The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

End-of-year Book Post-Mortems

The end-of-year recession round-ups brought a flurry of articles on the current state of bookselling. This one from the NYT was the most grating:

Bargain Hunting For Books and Feeling Sheepish About It

The author laments the Houghton Mifflin buying freeze, folding indies, and faltering chains, but states that we shouldn't "blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects" (you know; the real estate bubble, bestseller driven publishing, superstore culture, mushrooming media distractions) but rather on the "networks of amateurs who sell books from their homes" and the people who buy from them.

There's barely a fact in the article...and sadly I can't rally the ones I want to counter him. Anybody know the percentage of book buyers who've bought a used title online? or the ratio of Amazon's used versus new sales? Unless some of the other "amateurs" out there had a much better '08 than me, I can't imagine the numbers are all that formidable.

The author pays lip service to the fact that "resellers...offer a great service [and] this is a golden age for those in love with old-fashioned printed volumes" but he mostly treats this as fiddling on the deck of the Titanic and doesn't explore the real game-changing possibilities of an easily accessible second hand market.

For example:
Of the last 10 sales I've made, you'd be lucky to find 2 of the titles at even the most well-stocked indy. The rest would have taken weeks/months of searching or (pre-internet) the acquisition of specialized mail order catalogs. In that time there's a good chance that the buyer would have a) moved on or b) spent the extra cash on something else.

At least 2-3 of those books went to small towns that have probably NEVER had a bookstore, or at least nothing better than a Waldenbooks in the mall (I know these towns exist, I grew up in one).

Another couple went to distant lands (Sweden, Germany), markets that I would have had no access to previously (and believe me, I'll be spending those Marks and Kroners locally).

Finally the used bookstore where I used to work depended on supplementary internet sales to keep it going (and I've heard this from many a brick-and-mortar dealer). Yes it was still staggering and has since died, but it was the doubled rent that killed it. The internet sales were the only things holding back the Verizon stores and the Duane Reades.
The most aggravating thing about the article is the author doesn't differentiate between the penny/bulk dealers and those who provide a professional service and a satisfying and unique shopping experience. Just because he bought a book for a quarter and it showed up in a floppy bubble envelope doesn't mean that you can't do better.

Also the book he describes purchasing for $.25 was in fact between $4-5 bucks with shipping and was bought blind without a real idea of the condition or transit time. A used store could match this price--if the store's used book buyer is aware of the price point they're competing with and pays out accordingly--and maybe even mark it up a few bucks for the store ambiance and the chance to pre-inspect your purchase. If the title is too obscure for a brick-and-mortar store to keep in stock then it's not a sale they would have had anyway and whining about online amateurs is just sour grapes....okay now Im officially rambling.

More links:
The Leonard Lopate Show commenting on the above Times article and the state of bookselling (mostly a love-letter to the Kindle).

A more thought-provoking--and insider--overview of bookselling in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, by John Schulman of the Caliban Book Shop (link via The Bibliophile Bullpen)

And lastly a peak inside the 54,000 foot warehouse of online dealer Wonder Books from the Washington Post (link via BookThink News)


Anonymous said...

I am so tired of hearing people rave about the Kindle. How many rare or non-main-stream titles can you get on a Kindle? NONE. The people who tend to rave about the Kindle tend to be the sort of people who do not read very much anyway. People are tightening their purse strings in every sector, either out of legitimate necessity or fear. There will always be a demand for rare or used physical books, regardless of the ups and downs of the economy.

pat said...

friend of mine helped do software engineering for the kindle and he likes looking around for people using it. They seem to have specific uses that are very good but not the same as having a personal library. It's just a new way to use information, neither way should get rid of the other.