Evolving from the 20th Century Book Publishing Ecosystem, Part 1 Booksellers
I’d like to add to the growing body of commentary about the way publishing may adapt to the challenges it faces as it evolves from a 20th century ecosystem into the 21st century. First of all, I find that 20th century publishing had 6 major roles that impacted the lion’s share of the business as listed in the table below.
20th Century Book Publishing Ecosystem Roles
ROLE FUNCTION NOTES
Author Write books, promote as needed Success = large royalty advance
Agent Select book/author, sell rights Success= negotiating large advance
Publisher (Trade) Acquire book/author, publish Growth and profit is key
Wholesaler 1 stop shop for retail, selection Same day shipping, high fill rates
Booksellers Merchandise to consumers stocking, word of mouth, hand sell
Consumers Buy from booksellers, read Media influenced (Oprah), wom
As we move deeper into the 21st century, almost every role is in flux, threatened by current developments or undergoing major change due to technology, culture, overall business trends, etc. But the first role I’ll explore in more depth is that of the bookseller.
As the 20th century retail evolved in the 1980’s and 1990’s, so did bookselling. What had been a diverse assortment of independently owned and operated bookstores across the country became a big box chain category. The growth of Barnes and Noble through merger and acquisition, as well as the parallel growth of Borders changed the face of bookselling. The superstore became the ultimate bookselling tool, a vast expanse of tables and shelves for almost all current frontlist and backlist titles from every publisher, and the rapid expansion of the number of superstores across the country fueled demand for category backlist titles to fill those shelves. Publishers and wholesaler benefited enormously from these opening orders, and developed more efficient ways to inventory the necessary titles and handle the order fulfillment challenges.
By the mid 1990’s, during the height of the superstore boom, Amazon.com emerged and created the etail category. In 10 years, Amazon.com has grown to become perhaps the most influential bookseller in the US, with the volume and buyer power that comes with the territory. At the same time, the independent booksellers that dominated the business until the 1980’s declined rapidly. Both the superstores and etail devastated the independents. While some of the best still survive today (Tattered Cover in Denver), their overall number and sales volume has diminished to a rounding error.
One of the consequences is that the role of the “professional” bookseller, a human paid for their knowledge of books and their ability to match books to readers, has been disintermediated. While the chains may claim that they employ many booksellers, staffing cuts have reduced most superstore staffing to levels that provide only the most basic services. And the chains do not typically pay a living wage to their “bookseller” store employees.
But perhaps even more significant in the virtual extinction of the professional bookseller is the emergence of web 2.0 technologies. Look at Amazon as the supreme example. The function of the bookseller has been replaced by a combination of several factors. First, the ability for consumers to rate the items that they’ve bought (books they’ve read) and then store that information in a database. Second, the ability of Amazon to utilize that information, as well as their record of your purchases and browsing path, to provide recommendations to you replaced the most obvious role of the bookselling professional. And third, the enthusiasm of other customers in providing “user generated content”, their ratings and reviews of books, gives the Amazon consumer an amazing amount of supplemental content to validate their choices. Together, these factors provide a consistent customer experience no matter where that consumer is located.
The best 1970’s bookseller understood the tastes of their customers, what they had already read, and which other books might appeal. Their brains were the recommendation engine of the time. Yet that skill was hard to teach and required much time and dedication to acquire. In the virtual world of Amazon, the software that provides the recommendation learns to improve results by closely tracking how the consumer responds. It is a self-improving loop that will continue to evolve as more information is provided to fuel it. And it has rendered the professional bookseller almost extinct.
Next, part 2.