In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry, Ron and Hermione frequently find their way out of trouble by digging through stacks of books in the Hogwarts library and finding obscure, but revealing texts from the magical world in which they live. As a result of their study in the library – yes, sometimes even in the restricted section – the three young wizards are able to stay one step ahead of Harry’s arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort.
Of course, most of the inhabitants of the magical world are so frightened of Lord Voldemort that they do not even speak his name, instead referring to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named”.
If there has been a villain in the muggle world of independent booksellers over the past decade, his name would not be Voldemort, but Barney, which is the industry nickname for bookselling behemoth Barnes and Noble.
Barnes and Noble made a splashy entrance into the national bookselling scene in the late 80’s and early 90s, and like other big box retailers, they quickly leveraged their economies of scale and distribution muscle to grow and eventually eliminate many independent booksellers in towns across America. The loss of Conkeys Bookstore in Appleton was a well-documented example of this in our own area.
But, as the country song goes, sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.
The past few years have given us numerous examples of how rapid technological change can quickly turn corporate giants with a seemingly insurmountable market advantage into surprised laggards trying to adapt to new markets they don’t fully understand. Barnes and Noble, and their competitor Borders, have essentially re-ordered and dominated the physical bookselling market for the past several years, but the world is changing, and both of them must be surprised to find themselves suddenly struggling for survival.
Barnes and Noble is losing money, intends to reduce stores, and is looking for a buyer. Borders is in even worse shape, and one of their key investors has recently put forth an offer to finance a merger of the two companies. While the outcome is unknown at this point, what seems quite clear is that they are both about to undergo huge change. I’m betting that there will be a merger or major acquisition in the near future.
How did these two companies – who are, to some, the bullies of the book world – get pushed into this position of weakness?
As with most retail shifts, the customers are voting, and in this case less of them are voting for physical books. If you’ve regularly visited any of these stores over the years, you may have noticed lately that some of the shelf space typically utilized for selling books is now being used to sell games and gifts. While this observation dismays the book-lover, the reality is that many people are either opting to purchase online via Amazon, or are moving to new forms of book consumption, most notably e-books.
According to the Association of American Publishers and the International Digital Publishers Forum, the e-book market has grown over 500% in the past 3 years and represents about 9-10% of the adult trade paper and hard-back book sales. Moving 10% of a market from one type of provider to another is a big deal, and the shockwaves that are being felt in corporate boardrooms today will become increasingly apparent in many communities.
If Hermione could use her time-turner to travel back a few decades, she would have seen young people like herself walking out of their neighborhood library with a stack of books that were checked out with a library card. Book reading was predominantly a borrowing phenomenon, and America prospered – and still does today – because of community funding of local public libraries. Purchasing books may have been limited to a few favorite classics, as well as an expensive encyclopedia set prominently displayed in the home.
In the past decade or two, in part because of the proliferation of big box book retailers, we have seen the paradigm of book consumption move from “borrowing”, to “owning” – and it is now headed toward “downloading”.
However, when there are seismic shifts in a market, there is the danger of blowing it all out of proportion. I believe our area can support book retailers for many years to come, although the numbers and names may change. Many of us have enjoyed the varied book selection and ambiance that these retailers offer, as well as the passion that their employees have for books. I, for one, spend a significant percentage of my waking hours reading content on a computer screen, and so the e-book does not hold any allure for me.
But the written word will continue to engage eager minds for generations to come. You needn’t be a wizard to realize that sitting someplace comfortable and reading a great book – in whatever form – can be magical.
Published December, 2010