Over the past few years, especially among book lovers, there’s been a continual undercurrent of dissatisfaction with chain bookstores, and I’d be the first to admit that I have my problems with the big box bookstores.  Certainly, those who’ve followed this site for several years know that I felt from way back that Borders was badly managed, but what I find interesting is that I’ve seen very little on what led to the rise of the mega-bookstore… and it wasn’t just corporate greed. Because I’m an author and because I’ve been to well over a thousand bookstores of all sizes and shapes in almost every state in the United States [excepting five], however, I may have a slightly different perspective from others.

Over the last thirty years especially, the book business has changed dramatically, the most significant factors, in my opinion, being the collapse/centralization of the wholesale distribution network and the closure of more than 2,000 smaller mall stores. The closure of the mall stores resulted from a failure of Borders, in particular, to realize exactly what those stores did, which was to increase the reader base while providing a very modest profit.  That modest profit wasn’t enough for the corporate types, unfortunately, and they thought large destination stores would provide higher margins, which they do [if run well, which Borders was not], but almost everyone who goes to a big chain store is a dedicated buyer… and the closure of the mall stores left entire areas of major cities with no convenient bookstore. With the centralization of the wholesale distribution networks, most of the bookracks in drugstores and elsewhere vanished, as did the local expertise on what sold where. These factors have reduced the number of readers and buyers, as well as led to the growth of the large book chains, including WalMart’s book sections, and, in turn, to aggressive price discounting on best-sellers. That aggressive pricing made the economics unworkable for many small independent booksellers.

Yet for all the woe and hand-wringing by some authors and others, I have very mixed feelings about smaller bookstores.  I love their passion and their love of books, and their dedication to literacy and reading, but… having visited scores of them, one thing stands out in my mind.  Except for a comparative few specialty F&SF stores [less than thirty nationwide in 1990, and less than a handful today], very few of the small independents carried much fantasy and science fiction.  I’m fortunate if I see more than three or four of my titles in any small independent bookstore, and generally there is only one copy of each. This is true of even F&SF top best-sellers as well, if with a few more copies of each title. Now… there are exceptions, such as the small store in my home town, but they’re rare.  On the other hand, the big box chains carry almost all my fantasy titles, and if they didn’t, I’d be looking for a day job or eking it out on what I’ve saved over the years.  The plain fact is that big-box stores have supported genre fiction far more than have the small independents, and that’s especially true for fantasy and science fiction.  What’s also true is that the old dispersed wholesale rack system also supported genre fiction more than the independents did.  So now, the only real outlet for a broad range of genre fiction, especially F&SF, appears to be the big box stores.

Some authors in the field are optimistic that the internet will provide another outlet, besides Amazon and B&, but I have my doubts, simply because most readers don’t want to search author sites and the like – at least not until they know the author and his or her works.

So… like it or not, for now those of us in the F&SF field are pretty much tied to the big box boys and Amazon… because for all of the concern about the independents, much as I like them and their devoted people, the independents alone can’t come close to supporting the field… although that’s something that far too many authors won’t admit publicly.


8 thoughts on “Bookstores”

  1. Kathryn says:

    I’d love to say I’ve seen your books in the UK, but with the exception of a few unsold Orbit-published books in the Leeds Waterstone’s store (One of the biggest SFF sections I’ve seen since Borders in the UK went out of business), the only editions I’ve seen are US paperbacks at maybe £8-9 a pop (Compared to the $8-9 US price), and even then it’s just been random ones. Waterstone’s smaller stores tend to have a copy of Imager, but not Challenge (Intrigue was released after I finished working near a WS store, so I’ve not been able to see it in).

    In our supermarkets, the only near-traditional fantasy I’ve really seen that isn’t a game tie-in would be the recent re-release of Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and also A Dance with Dragons. I can go into WH Smith (Our other big book chain, one that isn’t very good to authors/publishers apparently) and look at their SF/F/Horror section, and it’ll be Warhammer novels, King, Leather Clad Buttocks, Rothfuss, Martin, Peter F. Hamilton and some others. Nothing really that out of the ordinary, even in the bigger stores.

    For me, as a reader, my two main stores are Amazon and The Book Depository. The former for convenience and quick delivery (And sometimes lower prices), the latter for pre-orders, impulse buys and so forth.

    I think Amazon and TBD, and the like, have an unintended effect on bookstores. I view £8, a standard cover price, to be expensive now because Amazon and the like can sell for £5. For £16, I can get two books from Waterstone’s or I can go on Amazon and get 3 new books, four or five used ones, you get the idea. I know my mother doesn’t buy new books from, say, Waterstone’s as she says it’s “expensive” (Huh? They charge you the ‘correct’ price). I think that’s a bad thing.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    From this customer’s perspective, a large but well stocked and ordered book store (my impression of Books-A-Million is mixed in terms of all but size; they seem almost like variety stores that lack familiarity with all but the most high volume genres and have had their wholesalers dump leftovers on them) is best when browsing with nothing specific in mind other than fresh reading material, or looking for gifts; online is best when looking for something specific but obscure (or perhaps not yet released), and local, if it were still an option, would be best looking for something specific but commonplace.

    When Border’s was still functioning, there were a couple near a couple of Trader Joe’s, almost equidistant from me (about half an hour away, ,in opposite directions). That they sometimes picked the same sort of locations (strip malls near upscale areas, but probably with lower costs than a nearby major enclosed mall) suggests to me that at least in that one regard (picking effective but not too expensive locations), perhaps Border’s wasn’t completely incompetent in recent years; Trader Joe’s is pretty well known for choosing their locations effectively.

    As it is with the economy right now, all but the most major enclosed malls seem to have a number of vacancies, as many businesses close, and some of those that don’t look for cheaper locations. Perhaps were the economy to significantly improve, a portion of the local mall book stores might one day come back; or if printing on demand were to reach the point of fulfilling its thus far mostly empty promise, that might provide another option.

  3. Bethany says:

    I look for your books and at sci-fi/fantasy selections wherever I go – but then, I live near Portland and Powell’s Books is my bookstore. 🙂 Prior to that I had to rely on a very small Waldenbooks’ selection of sci-fi novels, and a now defunct Borders that preferred to sell cookery books. The Borders is now closed, and Powells once again rules the downtown Portland bookstore scene.

    I’ve never been much for reading mysteries or contemporary novellas or romance novels, and it’s still a shock to me how many folks DO read them. I’m on, and it is terribly difficult to find swapping deals on sci-fi/fantasy novels. Romance novels, Harlequinn etc., are read more widely by the demographic that uses that site, unfortunately.

  4. Lourain says:

    When Barnes & Noble came to my community the only bookstore besides used bookstores and college bookstores (we have a state university and several colleges) was Waldenbooks (which was terrible!). B&S has a good F & SF section, as well as good nonfiction sections, and became my second home. I love browsing the shelves, which you cannot do as effectively on-line.
    Later, a Borders bookstore arrived. It was dark, and, compared to B&N, unfriendly.
    B&N was always busy, while Borders seemed to have few customers whenever I visited. I was not surprised when Borders closed.
    If not for B&N I would have to drive 70-80 miles to find a good bookstore. Hooray for this chain store!

  5. When I first moved here, there were a couple of decent independent bookstores, and both a B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in every mall (we have three major ones). It was my habit to to browse through each bookstore with every mall trip and I almost never walked out without buying, even if it was just something out of the bargain bin. Today, all of the independents are gone aside from a couple of used book stores, there are no bookstores in any of the malls and what’s left are two Barnes & Noble stores, neither in a terribly convenient location. Where I used to be able to say that I was in a bookstore several times per month, it’s now down to once per year, if that. I now buy eBooks and will occasionally make an impulse buy off of the book table at the local warehouse club, but I really miss those mall shops. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t really thought about how much of my reading material used to come from those little outlets.

  6. Brad says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, Mr. Modesitt. I never liked going to the smaller local bookstores twenty years ago when I was in high school. They never had a good selection of fantasy or sci-fi. Most of the stuff I bought in high school was from a local comic/gaming store called Star Realm, which had a pretty decent selection of fantasy and sci-fi. If I couldn’t find it there I had to trek out to the Waldenbooks at the mall.

    I embraced the big box stores when they came about because I could find tons of stuff there. However, over the years I read less and a year ago discovered a magical little device called the Kindle… I found that I rarely re-read books that I bought, and was wasting space with all these physical books all over the place. If there’s something I really like, I’ll get a hard copy of it. But now I’m buying pretty much everything as an eBook. Here’s to hoping fantasy and sci-fi thrives in the electronic format.

  7. Max says:

    At least personally for me, electronic format actually increased my spending on books by a large amount, including new and previously unknown authors.. I had literally spent around $400+ in 2011 on books.

    Its incredibly cool to, having read a recommendation or good review of a book on an internet forum, to be able to google “amazon + book title” and have it delivered to your device in 20 seconds by doing 1-click buy.

    It led me to a lot of impulsive purchases, about only 50% of which I liked. I quickly learned to use “Download a free sample” feature, which helped a lot with weeding out bad books.

    I would rather pay a premium for Kindle version of a book, even if it was priced higher then hardcover, its just so much more convenient.

    In fact my problem with electronic formats, is that there are now a lot of 4.99 or 1.99 priced books, including self-published one, that somehow all have 5 star reviews, and always pop up in “recommended for you because you read such and such”.. I wish Amazon would have a feature to filter out these from “New releases” section, as most of these are crap and 5 start reviews seems to be manufactured/fake. New authors will still be able to get noticed based on merits, as several very good debuts this year had shown, with normally priced books.

  8. Jenn Barber says:

    You said it.
    This summer both the used bookstore and the big chain store in my rural area were closed. I cannot browse in real-life the racks of SF/Fantasy like I have always done. How am I going to meet new authors? I’m a loyal reader to a good author, but finding a new treasure is most of the fun. I use my eReader to purchase those books by authors familiar to me, but cannot find the excitement of discovery in the digital world that I found in a bookstore.
    My first Modesitt book was found in a local used bookstore in the 1980’s just like my first OS Card, Tepper and Heinlein. Once I found an author to my liking, I busied myself buying new books at a chain store as well as searching the dusty forgotten shelves for out of print books. I’m going to miss that.

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