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Retail Channel Evolution (and a Plug for SXSW)

Bb0909cover The September issue of Book Business magazine arrived the other day and it features a terrific article by Michael Norris called Minding the Store that caught my eye.  I agree with about 95% of what Norris says.  Here are a few excerpts and my comments, including the piece I'm not so sure about:

If there's one thing publishers need to understand, it is that most book buyers are disengaged and only buy one to five books a year.  This means there is a massive number of adults out there who read intermittently and probably don't care about loyalty programs, author websites or three-for-the-price-of-two sales.

Boy, that last part really hurts, but it makes sense.  If there's no way to change this behavior with print books, perhaps we have to focus our efforts on how to address it with econtent. Can customers become more engaged if the content is richer and, dare I say it, shorter, as in "more to the point and less about puffing the book up for spine width"?

...under-performing superstores do close as well: Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Borders Group closed more than 500 locations in the past six years.  Meanwhile, Walmart and Target locations (as well as other non-bookstore entities) have been multiplying.  On a very basic level, these stores are a lot more convenient for the disengaged customer who only buys a book once in a while.

Terrific observations.  Are the B&N and Borders superstores becoming the new independents?  They're not going away, and neither did the independents (entirely), but it's interesting to watch the superstores being forced to evolve by mass outlets.

When a book from a popular author is sold everywhere, it behaves like a commodity when it really isn't.  If you go into a Walmart and ask an employee for "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen, you'll be lucky if that person points you to the camping aisle and mumbles something about having one from Coleman.

OK, this is that 5% of the article that I don't agree with.  I get Norris' point, sort of, but I don't buy into the notion that "channel-stuffing of blockbuster books is cheapening what should be the most expensive product," as he states a bit earlier in the column.  To use a different product analogy, this is why I sometimes buy auto parts (e.g., oil and filters) at Walmart and for other items I go to AutoZone, where I know I'll get the personal assistance I need.  I'm typically buying commodities in both places, btw.  For me it's all about convenience rather than commodities; I'm in Walmart several times a week, so as a supplier if I can get my products stocked there I'd gladly eat a few extra discount points for all the extra foot traffic!

P.S. -- I'm part of a Book Publishing panel that's been pitched for SXSW.  The fabulous Kat Meyer is also on the panel (along with several other terrific industry experts) and provides more of the details here.  Speaking for the entire panel, we'd greatly appreciate it if you'd cast your vote supporting our session here.



If you have a print on demand kiosk why do you need to stuff a store full of books? This is going to happen eventually. I can see it happening in a nonbookstore location. The variety will be determined by the what is stored in the memory of the machine. I would not be surprised if these showed up in stores like Walmart or Target. Maybe, you could even have a media kiosk and do dvds as well. The price for the kiosk has to become reasonable and produced to scale. I can see Target or another superstore buying a couple of hundred of them at once.

Michael Covington

Without having read the article, I am hesitant to make a comment. However, based on the quotes you pulled, it seems to overlook the fact that while "most adults" are intermittent readers who don't care about specials, programs, etc. - "most adults" are also not our core consumer - as with most businesses, programs and specials appeal the most to book fans, those who make up the minority that do the majority of book purchasing. Consumer data shows that one of the main motivators for people who buy from the national chains (B&N & Borders) do so because of the loyalty programs. So, is it wise to spend the majority of our time trying to convince non-book readers/buyers to buy books any more than it would make sense for, say, a Bass boat manufacturer to spend their time trying to attract people who may occasionally fish with a cane pole to purchase a new rig? The pareto principle is almost always true, and when it comes to books we really do need to "Follow the Reader".

Harold Wilburn

Hey I know this is a bit unrelated, but what do you know about The Nautilus Works? And Nautilus Press? I'm interested in self-publishing, even a vanity press, and I wanted to know more.

Francis Hamit

The Expresso Book Machine is already on the market but it costs about $85,000. It's a big copy machine with a bindery attachment. You can look it up online. Ingram can feed it any P.O.D. book in their catalog. But there are apparently quality problems and also, in any high demand trade setting, a queing problem. How long will customers wait in line to get their book?

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