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How Bookstores Can Survive

19 Dec

Over the last several years, as bookstores have dwindled and Borders went belly up, a lot of attention has shifted toward Amazon (being the villain or scapegoat, depending on your perspective). But debating Amazon’s role in the changes in publishing does nothing to save bookstores. Like it or not, Amazon will continue to do what it’s doing, and because it’s primarily helping readers, little traction will ever be gained among book lovers to boycott Amazon or any similar pointless activities (unless Amazon does something truly wrong).

The truth is, bookstores have dwindled because they’re part of a defunct system that dates back nearly a hundred years, and became very comfortable in their role. In other words, as the publishing world started to change (evident at least 20 years ago), bookstores did little if anything to proactively adjust. They just kept doing the same old things, selling books the same old way. Worse yet, as book-selling consolidated among fewer chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, the “associates” (or whatever title workers were bestowed) became less and less knowledgeable. The love of books common among independent bookstore employees was replaced by the attitude that “it’s a better job than other options” for getting through college or a mid-life crisis. Of course, I’m grossly generalizing, to the insult of honest, book-loving bookstore employees everywhere — however, they are a truly slim minority (and they, of all people, know it).

So, what can bookstores do?

My recommendation — and precisely what I’d do if I were to start or take over a bookstore today — is to specialize, specialize, specialize. Focus your bookstore on a particular genre and know that genre inside out. Humor books, self-help books, business books, mystery, sci-fi, romance, whatever. Pick a genre and go deep. Feature the popular titles, but carry many from unknown and self-published authors as well. Hire employees who absolutely LOVE your genre, so they know more about it than 90% of the customers coming through the door.

Wanna get crazy? Allow customers to order books from Amazon that you don’t carry. Do it right there in your store. Have computer stations set up so customers order through your Amazon Associates account, earning you a little cut from each sale. No, it’s not much, but it’s a slice of the pie you wouldn’t otherwise have — and it’s goodwill among your customers. Make this option abundantly clear in your store, so fewer rude lurkers are buying from Amazon on their smartphones in your store.

I have more thoughts on this I’ll add in the future, but for now, I’ve put the idea out there. Of course, I’m not saying there’s no such bookstore in the U.S. or world, but I’ve never heard of or seen one (not counting technical, scientific, or religious bookstores). So, at the very least, I can say the vast majority of bookstores try to carry most genres for most people. I think the time has come to head the opposite direction.

Create Your Future

3 Oct

I recently read Seth Godin’s blog post entitled “The forever recession (and coming revolution)” and pretty much agree with everything except the “coming” part. I think the revolution is upon us.

It’s funny how we, at least in this country, have become conditioned to avoid pain at any cost — even when pain is normal. We have all sorts of drugs and devices and techniques for alleviating pain, which is great because no one should suffer pain needlessly. The problem, though, is that pain sometimes isn’t needless.

Pain, literally or metaphorically, is an important sign, an indicator that something is wrong. When we rush to mask that pain, before we’ve diagnosed it, we lose the chance to discover what it’s trying to tell us. Within the current state of the economy, there’s a rush on all sides to quickly fix the pain we are going through as a nation. But what if this pain is just the natural byproduct of what Godin has proposed? Think of it as a national form of “growing pains” as we transition from a century of living within an industrial-based economy to living within a new one based on technology and information.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not trivializing the difficulty that millions of people are going through. The past few years have been challenging for me as well, not to mention many people I know. But if this is, indeed, a natural part of our growing as a nation, transitioning from one economy to another, then it does us no good to fight it. It does us no good to try to “fix” it. And it does us no good to hang on to what was and what “should be.” As with any inevitable transition, those who most successfully navigate it are the ones who let go the fastest and look for the next path.

Which brings us to self-publishing. What a great time to be doing this! Really, much of what Godin wrote holds promise for those willing to take the self-publishing path. As I mention in the intro to my ebook, there has never been a more opportune time for us — not to mention self-publishing even being a possibility for so many people it hadn’t before.

Start thinking of your current and future projects as potential annuities, especially the younger you are. Think of them as ways to build security in your future, at a time when “job security” will be an oxymoron. Think of them as intellectual property in the same way real estate investors think of real property: they are yours to build (self-publish) and sell or rent out (license). But unlike real estate, you can create as much intellectual property as you can dream up, you have far fewer barriers to creation, you can sell one property many times over, and the time to completion for each project can be much quicker. Not only that, you can create a potentially lucrative piece of self-published property with almost no money at all — you sure can’t do that in real estate.

Despite the uncertainty all around us, I get more excited about self-publishing every day. More and more tools are coming out to support our efforts, and many of them are free (like Google Apps). The stigma of self-publishing is fading with each success story (like Amanda Hocking’s). And the thirst for entertainment and information has never been greater. So, create great works… fill needs… take pride in your craft… and remember, with each self-publishing project, you are potentially creating your own future.