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

About Adam Lee

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

  • Martin Penwald

    If one doesn´t know what to offer, the worst choice is to give a gift card. Seriously, why not the same amount in money ?
    I find that imposing where you can choose your gift is awful. Either we know what to offer, and it´s the best case, or we don´t, and then either we don´t give anything or we give a few notes, but I find gift cards despicable.
    One of the reasons is described here.

  • Elizabeth

    See, I like gift shows that people know what you like, but are letting you choose the specific thing you get with it. For example, I know my friend loves this used bookstore (that buys/sells old books and new), and the gift card gives her free reign to indulge how she wants.

    But gift giving is definitely “to each his/her own” thing, for sure.

  • Jason Wexler

    Gift Cards make sense to me only if gift giving is obligatory. If I am buying you something because I feel compelled to, than I might as well just get you a card or cash, if I am buying something because I want to, because you are someone I know and care about, I want to get you something the demonstrates that I do know and like you.

  • Jason Wexler

    I think you are neglecting to mention the very likely possibility that in 50 years, print books may be as dead as you think bookstores will be. I resisted for many years transitioning to eBooks and then the final volume in a wordy fantasy series I had been reading for decades was due to come out and my wrists started aching. Reading 400000 words on a 10oz tablet was certainly easier and more comfortable than the hard cover book would have been. Then I discovered all the free public domain “classics” I’ve meant to read but haven’t gotten around to… with 64GB of storage I quintupled the size of my already enormous personal library without having to become that geek who has to replace his furniture with replica constructed of paperbacks. I’ll be honest I haven’t been able to find a downside to digital ebooks and am pretty sure that is where the future lies.

  • Steve Bowen

    The problem with cash is it leaks away. If someone gives me money for a present it usually ends up as part of my generally disposable income and gets frittered. A gift card (especially for books which I always appreciate) gets spent on something tangible.

  • Steve Bowen

    …and to make matters worse a lot of the time people browsing in bookstores are just looking for inspirations to buy online later. I have been known to do this myself.

  • kreylix

    1. I’m hoping the POD machines end up at Libraries. 2. The area where new SF&F authors are found is that massive new section, Young Adult.

  • cheribom

    To expand on that, I find that cash leads to “responsible” spending: “Yes, I should just put this towards groceries. I guess :/ ” Whereas a gift card gives me license to indulge. As long as I’m not actually hurting for cash to pay my bills (which I never am), a gift card always lets me get an actual present.

  • Pattrsn

    I remember Toronto back in the 80′s when only restaurants, convenience stores and book stores were allowed to open on a Sunday. There was something so great about wandering the post apocalyptically deserted city streets, with a hangover, downing a greasy breakfast and browsing in bookstores with other survivors from the previous night. Then to sit in a cafe drinking coffee, smoking horrible american cigarettes and reading the Village Voice because you weren’t able to concentrate long enough to actually pick out a book.

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    Tablet readers beat the potential of paper books 6 ways to Sunday and then some. It’s a better experience in every way, excepting the smell of the paper., and that beautiful artwork on your coffee table and bookshelves. I don’t think there’s better decor for a house than well-stocked library shelves, but it looks like in the future we’ll all need new ways to proudly show off who we are intellectually.

  • smrnda

    I think an issue is that, to some extent, the nature of books have been tied to their actual medium of distribution. Stories of a certain length were popular during the pulp era, some classic authors (Dickens) wrote longer because his books were serialized in periodicals which inflated the length (and perhaps made him repeat things.) The ‘novel’ has always tended to be something you could comfortably hold as a paperback, but SF/F books tend to get rather thick which make the actual print volume a bit too large. With eBooks, a large book isn’t such an imposition as if you were looking at a 1000 page paperback.

  • smrnda

    I know of a few interesting used bookstores that have an interesting selection where I’ve often gone in and bought something I hadn’t set out to, but those are kind of rare and are certainly not something you’d see in a normal mall or shopping center. Of course, stores like that need to be run by people who are actually hyper-literate so they can know what stuff to go after when they find it, and what to display.

  • Adam Lee

    I agree, that’s probably the way the world is going: bookstores are going to become more specialized and more esoteric. They’ll never be able to compete with Amazon and the like in sheer breadth of selection, but they may be able to survive by appealing to more specialized niches and encouraging that sense of serendipity I mentioned.

  • Adam Lee

    I think the Young Adult section was swallowed up by the “Teen Paranormal Romance” section (yes, that is an actual separate section at the B&N I went to).

  • Adam Lee

    the final volume in a wordy fantasy series I had been reading for decades was due to come out and my wrists started aching.

    That wouldn’t be Wheel of Time, would it?

    I’ll be honest I haven’t been able to find a downside to digital ebooks and am pretty sure that is where the future lies.

    I think e-readers have some advantages, particularly the ability to search, but I actively avoid Kindle due to the DRM. If I own a book, I want to be able to lend it out and otherwise do as I please with it. I don’t know much about other brands, so maybe one of them has a solution to this.

  • Jason Wexler

    Kobo has lax DRM and I believe it can defeat Kindle DRM, as Kobo always mirrors my other downloads and I can loan out from Kobo.

    I don’t know what was worse about that whole last book of “The Wheel of Time” fiasco, that the digital copy came out months later defeating the purpose of getting the e-reader, or that the conclusion to the story was worthy of the previous 13 volumes and was filled with many of the same editing problems I am used to seeing in self published books.

  • Adam Lee

    I gave up on Wheel of Time sometime around book.. 7? 8? I honestly don’t even remember. It was one of the last few that Jordan wrote, when the plot was getting bigger and draggier and less and less happened in each book. I hear that Brandon Sanderson brought it to a somewhat satisfactory conclusion, but it’s been so long I’d really have to reread the series from the beginning, and at this point I’m not going to invest that much time into it.

  • Boudica

    Except you don’t really own the ebooks…you can’t freely lend them or resell them or donate them to the local library. And the publisher can recall them without notice (maybe you’ll get your purchase price back). And who gets your ecollection when you die? You’re really just leasing all those ebooks. Which is fine as long as you understand it.

  • Sandra Craft

    I had the same experience recently at B&N, I could order books by Thomas Steinbeck and Joanna Russ online, but they weren’t available at the store. Which is a shame since there are few places I’d rather spend time, and money, than a real bookstore.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I resisted e-readers for a long time, but I admit that there’s a now Kindle on my desk. I’m mostly using it to read library books, since I don’t have any issues there with paying for a book that I don’t control, can’t lend out, etc. If I find a book that I really love, I’m still going to get it in the dead tree version, but for the latest bestseller it’s fine, and it saves me some gas diving to the library.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I think you are neglecting to mention the very likely possibility that
    in 50 years, print books may be as dead as you think bookstores will be.

    So will e-readers. Instead, you’ll just jack it into your brain implant.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Or, they’re looking for dates. That’s also why so many young singles hang out in the produce section of the supermarket.

  • Jason Wexler

    I’ll take that wager… wet drives are this generations flying cars or pneumatic pocket doors, the technology seems to be within our grasp and seems to be a perfect way of defining the future but then never develops. e-Readers may be replaced by a different technology in the next 50 years, but I am betting wet drives aren’t it. Furthermore, we don’t seem to have a great understanding of thought and consciousness and it is one of the most slowly moving areas of research. When coupled with the Moores Law limitations which microcomputing is starting to butt up against I think that is is safe to say that wet drives are more than 50 years away.

  • Plutosdad

    I thought something similar, “why would I print a book?”

    There is nothing I hate more than working on a web application, then having a requirement come in the last minute “can you export all this form data to a printable format?” WHY!:?? YOU JUST PAID ME TO TRANSFER IT FROM PAPER! #@#&$#$*$

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Good luck collecting, I plan to be dead by then.

  • Jason Wexler

    It was just a turn of phrase… I don’t expect to be alive than either.

  • Azkyroth

    Can you thumb through pages yet?

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    Yes, the reader apps for touch-screen devices allow page-turning by gestures (swipe), and some of them even have graphic animations to resemble page-corners turning! But if you don’t want to end up with all the issues raised by Boudica, you need to break any DRM so that you can at least safely backup what you paid for and share with family and friends (just as you would your favorite paper books). This is actually fairly easy, and also illegal – you need to be technically a criminal these days in order to steal back what is morally your right! When such a condition exists, who is the real criminal?

  • B Dallmann

    They do? Are they looking for a SO who can cook for them, or what?

  • Dave Ucannottaknow

    If Barnes & Noble is the last remaining bookstore, then LET IT DIE! I never hated a chain establishment quite so intensely as this one – it was the primarly competitor to one which I loved dearly, which was Borders Book & Music. It had a lot more useful books, it had vast, comfortable sitting areas for browsing them, plus the cafe on the upper floor had a big coffee shop which hosted local entertainers, and there was even a video viewing room where the public was sometimes invited to watch old cultural movies. My wife and I spent a lot of time there while we were dating. Within 10 years after Barnes and Noble opened up accross the street, Borders was gone! It sure as hell could not be for anything they didn’t offer the consumer, and it shows how much the demise of the chain store retailing rests soley on the heads of the remaining chain retailers!

    The last time I walked through B&N, I counted more rows on “Religion and Spirituality” – they really seemed to take up 20% of all the non-music floor space, with dozens of subcategories for world relgions, theology and more, but NO atheist section, and less than a shelf or two for any atheist books! This wasn’t in South Carolina, it’s in upstate NY!

  • Azkyroth

    Or at least they have produce handy if it doesn’t work out. :P