A New Model for an Old Classic
“As the nation’s largest physical bookseller, Barnes & Noble supports publishers who support our bookstores.”
—B&N spokesman, as reported this week in Publishers Weekly
What does that mean? We support publishers who support us?
Remember the scene in the movie You’ve Got Mail, when Indie bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) sells books at full price to Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), whose newest mega-chain Fox Books store is opening around the corner? Fox is surprised by the cost of the few children’s books he buys from Kelly, for his young relatives. The books in his store are sold at a discount off the cover price, something he can afford to do, and still make money, because mega stores buying in bulk receive discounts from publishers.
With his big chain, Fox killed the local indie, which couldn’t compete with the discounts—as seen in the real world.
I had a hard time hating Fox—for no other reason than that I love Tom Hanks, who will always be Lawrence Bourne III from Volunteers and Allen Bauer from Splash to me—even though I’m certain he ran his bookstores the same way the real chains still run their stores, as pay-for-space display cases. The books on the tables? Bought space. The books featured on aisle “end-caps”? Bought space. Placement in newsletters? Bought space.
The Daddy Warbucks with the big pockets to pay for the Park Place and Broadway real estate, within the bookstore version of Monopoly? The publishers. And it isn’t cheap. So, it isn’t all the publishers—just the ones with money to spend. The upstarts making magic on a smaller scale, the ones over on Baltic Avenue, aren’t hanging in the same space.
So would you say Fox supported publishers? No. Fox supported what worked best for his company.
At the end of the film, as Fox and Kelly walked away as the happy couple, the death of her family-run indie is behind them, and the death of the mega store is in front of them.
As they walk off, they’re in 1998, when Amazon was busting through the old model, just coming off a law suit from Barnes & Noble, claiming that Amazon’s tag line, as “the world’s largest bookstore” wasn’t true. To boot, the mega chain said Amazon wasn’t a “bookstore at all. It’s a book broker.”
I’m betting that during that time, Joe Fox had his eye on other bricks and mortar stores trying to take a share of his market, and that he didn’t see Amazon staking claim as a bookstore, with real estate within the homes of his own customers. I’m thinking he might have seen a broker instead of a bookstore, too. Not focusing that in the end, both are sellers.
Now Fox is a smart guy, so if he did realize that stores could exist online, he set Fox Books up with a site, but as a catch-up instead of an innovation, and that he did it on the late side, because he was a little cocky and comfortable—kind of like what Blackberry did this week with the launch of its touch-screen phone. As Gizmag put it, “Pre-2007, ‘BlackBerry’ was practically synonymous with ‘smartphone.’ Then the iPhone came along … then Android came along … and eventually ‘Blackberry’ became synonymous with an inability to adapt.”
The chains have become synonymous with an inability to adapt. There are online stores and chain-manufactured e-readers—all catch-up moves, made to keep in step with the competition. But where are their own innovations? When are they the ones out front, with others trying to catch up with them?
Now, take a step back. Remember all the supporters of Kathleen Kelly’s “The Store Around the Corner?” They cried over the death of the independents. Now, they’re crying over the death of the chains, because what is a town without a bookstore?
While I miss the independents, I’m not shedding any tears over the deaths of the chains. In the indies, I was met with specialists who could take me into every corner of their store and point out not just the new, but the old and obscure, and truly wonderful. At the chains, I’ve been met by employees. Many pleasant, but few who can point me in helpful directions—not a one ever teaching me something new.
But if there isn’t even a chain, what is there?
The library—the one home for books that hasn’t died, which has existed within the same format for thousands of years, updated from scrolls to books, eight tracks to cassettes to digital.
A while back I wrote about the “Blockbuster SuperLibrary,” which is a mash-up of the chain stores, the libraries, and the late 80s/early 90s version of Blockbuster video. This allows booklovers to satiate their need to browse, to physically pick up one book after another, feel for embossing on the cover, flip through the pages, make a decision based on the front jack graphic and back jacket blurbs—and then buy or rent the books.
Think about it. The chains have been acting as libraries for years, in the sense of readers being able to sit for hours within them reading books, without buying them. In essence, they’ve become massive display cases for publishers who can afford space within them. Why not adopt a model that grows more robust libraries for communities, allowing readers from all demographics access to the world of books—and because there will always be readers who want to own the books, offer them for sale, too?
Since I wrote the article, my local library added a “buy” button to its web site. From the comfort of my home office, I have access to their databases for research, and to e-books and audio book loans. And if there’s something I want to buy? I can click straight on through to a bookseller—and the sale benefits the library.
This is where we swing back to the bookstore-publisher connection.
It would be just as easy for the libraries to offer buy links to the publishers, to cut out the stores. Why not go right to the source?
The publishers have the ability to sell books off of their own sites, but they sell at cover prices, because the bookstores wouldn’t be happy if the publishers sold books at discount—doing so would undercut the bookstores sales. When Steve Pressfield set up the book pages on his site, the publisher asked that a buy button be included for every store, so that none of the stores felt alienated. We were asked to care for the same stores that want to be paid to promote Steve’s books.
So why keep the chains? Why not cut Fox & Sons out and have customers buy directly from the publishers—or from the authors?
I’d rather see the publishers support the libraries than the chain stores—a new model that would create a robust community center, that is about the love of books and not just the business of books ( but which would, indeed, be a business), a local home for books where people from different demographics and financial means can buy or rent from a larger variety of offerings.
I said it earlier: I had a hard time hating Joe Fox because of the Tom Hanks connection. I’m hoping that there’s a bit of what I love about Tom Hanks in some of the Joe Foxes and publishers out there. I’m hoping that, like Lawrence Bourne III, they find a new model for an old classic. If Lawrence can sort out a thriving nightclub in a dangerous, remote jungle, certainly there’s a way to sort out a contemporary home for books on every Main Street.