Friday, July 31, 2009

Are Publishers making a deal with the Devil?

Michael Norris, senior analyst at Simba Information and editor of the Book Publishing Report believes so and he’s not alone. The Populist article, Death of the Category Killers by Stacey Mitchell, describes how the specialty chains (category killers) that grew in the 1990s and early 2000s and bankrupted thousands of independent businesses are now losing ground to giant mass merchandisers. These mass merchandisers can make a book a best seller just by putting it on their shelves. Publishers have found this power irresistible and now spend much of their resources supporting these big box stores.

“Publishers don’t realize it, but they are backing themselves into a corner if more bookstores continue to close,” Norris contends. “If the balance of power shifts to a couple of big retailers … publishers are going to find they have no relevance or power.”

These stores only carry a select number of titles. Customers are more likely to pick up a tube of toothpaste as an impulse buy than a second book, making it impossible for new and diverse authors to be discovered. In other words, consumers will be able to pick up the new Patterson or Roberts but what about Tana French or William Young ?

What happens if the big boxes suddenly decide to reduce or eliminate the space devoted to books and replace it with higher margin items? It wouldn’t be the first time. In 2003 one of these stores sold toys at a loss for the holiday season and became the top toy seller. We know what affect that had on smaller and independent toy stores. Now this mass merchandiser is cutting the toy shelf space in half. This could put many manufacturers that depend on the box stores out of business since they have fewer competing retailers left. If the same steps were taken in the book market, will authors, publishers or independent book stores survive?

This will not be an issue for those that read one or two books a year by a best selling author, but what about the rest of us? Can you imagine not being able to browse the shelves for that hidden treasure – a book you remember reading as a child or a novel by an as-yet-to-be-discovered new talent?