The Book World In Recession?

In overall terms, the world of books is rapidly becoming a scary place. Borders Books is teetering on the edge, with an anticipated report of poor sales in the third quarter of the year. While Borders is not the largest of the chains, it still represents a significant chunk of the retail book market, and no author, me included, wants to see something like 400 super-stores vanish. Nor does any publisher. Fall sales of virtually all new titles from all publishers have declined, and one major publisher has reputedly ordered the editorial staff to stop acquiring new titles, at least for a while. Some agents are reporting more difficulty in pitching titles to publishers.

Is all this just because of the economic slowdown? In some respects, I’d like to think that it is. Unfortunately, it’s not. The economic hard times are revealing a real weakness in the market for books, especially for fiction. As I’ve observed in earlier blogs, the modest increases in books sales have come more from greater sales to an ever-smaller percentage of the population, because the percentage of the population that reads is decreasing, and the greatest decrease is among the 16-25 age group. Likewise, historically the over-55 age group, particularly those who are college-educated, has had the highest reading percentage, and retirees, often steady readers, are economically harder-pressed and are likely buying fewer books.

But, there’s far more to the decline in book sales than these factors.

At one point, I’ve been told, there were over 1,500 Waldenbooks, B. Daltons, and small mall bookstores, often two in every mall. In addition, before that, there were individual paperback book racks in almost every drugstore in the country, and those racks were tailored to local reading habits, and often were located right next to the comic book racks. Both the mall stores and the drugstores allowed easy access, what’s called impulse book buying. While the more profitable small mall stores have been replaced by book superstores that are actually mall anchors, these stores tend to be more destinations for already determined book buyers than a source of impulse buying — and there are far fewer of them than there were smaller mall bookstores.

At one time, virtually no mall was without a bookstore, albeit a small one. Now there are hundreds of malls without any bookstores, and whole sections of major cities without bookstores, and most of the corner drugstores are long-since gone, and I don’t see many book displays in the generic drug chains that replaced them. Yes, many supermarkets, and even WalMarts, have book sections, but most Super WalMarts are lucky to have 20 F&SF titles, or for that matter more than 50 titles of any genre or mainstream fiction. In other supermarkets the selection is even more meager. Even the tiniest of Waldenbooks used to have several hundred titles in each genre [and I know, because I visited that store before it was closed].

By concentrating resources in book superstores, the book chains have largely eliminated what was effectively a feeder network that helped make books available to a larger segment of the population. It’s unscientific, but I’ve traveled most of the United States in the past fifteen years and found that very few malls in minority sections of most cities have bookstores. The bookstores tend to be concentrated in or near affluent white, higher-income neighborhoods. This is a great way to maximize an existing customer base, but given the fact that a considerable number of children in lower income areas will grow up to be higher-wage earners, it’s a very poor long-term strategy, and another example of our cultural mindset to maximize short-term profits, regardless of the long-term implications.

Add to that an educational system that tries to do too much with too little discipline, too few teachers and inadequate resources, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that effective reading levels continue to decline, regardless of what the school “tests” say, since more accurate Department of Education tests on college graduates show that almost 60% lack the capacity to read and understand a complex newspaper editorial. On top of that, regardless of the intellectual brilliance of students, the current teaching systems and the video culture have created a mindset where long-term concentration is difficult, if not impossible, for all too many students — and long-term concentration is definitely required for reading books.

So… I suspect that the majority of publishers [excepting mine, who has spoken out long and hard against these trends and taken steps to counter them] and book store executives will console themselves that the declining sales are merely a function of economic hard times. But those who believe that recent declining sales are all a function of lower income and higher unemployment are seriously deluding themselves.

1 thought on “The Book World In Recession?”

  1. Blue says:

    I am part of the 16-25 age group that does buy books and plenty of fiction. It scares me to realize that in 10 years there might not be a supply of new authors and titles to read simply due to low demand created by the inability of retailers to look to the long term.

    That is going to be a sad world indeed

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