Chain Bookstores Are Doomed

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I went book shopping to use some of the gift cards I got as presents. I went to a Barnes & Noble in Queens, one of the big ones with the built-in coffee shops and a huge display near the front of the store for their e-reader. It’s not as good as supporting an independent bookstore, I realize, but there are fewer and fewer of those where I live, and I still think it’s better than Amazon (whose labor practices I’m greatly concerned about).

I had a list of about twenty different books I was interested in, all SF/F and most of them new releases (compiled from these lists on Buzzfeed, this thread on PZ’s blog, and a few other places), and I would have bought any of them if I’d seen them in either hardcover or paperback.

I didn’t find a single one of them. In fact, in spite of my best efforts to spend some money there, I left empty-handed.

Now, Barnes & Noble’s stocking policies are partly to blame for this. Of the shelf space they devoted to sci-fi and fantasy, about half of it was books based on video games or movie novelizations. The space that was left was so limited that they only had room for a few books by each author, and of those, probably another half were classics by authors who’ve been dead for decades but haven’t surrendered their hold on the shelf. Only a tiny number of up-and-coming authors were represented at all, compared to the number of new authors who are out there waiting to be discovered.

Even if this meager selection is just a passive reflection of customer buying choices, I still think it shows a lack of foresight on Barnes & Noble’s part. It’s in no one’s interest for them to make it so difficult for new authors to get a foothold. A bookstore should be making an effort to give a boost to fresh and interesting voices. How else do you nurture the next generation of writers whose books people will want to buy? – unless, of course, they don’t see that as their concern. It may be that B&N’s managers are perfectly happy to let SF/F remain a static, white-male-dominated field. Are we still going to be reading the same books by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein in another fifty years?

But I’m not worried about that, because of a bigger concern: I don’t think there are going to be chain bookstores in fifty years. Borders is gone for good, and B&N’s long-term outlook is cloudy. I hope there will be indie bookstores, at least, but I wouldn’t be prepared to lay a long-term bet on it.

The problem I see is that there are just so many authors now, and a brick-and-mortar bookstore, unlike Amazon, has the disadvantage of limited shelf space. No matter their stocking policy, every bookstore has to make decisions about what to include and what to exclude. And the more books that are published and the bigger and more fragmented the market becomes, the harder it gets to have enough books in the store at one time to appeal to a large enough clientele to keep the store in business, especially in the face of competition from online booksellers that effectively have every book ever published.

I’m not welcoming the demise of the bookstore. On the contrary, I love bookstores; I always have. There’s a tangible pleasure in the sight of all the books lined up, the feel of their spines, the fine-wine smell of old and new paper, the soft hum of people browsing. I love that bookstore porn of gorgeous book shops big and small all over the world. And I think physical browsing has a serendipity that no online retailer will ever be able to capture.

But it may be that this is all going to go away. The bookstores of the future, rather than shelves of unsold inventory, will more likely have print-on-demand machines that let you pick from a digital catalog and then print and bind the book while you wait. As with any product that can be turned into bits, the economics of this seem inevitable – even if it won’t be as romantic as browsing the cramped shelves in a back-alley bookstore, never knowing what hidden treasures may be lying in wait.

Obligatory plug: I’ve written a novel, Dark Heart. You should check it out! Follow this link for sample chapters and more information.

Image credit: Ava Lowery, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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