At the middle of the last century, the cozy neighborhood bookstore began to be challenged by mall stores, owned by chains like Walden and Dalton, which introduced discounting and other marketing bells and whistles. The better independent booksellers responded by upgrading and expanding their inventory, producing “superstores,” such as Denver’s famous Tattered Cover, which has well over a hundred thousand titles, expert service, and in-store events. The chains—Barnes & Noble and Borders—soon adapted the superstore model, adding, for good measure, coffee bars. Book sales also moved into the “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco, but these sold a limited number of discounted titles and “deleted” any book that did not meet immediate sales expectations.
In the mid-1990s came the online retailers, especially Amazon, with millions of titles available in their virtual space, usually priced at a discount. This model emphasized efficiency, shipping books to consumers at amazing speed, even when the book required days to locate and send. (The traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers held to the convention that books could not be purchased until the items actually arrived in the stores, which meant that for many hard-to-find or unexpectedly fast-selling titles, customers had to make multiple forays before they were actually able to complete a purchase.) In those days, too, books were sold to retailers on consignment, and could be returned for full credit. By the early 2000s, well over 30 percent of all books on average were excess inventory, and for new titles, the figure was often as high as 50 percent. The waste of paper and manufacturing time, the costs related to packing and shipping, and the resulting glut of remaindered books—all this depressed profits.
That began to change after the 2008-2009 recession. As digital technology improved and devices for reading, listening, or printing on demand became easier to use, readers caught on. So did publishers, who were eliminating the costs of paper, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping, as well as the need to take a substantial reserve for unsold inventory. As a result, publishers could lower the price of books in certain formats, maintain them in others.
And after the predictable haggle with authors and agents, publishers devised a royalty structure that was reasonably fair to all. The settlement with Google back in 2008 had affirmed the principle that books under copyright could not be used without some compensation to their creators. That agreement made possible the scanning of millions of titles—a vast library of literature, scholarship, and journalism for libraries and buyers.
Bookstores, of course, found themselves adjusting to changing customer habits spurred by the convenience of online retailing. Key to this success was innovation that preserved the concept of the bookstore as a showroom and guide, not only to the printed books available for sale onsite, but to the vast and searchable catalogs of other titles housed in the storage facilities of wholesalers, which could be converted into e-books or print-on-demand books (as well as large-print versions or downloadable audio files). Booksellers again re-imagined their stores as destinations, places to engage in the time-honored pleasures of browsing and conversation, with reading and discussion groups, author visits, and a renewed commitment to customer service. More importantly, they can now sell you any book in any format, nearly instantly.
In fact, the principle that books of all kinds can be made so much more available in so many ways is what led to the renewal of publishing in the years following the deep recession of 2008 and 2009. It took a substantial measure of collaboration and entrepreneurial energy from all the participants in the book-writing, publishing, and selling process. The disorienting pace and the scale of change—combined with the debilitating skepticism toward technology so deeply embedded in book culture—were considerable deterrents to this renaissance.
But by 2014, perhaps out of necessity, these challenges were met. Book publishing proved again that if you provide the content that people want, in all the formats they want it, and at reasonable prices, the insatiable need for information and the power of stories will overcome obstacles to progress every time.