Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Winding my way up the stairs at the four-story Anthropologie store in Harvard Square, I paused to admire a coral-colored cardigan. I held it up to test the length but found it laughably lacking in the sleeve department (tall girl’s curse). As I regretfully replaced the sweater, another cute object caught my eye: a trim paperback, Orr Shtuhl and Elizabeth Graeber’s Illustrated Guide to Cocktails, lovingly displayed alongside the season’s knits, scarves, and bric-a-brac.
I didn’t buy any sweaters that day. I bought the book. And I’m willing to bet you that I would never have given that skinny little thing a second glance in a bookstore.
I later learned the book is self-published, and the author and illustrator were originally selling it on Etsy. Exactly how it came to Anthro, I don’t know, but it’s joined the store’s illustrious lineup of eye-pleasing classic literature and fashion, food, and arts titles. This success story got me thinking about book sales. For an industry that sees online sales as both a great opportunity and a grave threat, could book sales in unusual places be a way to maintain a presence in physical stores?
This week, Publishers Weekly reported that bookstore sales continue their decline, dropping 8.6 percent in November 2011. By contrast, though, retail sales in the segment overall rose 7 percent that month. So people are buying books. But they’re not buying them in bricks-and-mortar bookstores. And if you attribute this entirely to Amazon, consider:
Neilsen BookScan, an online service that tracks book sales in bookstores and online, recently announced that for 2012 it will add sales data from Sam’s Club, Wegmans Food Markets, and the Army & Air Force Exchange Service to its reporting.
And McDonald’s in the UK has added children’s books to Happy Meals, making it, for the moment, the biggest children’s book retailer in that country. (Although whether these are primarily book sales or McNugget sales is up for debate.)
So maybe it’s not just that we’re buying more books online (although, admittedly, this is probably most of it). After all, the “showroom” element to physical bookstores is something that many customers value; being able to pick up a book, browse, and stumble upon new titles in a store environment is a big part of the book-buying experience, and we often lament the loss of that opportunity when we talk about e-tail. Perhaps, since our favorite bookstores are closing, we’re finding books in grocery stores, gas stations, boutiques, restaurants.
This might actually be a good thing, at least for certain books. “Special sales” is the publishing term for book sales in physical non-bookstores (like selling books in Anthropologie), and I think they may be poised to gain some big traction if publishers are serious about maintaining a real-life, physical, in-your-town, in-your-face sales presence.
Special sales can be risky: the publisher is selling to a store that doesn’t make its money off of books, after all, and the retailer can’t be counted on to buy many books or to buy them regularly. If a retailer is losing money on books, they’re not likely to stock them again.
However, if the right book makes it into the right store, I think it could be great for that book. Special sales can sometimes offer books a visibility they just don’t have in a bookstore, where they’re usually crammed onto shelves spine-out to compete with thousands of other titles. Consider my reaction to that 38-page paperback at Anthropologie. Or the eminently logical presence of cookbooks in your grocery store.
Moreover, special sales could be a way to target a more specific audience, making for more effective marketing. Bookstores offer all sorts of books to cater to the widest variety of customers they can. But getting the right placement in a chic boutique gets a book on fashion directly to an interested audience.
Of course, special sales could never replace the knowledge that a good bookstore staff can offer. Still, I think it’s an interesting thing to consider. When the Internet offers nearly infinite corners in which a book can get lost, the right special sales presence might just be the boost a book needs.