Sunday, October 13, 2013

The state of bookstores

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Yesterday, I was honored to take part in the Iowa City Book Festival.  The Festival takes place in the heart of Iowa City near - you guessed it - The University Of Iowa.  Which meant I got a wonderful glimpse of the college atmosphere (including very little sleep due to the partying of a bunch of aspiring orthodontists who brought their bar hopping into the hallway of the 6th floor) in addition to the privilege of reading and discussing THE TESTING in the brand new Teen Center of the Iowa City Public Library.  I also got to be on a panel called Bookstore Blues.

Perhaps it should seem odd that the panel consisted of all authors.  And maybe the tone of the title suggested that bookstores were in a sorry place in this economic climate.  Yet, the conversation was lively and the booksellers and readers in the room were more than ready to jump in and make the panel less of formal discussion and more of an exchange of ideas.  I had a blast.  Really.  And from today's panel adventure, I have decided several things:

1)  Saying bookstores are a dying business isn't just premature, it is just plain wrong.  Did bookstores take a few knocks from the big chains and and even bigger knock by the almighty Amazon?  Yep.  But the book world love books.  They love connecting readers and books.  They love their jobs and while a bunch of bookstores folded in the struggle, a lot have sprung up to take their place.  Booksellers want to sell books and they are determined to find a way to make their business thrive.

2)  Amazon is great for many things including delivering all sorts of stuff - books, clothes, etc.... to people who live in rural areas and don't get to browse at a bookstore all that often.  Panelist John Adams lives on a farm far away from the nearest bookstore, which means he has less distractions to write, but fewer options for a book fix or for other things that he needs, but doesn't have the ability to get easily.  He likened the Amazon business model to Rockefeller in it's desire to put the rest of the book world out of business and hates it.  Still, he likes the convenience so he shops and gets free shipping to his remote location.  A dilemma?  Perhaps.  And one that many might face.  In fact, I have to admit that very few people in the room actually speak of Amazon in favorable terms....even those who love their Kindle and admit to shopping Amazon frequently.  What does that mean?  I haven't a clue, but it was interesting.

3)  Teen are one of the great hopes of booksellers.  Why?  Because teens and younger readers aren't interested in downloading whatever suggestion Amazon gives them.  And they don't really want to read on screens.  In fact, the teens in the room today said they hate reading books on a device.  They want to read a paper book and they find those books through friend recommendations or book talks given by their school librarians or the booksellers who host book fairs.  When asked to explain why reading a book was the preferred method when teens were known for loving all things technology, one teen explained that she does homework on the computer, texts her friends on her phone and does everything else from music management and social media on various screens.  For her, a real book is a way to step away from all those thing and just lose herself in a story without having to worry about what else is happening in the world.  The other teens agreed and even said they had a harder time retaining the story if they read on a device.  Huh....

4)  E-books aren't going anywhere.  They are here to stay.  But after hearing the teens and looking at the e-book grown over the last year, it is safe to say they aren't going to fully replace the book.  E-books are great.  They are a wonderful package for some readers to consume stories.  For others, the paper book will always be king.  No way to read is wrong.  Just as no way to buy books is wrong.  Those who shop Amazon will continue to do so, but there are lots of other book buyers out there who like their local bookstores and will buy there.  As long as bookstores continue to be active in reaching those buyers everyone can thrive.

5)  Amazon isn't always the cheapest book around.  Yep...this was a point I made and it's true.  My mother noticed this when The Testing came out.  Amazon had it discounted as expected, but Barnes and Noble had the book listed for even cheaper.  And they also have free shipping with a $25 purchase.  Huzzah!  And no in the room we had booksellers from Barnes and Noble and the local Prairie Lights Indie Store and they will tell you that they aren't interested in fighting each other for customers.  In fact, they celebrate each other's successes now.  Why?  Because booksellers love books and want to get books in the hands of readers.  End of story.

So, those were my take-aways from the panel today.  Are there challenges ahead for the bookselling world.  Yep!  But all businesses have their ups and downs.  And from the chat today, it sounds like there are lots of ways for bookstores to go up from here.

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