This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Tim Huggins

Boston–area independent bookseller Tim Huggins just had the best month of sales he's ever had, and it's left him completely bummed out ...

15 July 2003 — A few times a year—when the bookselling industry is lucky—a book is published that either immediately becomes or slowly evolves into the type of bestselling book known as a mega–bestseller.

Most of the time, these are the books that are published with instant demand, as they are books that a mass audience of consumers anticipate and want to own and read. These mega–sellers are sometimes referred to as rainmakers, because they get consumers in stores, where, it is hoped, they will discover other books of promise. Again, rare is the time that a book appeals to the masses enough to cause them to forget other entertainment alternatives.

In June of 2003, we had the quite rare thing of having three such mega–sellers: the memoir of Hillary Clinton; Oprah Winfreyıs new book club choice East of Eden; and the latest installment of Harry Potter.

On an industry level, these books sold in historic figures. On a personal level for my bookstore, these books helped stimulate my June sales significantly, and the Harry Potter sales helped us achieve my largest single sales day in the five year history of my bookstore.

So, why am I not smiling?

A large and growing portion of consumers are forgoing bookstores and purchasing these mega–sellers at non–bookstore chains like Shaws local grocery store chain, Walmart and Costco, as noted in a June 30th New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick. These major chains are diminishing the value of these books by offering deep discounts to drive consumers into their stores. They are also shifting a critical amount of sales away from bookstores and making it more difficult for booksellers to put other good books in the hands of readers.

With the growing clout of these major discounting chains, bookstores are getting an ever–smaller share of sales. Since 1992, that share has fallen from 50% of total adult trade book sales to 38%.

Even more disheartening is that the U.S. bookmarket is flat. Annual growth for general trade books (e.g. books sold in general bookstores and excluding textbooks) has been barely keeping pace with the population growth rates, according to a recent article in Bookselling This Week.

What that means is the major discounting efforts of these non–bookstore chains are not stimulating and growing the market but simply shifting consumer dollars away from bookstores and other potential book sales. Consumers buying a mega–seller at a Walmart will not be discovering a book of promise, as such chains do not invest in authors and non–bestselling books. Bookstores do, and we are losing an opportunity to handsell other good books to these consumers who do not regularly visit and browse in a bookstore.

Publishers, as well as booksellers, do worry about consumers skipping such a trip to a bookstore. We all have reason to worry. According to Ipso BookTrends, the bookselling industry has steadily lost customers over the past decade. While over 60% of American households bought at least one adult trade book in 1997, by 2002 the figure had fallen to 55% of households. Fewer people are buying books, and fewer people are buying books from bookstores.

What is being lost is not simply sales but the bookseller as a valuable role in the process of connecting readers to good books.

Bookstores are what build and connect a community of people who care about literature. We are the teacher and student of a community, relaying the interests of the nation while reflecting the interests of our community. Bookstores are not simply a place of transactions of mega–selling books, but a place of experiencing books and authors through the store environment, author readings and recommendations by staff who are passionate about literature and the arts.

Times are tight and most of us are looking for ways to save money. Itıs hard to pass up a bargain. But if you value the role of bookstores and their role in connecting readers to authors and good books, then invest in them. Major discounting chains do not value and do not invest in our world of books. In a way, I think capitalism is our simplest form of democracy. Every single purchase is a vote, and it is a vote that collectively has a true and lasting effect on the things that matter—or possibly that do not matter—in our daily lives.

Tim Huggins is the proprietor of Newtonville Books in Newtonville, Massachusetts.

©2003 Tim Huggins

Last week's column: MURDER THEY WROTE: THE TOUR, PART 3 ... Orlando Sentinel books editor Nancy Pate concludes her journal entries about being on a first–book tour with her co–author cousins.


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