No one has convinced me that this is any "greener" anyway.

Cal

A similar plea to save a local bookstore in Portland, Oregon:

http://everydaydude.blogspot.com/2008/12/broadway-books.html

Everydaydude is buying everyone who spends $50 or more a burrito. Problem is, he's using his own credit cards to finance the burritos.

ShUn-cMs

The internet is a great medium to easily share ideas, stories, and to inform each other from all over the world. In contrast to the need of up-to-date news via such web, as stated, books would be a luxury and not a necessity. In addition, most of the pass-time, such as “reading”, games and online videos can be done online. I do believe, however, acknowledging the usefulness of the internet, in the importance of books. Books are “real” - having a book in your hands, turning pages, gives you a unique feel of a joy and a sense of reality which cannot be fulfilled by the cyberspace. Hence, such sources of books, that is, bookstores where authors sell their books, must be protected by the government. Especially when they have a spare money for the auto-industries.

Susan Taylor

I work in an independent, locally-owned bookstore, and the appeal of amazon.com escapes me. Yes, it is cheaper. Yes, it gets delivered to your house. So what?

Does your purchase benefit your community? You know, the real live people who live in your neighborhood, who work in your local shops, wait tables in your local restaurants, deliver your local mail, etc? The giant online bookseller doesn't give gift certificates to all the local PTA functions, the fundraisers for the family whose house has burned down, or the local musician whose catastrophic illness isn't covered by his health insurance.

They don't have book release parties for local authors, and they don't have author events. You can't go on a date and then hang out there after dinner, nor can you meet your date there before you head over to the (local) coffee shop or movie theater.

So keep on buying all your books from the devil. And when you emerge from your computer world and stand, blinking and squinting, in the sunshine of your devastated neighborhood, with only chain stores and online options left, you'll have only yourself to blame.

Thank you, Roy Blount, for fighting the good fight and supporting independent bookstores. We love you, too!

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Lauretta

Local shops, whether they be bookstores or not, support the local schools and charities in ways the chains - and certainly internet chains like Amazon - do not.

For example, the local PTA may need donations for door prizes or silent auctions - or just outright cash sponsorship. They often ask for this on a 30-day-or-less timescale. The local shops often comply. The chains usually say something about needing corporate approval, which takes 2-3 months...long after the event is held.

I have seen examples like this over and over in the past 18 months.

Putting your money into your local stores puts money into your community, period. Otherwise, we will wind up with a society where no one leaves their home - not for food (it's delivered), not for events (all the community theater, music and sports programs have died due to lack of sponsorship), not for anything. Is that the world you want?

Diogenes

Susan Taylor,

I spent most of my adulthood working in bookstores and now I'm sad to say I'd much rather buy from Amazon and Amazon's Associates. Last year I was looking for a gardening book. A very specific title. I went to four stores, two independents and two big megabookstores. Zip. Yes, I suppose I should have called them, but I wanted the bookstore experience.

After drinking some good coffee at the last one, I went home and did what I should have done in the first place, ordered it from Amazon. Free xhipping and a discount. It was on my doorstep in 3 days.

I still love bookstores. They're great places to kill time while your friend is shopping or as a meeting locus. I also will buy remainders there. But if I've got a specific title I want, and it's not on the NYT list or is a reasonable mid-list choice, it's just a waste of time going to a bookstore. The greener choice for me is buying from Amazon.

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Lucas

Let's see, I buy maybe 30 books in the last year, none of which was new and bought locally. I'd say that brick-and-mortar new-book sellers are a dying breed anyway. I doubt that this buycott will change things in the slightest.

Brit

I adore Roy Blount, Jr., and I love books--which is why I work in a bookstore. Roy's letter to the Guild is delightful, and some true believers out there will take him up on it, but I fear it will have little impact. I find myself frightfully annoyed by the comments complaining of not finding a book in stock at the local bookstore, forcing the poor shopper to go to Amazon for it. Why don't you just order it from the bookstore? You'll get it in the same few days, and you won't have to buy it if it's not what you expected. Your gratification isn't any more immediate with Amazon--you still have to wait a few days. As for the price difference, I think we all fritter away money with such abandon that the "savings" we reap doing our shopping on-line rather than with businesses in our communities is largely illusory. That is, the money we save at Amazon is probably not going to build a retirement portfolio so much as it will just get spent on other stuff.

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CamilaCMS

Although economic times are hard and affecting so many industries, icluding the auto and the book industry, the big difference between the two is that the auto industry has not been acting responsibly. Many complain that if they were to get this money from a government bailout, they would be able to survive at minimal levels for a few more years before being in need of more help. Basically, the complaint is that the auto industry is too risky of a business to invest in right now. However, the book business is interesting. As much as I love entering a Barnes & Noble and picking out a book to begin reading on the best sellers bookshelf, and grabbing a hot drink from Starbucks, bookstores are not my main source of buying books. Why buy a new book when a once-used copy is on the internet for less than half of the price? I've only met one person that still insists on buying her own books after the Amazon frenzy. So while it doesn't seem that the book industry has been acting irresponsibly, it does seem like an industry that is undergoing change, as more people are tech savvy and very interested in bargains, which means more used book internet orders and less trips to Barnes & Noble.

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