Goodbye physical bookstore, we loved you

Everyone already knows that certain big-name bookstores are closing down. What a sad state of affairs. This post was originally in response to the beautiful Julia Munroe Martin of wordsxo, but the reply got so long, I figured I’d just turn it into tonight’s rant! You can see her entry, then read on. Borders: It’s Personal

Part of the problem is, big chain bookstores have so much extra to factor into costs at the get-go. Rent/property tax, utilities for the big store front, employees both on the floor and out of sight. But the nasty part is the profit margin they are expected to turn, because that becomes mark-up for the consumer to bear.

In this day and age, we know what kind of money is going back to the writer, and their agent, and the editor at the publishing house. The publishing execs make their profit (for themselves and the stockholders). Then there’s the workers at the print factory, the binders, the general production costs. We know that half the work at a publishing house is done by unpaid interns. We know that the bosses are looking at that profit margin, no matter which company it’s going through. At every stop, someone is adding that little extra, but once you reach an actual store, their “little extra” heads upwards in ways that are no longer fair to the average consumer.

Who can afford new books from big chains anymore? I’m not going to buy e-books exclusively when I finally get an e-reader (I will always want a physical copy), but the cost is a very real factor. If the writer, the person whose creation you’re reading, is finally able to get a better cut of the cake, that’s a good direction for us to be stepping.

But electronic media is by nature very non-capitalist; a computer file is infinitely reproducible at negligible cost, so what are we really paying for? There is the stipend to the writer, as a thanks for their creative work, and to cover the costs they incurred while writing and editing and hiring an artist to make some very nice cover art. Then even by buying through online stores, we pay to keep that store online (staff, bandwidth, their office overheads). But they don’t need a big, expensive store front, with high-exposure to a main road. They don’t need nice carpets or a flashy sign out front. They can sit in their respectably comfortable offices and still provide us with the same end product, for less cost to us.

If we were able to drag our society away from the superficial appearance-driven stores that cost so much to run, would they remain viable businesses? Or would the top-tiers of each company still drive the cost outside of a profitable range at all? An e-book ultimately isn’t a superior product to an actual paper print, though it has considerable advantages (and don’t get me started on the paper industry, we will be here all night). I think the physical book, and indeed the physical bookstore will persist beyond this electronic age, but they need to grow and adapt.

~A

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16 thoughts on “Goodbye physical bookstore, we loved you

  1. This is a great post as a partner to mine today! It’s so important to understand, I agree, that at the heart of it this is a business we’re talking about. And Borders was a business trying to make money (and apparently failing). I completely agree that I will probably always buy paper books (I’ve lived long enough to know I will never say anything for definite for me!), but truth be told, I buy almost all my books on amazon.com. Even before my neighborhood store closed (there was also an indie bookstore I wrote a blog about several months ago), I usually only would buy books there or at Borders when I needed immediate gratification or had to get a gift and wasn’t sure what to buy. No question whatsoever that the physical bookstore needs to grow and adapt. Great post! (and thank you for the shout out)

    1. Thank you, and you’re welcome! 😉

      All the books I bought most recently have been from second-hand bookstores. I’ve always been an avid lover of second-hand places (I love thrift stores! They are full of treasures!), so that’s nothing new. However, it’s becoming a struggle to recall the last time I bought a brand new book. It must have been back in March, when I got the AMAZING new release The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s getting to the stage where the only time I buy from physical stores is for brand new books by my favourite authors. Everything else I specifically want, I can’t afford to get brand new, so I too go to Amazon (or the Australian online store, Fishpond).

      ~A

  2. I too, am one of the souls lamenting the slow apparent demise of the physical bookstore and indeed, the physical book… It’s a sad state of affairs, but business is business and whilst they may start out as a venture ‘for the love’, at the end of the day, they need to turn out a profit and if they aren’t meeting their required targets… *sigh*
    I don’t mind eBooks. I spend a fair bit of time online reading anyway… but I will truly mourn the day when paper publishing vanishes. There is nothing quite like the romance between word and reader. Holding it, that beautiful ‘new’ smell and the satisfying feeling of slipping it back on the shelf when you’re done.
    I’ve always thought “If all the world’s technology were to one day go boom… physical, in the flesh texts would be all we would have…” They’re so important. I just wish there was more support for the smaller, boutique book stores struggling to stay afloat right now 😦
    Great post!

    1. I think as long as people like us are around, we will find ways to support real bookstores! Part of me feels almost uncomfortable buying at the big chains, because they are all commercialised anyway. There are still some genuine small bookstores around Perth, and I will have to make a concerted effort to go to them!

      ~A

  3. It’s sad to see our favorite hangouts close. But I think it’s a mistake to blame it on ebooks, as some are doing. It’s more to do with being able to purchase real books on line, (as you point out, Ashlee). I spend quite a bit on real books. (Haven’t jumped on the ebook bandwagon – and probably won’t, unless they start giving e-readers away for free someday.) But most of the books I buy are bought on line, simply because it’s cheaper, and our economy sucks right now. (Not sure if Australia’s economy has been hit as hard as the States.) When our economy recovers I’m certain book sales will go up, as folks have more money to spend on luxury items.
    Good thoughful post, Ashlee.

    1. There definitely has to be a huge consideration towards the state of the economy and what it does to people’s spending. Australia is doing far better than the US at the moment, but I know of many people and families who are still on a very tight budget, and luxury items like new books just aren’t on the list. Libraries, eBay or Amazon, yardsales and thrift stores are where most people seem to be going for books simply for cost-reasons. Of course, this is part of the reason why big business is strangling itself; the more costs they put into luxury, the less people can buy those items during this tough time.

      ~A

  4. My opinion is and always has been that software is not a capitalist market, nor is it necessarily compatible with the concept of ownership or economy in general.

    In so many ways, software has replaced aspects of our lives. We have been trained to expect it, and it’s a dependency that we cannot necessarily sustain as a commercial culture.

    I think we’re experiencing only the very shallowest beginnings of the changes that digital products will continue to compound.

    1. In many ways, I see both sides of the issue. On one hand, I would love to be paid for the effort and time that’s going into my writing since that is the capitalist method of appreciation for a good job, but on the other hand, books are an artform, and I don’t know if it’s appropriate to charge money for people to view an artform. To own a copy, sure, but just to read it? That’s the concept behind libraries. As you say, software (or electronic data) can’t really be “owned”, so even if there was a way to make text visible online for free and you only charged money for a physical print copy, people could just find a way to reproduce it anyway.

      ~A

      1. My issue with *never* charging for art, though, is that it starves the artist. A truly talented artist should (idealism alert!) be able to make enough off their work that they can make it their primary (or only) employment, allowing them to devote more time & resources to developing their art, & thus make it even better.

        There is a distinction between different media, too. We are overcharged for major-label music, no question; too many people who don’t actually contribute are getting cuts of the cash, just as with major-label book publishing.

        Movies, however (at least at matinees & on DVD), are priced pretty fairly, considering the number of people & the amount of time required to competently accomplish the things which most filmgoers demand nowadays.

        And while a book can be written in small pieces each night for just a few bucks total, the cast & crew sizes of movies typically require the entire thing be shot in a month or two for millions of dollars for any kind of quality result (something like Clerks, shot in tiny pieces each night for under $50K & yet still popular & acclaimed, is an anomaly).

        I’ll reply to the actual post below.

        1. I also believe an artist should be able to support themselves off their passion, but I also believe in a far more idealised community where we don’t necessarily work for money in the first place. 😉

          ~A

  5. I came here from your comment on Julia’s post. I agree with you whole-heartedly. The bookstores, and I would add book industry, needs “to grow and adapt.” That’s the way it is in this world.

    1. Welcome and thanks for visiting! You’re absolutely right, the entire book industry needs to get on-board with the evolution thing, because nothing can stay the same forever. If the big houses don’t learn to adapt fast enough, they will just be overtaken by the popularity of self-pub and small independent houses that absolutely HAVE to change to remain a viable market.

      ~A

  6. The Waterstone’s in the Metro Centre closed down just the other day and I was truly gutted! It doesn’t matter whether it’s going under completely or whether they’re just downsizing, it’s a little tragic to see them go! I did actually buy books from there! It’s not the same with an e-reader, it may be more convinient, but books with weight and pages just cannot be beaten in my opinion!!

    1. In my house, there are six full bookcases, and more books besides. An e-reader will never smell like a book (unless technology makes a HUGE jump in the scent department!). I do want to get one, because the lure of carrying around a huge library in one device is appealing for travel. However, as similar as that sounds to the MP3 player market, there is the distinct difference that books have a totally different quality to an e-book. MP3 players can actually carry song files in a higher quality than normal CDs play, so they are both convenient as well as an improvement for the media. Since an e-reader can’t actually do that in any way, books have an appeal that won’t die from a “better” product on the market. Thanks for your comment, it’s nice to have you here! 🙂

      ~A

  7. I love Borders. I got a Borders Rewards card several years ago (inb4Ty: all they ask for to sign up is email) & have been enjoying the extra discounts ever since, discounts which put their prices on par with Amazon.

    When the first round of Borders closings was announced, I was relieved that the one near me was staying open. Then a few weeks later, I was relieved to hear somebody made an offer to buy the company & keep the remaining stores open. Then a few more weeks later, I was infuriated to hear that the bosses at Borders turned down the deal & were closing down the whole chain. *facepalm*

    I do shop online, but mostly for obscure or indie items which cannot be found in a reasonable distance from me. I also don’t buy e-books. I want a physical copy, not only for the romanticism of the paper, but also for the relative permanence. A book that is only distributed by digital means can be withheld, destroyed, lost.
    Unfortunately, while my Borders was just across the street from where I work, only a few miles from my house, the nearest Barnes & Noble is 10 miles in the OPPOSITE direction. *headdesk*

    So it looks like Amazon will be getting more of my business now; not because of e-books or better prices, but because I just can’t get to B&N very often while they’re open.

    1. Even while Borders is closing, having other people/companies interested in maintaining the stores might mean room will open up for new bookstores anyway. And the more that I am aware of the challenges facing bookstores, the more I have noticed when I see a small, independent store still in business!

      ~A

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