How important are book superstores anyway?

by on June 22, 2016 at 2:13 pm in Books, Economics | Permalink

The old take:

Book superstores such as Barnes & Noble cause risk-averse publishers to double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The new take:

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.

The first of the two is my memory, the latter of the two is a quotation.  I found this claim, by author Alex Shephard, interesting:

Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

Could it be that without book superstores fewer books will be sold, but a higher percentage of those sold will be read?

1 secretivek June 22, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Or, niche authors will do relatively better in the niche retail channel.

2 Mark Thorson June 22, 2016 at 3:57 pm

This is where I think books will go. Books with very limited audiences will be able to find their readers. For example, there’s a biography of Fulk Nerra published in 1993 that I plan to buy. You can still buy new copies from UC Press. How many copies do they sell per year? If it’s the year I buy my copy, probably one. I would not have known about it without the book search service I use (

3 Thiago Ribeiro June 23, 2016 at 9:53 am

Didn’t you knew the book existed or didn’t you know where to buy it? I can see how Addall solves the second problem, but the first…

4 Mark Thorson June 24, 2016 at 12:08 am

Actually, I learned about the existence of the book in a footnote on Wikipedia. Fulk has his own page (under Fulk III).

5 So Much For Subtlety June 22, 2016 at 7:16 pm

The rise of Amazon is interesting for all sorts of reasons. One of them is that it shows how poorly the mainstream publishers are at their job. If you look at the best sellers on Amazon, they are disproportionately independents. In fact I think something like half the best selling books are indies.

If the job of the major publishing house is to seek out good books, acquire the rights, publish them and get them into major stores so the buying public can read them – and I am willing to consider the possibility that this is not how they see their role – then they are doing an incredibly poor job.

Which comes back to the fact that Amazon isn’t just for niche publishers. It is for everyone. The mainstream publishing houses, and the superbook stores they have tie-ups with, are just not good at understanding or supplying the public and deserve to die. They charge massively inflated prices for an indifferent supply of product that most people don’t seem to want. Risk aversion seems to be a euphemism for not knowing what their customers want, or how to find authors to provide it, which adds to their inability to control costs and so ends up ripping off everyone.

6 Todd June 22, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Publisher websites should do better. How they will respond to the challenges of being an alternative to Amazon is another question. But if there are no bigbox bookstores to browse around, then the publishers should see more traffic on their portals.

7 MC June 22, 2016 at 3:38 pm

It’s possible, but what would impel someone to say, “Hey, I wonder if there are any good new books out. Instead of browsing everything on Amazon, I’ll go to HarperCollins’ website to see what they have out”?

I personally enjoy browsing the websites of university presses, especially when they have a particular identity, like how the University of Nebraska Press publishes lots of books on the American West. But I don’t see how that works for large-scale publishers of general interest.

8 Todd June 22, 2016 at 4:11 pm

It wouldn’t be for the Gladwells and Danielle Steeles and Tom Friedmans and other general interest big sellers. As the post states, they’ll be fine. It would be for the serious fiction and nonfiction authors, who will only sell several thousand or tens of thousands in the US under the best of circumstances. They are read by people who will hunt for them. Those readers check the awards lists and end of year “best books” lists, and literary blogs, etc..

9 MC June 22, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Fair enough, but I think the point is that, aside from voracious readers who will go looking for “best books” regardless, there are a lot of readers who won’t Google “National Book Award List” but will wander a B&N and see the “Award Winners” table. Honestly I bet the latter category outnumbers the first.

10 Edgar June 22, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Might vary by price rangesand susceptibility to sunk cost fallacy. Some people probably buy a lot more low-cost kindle books and wind up not finishing a higher percent of them because it was worth taking a chance on an unknown author at a lower price. Others (I plead guilty) may buy more expensive books and then suffer through to the end because of what they paid. Most people, it seems, are smarter than that and avoid sunk cost fallacies. One estimate is that only 2.7 percent of Capital in the Twenty-First Century was read by the average reader and only 25.9 percent of Fifty Shades of Grey.

11 anon June 22, 2016 at 5:46 pm

I think of my unfinished Kindle books as “in the bank” for this summer’s camping trip.

12 rayward June 22, 2016 at 2:41 pm

Of course, one could argue (and many do) that there’s little need for people to read new books (fiction and non-fiction) and a much greater need for people to read old books, that all these (mostly inferior) new books crowd out the demand for (far superior) old books; one could also argue (and many do) that the demand for all these (inferior) new books is generated by their authors and publishers, that without that self-serving collaboration, publishers (and bookstores) would publish (and sell) more (superior) old books. I am mindful that new (whether a book, a cell phone, or a spouse) has a strong appeal to many, that owning what’s new confers status, and that owning something old (whether last year’s “smart” phone or a copy of Ulysses) confers little status; but as Cowen points out, few of these new books are actually read, which is understandable since most of them are inferior. I was reminded of the low regard for old books while I was shopping for a new copy of a hard cover classic: it didn’t exist. Sure, it may have sat on my bookshelf unread, but it deserves the space there, unlike all these inferior new books collecting dust on bookshelves everywhere.

13 Mo June 22, 2016 at 11:44 pm

By this logic, Ulysses never gets published. On the continuum of books, Ulysses is much closer to being “new” than “old”.

14 JWatts June 22, 2016 at 2:45 pm

“Could it be that without book superstores fewer books will be sold, but a higher percentage of those sold will be read?”

Tyler, that’s an excellent conjecture. How many “serious books” were bought to line shelves or as gifts, purely because they were considered serious books? So, perhaps the market in books bought for signaling purposes is declining.

15 Urso June 22, 2016 at 4:37 pm

Exactly. Which of us wouldn’t be tempted by a book titled “A Billionaire Dinosaur Turned me Gay?” Yet certain old-timey prudes might be surprised were they to see such a title on our bookshelf. With the advent of the Kindle such genres can flourish in secret.

16 Thiago Ribeiro June 23, 2016 at 10:24 am

But he did!

17 Cooper June 22, 2016 at 2:55 pm

I can’t help but be reminded of this Onion article:

18 Jazi Zilber June 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Super stores are good for smaller authors. IMHO. I am sure.

Only in those huge stores you have the chance to browse through all those books and maybe like some.

online / small store. You face heavy filtering to even see a book.

Of course online allows algorithms to tailor stuff. But still the bar is quite high on average. Whereas in a superstore whatever is on the genre section has a shot

19 Harun June 22, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Except there are suggestions of books by algorithms. There are book reviews and sales rankings in genres, and more specific genres. There is word of mouth. There is advertising.

And you can read samples, and then buy if you like it.

20 Mc June 22, 2016 at 3:39 pm

books b n of value is like a said, said~reader intelligence

21 Troll me June 22, 2016 at 5:02 pm

If you go to an indie store there is a high likelihood that you can speak with a decision maker directly and easily, and try to persuade them to stock 20 copies of your book (assuming it’s something they think they can sell). If you want to be stocked at a major outlet, you need an agent to go through many layers of red tape, after which point in time they might stock a few copies per store. More or less, no?

22 Mc June 22, 2016 at 3:05 pm

saying the obvious: books, schmooks, what are they?

23 Mc June 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm

and the attractive flowers giggled, and pirouetted . . .

24 Mc June 22, 2016 at 3:41 pm

2b, where i m now, lil bits&bytes, wherever u find yourself, somewhere, somehow, with a vista . . .

25 jseliger June 22, 2016 at 3:22 pm

It seems to me that the publishing industry has always been on the verge of dying, or at least has been for as long as I can recall. I don’t have citations, but I remember reading about the post-WWII perils of paperback books.

And I wrote a similar piece in 2014: “Bad boy Amazon and George Packer’s latest salvo.” It’s nice to see that someone else has some memory of yesterday’s crisis!

(Does getting older mean writing sentences like the preceding one more often?)

26 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly June 23, 2016 at 8:18 am

It was Egon Spengler who said over 30 years ago that print is dead.

It seems to have shambled along decently enough since then.

27 Edward Burke June 22, 2016 at 3:22 pm

The only time I think to look for TC’s titles, I am in my local Barnes & Noble, which routinely does not stock those titles on its shelves.

Whenever I shop at independent bookstores (made considerable hauls last month in Oxford, Mississippi’s Square Books and Asheville, North Carolina’s Malaprop’s), I find titles that I don’t find in my local B&N (and because I run into such interesting fare, I don’t remember to look for TC’s titles there).

Whenever I order books, I call either Harvard Book Store, Oxford Univ. Pr., or my local B&N, depending on title or subject: somehow, I never think to order any of TC’s titles when I call.

Why am I no economist?

28 Mc June 22, 2016 at 3:35 pm

hang in there eddie, you’ve got potential, . . .

29 Ray Lopez June 22, 2016 at 3:39 pm

Who needs book superstores anyway, when you have public and private libraries? My chess book collection beats anything found in Barnes & Noble, and rivals (in my mind), this Cleveland chess collection:

30 Ryan Holiday June 22, 2016 at 4:07 pm

Yeah the writer is misguided. Mid-list authors are the ones served best by Amazon–especially if they can build a fanbase and know how to market. It’s the authors who just used to hand a book to publisher and hoped that merchandizing would do all the work that are SOL.

31 OldCurmudgeon June 22, 2016 at 4:39 pm

I’m not sure I see the conflict the two takes. The big value-add of publishers was logistics and relationships with bookstores.

My prediction, new fiction authors will continue to give their initial works away for free, hoping to make money on follow-ups. Writing fiction becomes a prestige job for children of 1%-ers.

32 Michael Cain June 22, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Well, and retirees from the top 15-20%, with two SS payments, modest pension plans, and Medicare.

33 Mc June 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

m in, magical circumstances, please, c, the latest . . .

34 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:04 pm
35 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:07 pm

i share with u, these masterpieces, b cause, i m enamored with where i was born . . .

36 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:08 pm

i do not have2 say, big buck, 4u, 2know, where i was born . . .

37 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:15 pm

chesse, cheese, louise

38 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:29 pm

a big n, goes off . . . , feeling, a little loose . . .

39 RM June 22, 2016 at 5:14 pm

I wonder if book superstores such as Barnes & Noble cause risk-averse readers to double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits? I think so.

40 Albigensian June 22, 2016 at 5:15 pm

Big-name authors can self-publish (and still get reviewed, and still find their audiences).

But if publishers become weaker, smaller, poorer, who or what will cultivate, edit, promote, offer advances to new authors?

41 Cliff June 22, 2016 at 8:55 pm

There are too many authors already

42 efim polenov June 22, 2016 at 11:24 pm

I have many friends who read books that should be better than they are. For their sakes, I wish there were more good authors, not less, so that the quality of books with titles like The Billionaire Marries the Secretary, Cavalry Charges in the Eternal Western Desert of 1870-1885, WWII Submarine Warfare with Shore Leave in Space volume 538, and so on, would be better. Because friends want that which is best for their friends (Aquinas said it better, I think: although I could name only one or two of ***his friends***, to tell the truth). As for my more verbally gifted friends, who might not even be aware that there are some good passages in quite a few Harlequin romances and that the seven and eight hundredth Star Trek novels often have some fascinatingly unprecedented descriptions of yet another iteration of the space-transposed submarine warfare of our parents’ generation (and there is nothing wrong with writing hundreds of books replaying the great dramas of our parents’ most unsettled days) , I would wish for them (my more verbally gifted friends), as an intermediate and kind measure, a world in which even the Prousts and Joyces were less untalented and less incompletely educated; loca refrigerii et lucis et pacis, speaking plainly. I like to think of the former employees of the local Borders having little reunions once or twice every summer at a picnic spot near the tree-lined river – with lots of details even better than the great summer fun hints in their now-vanished magazine rack sections full of lifestyle and friendly old party suggestion articles – Elysian picnics, platonic ukuleles accompanying perfect healthy singing voices, honeydews and watermelons and grilled veggies and the now-unbanned lawn darts and badminton and laughing memories of the more prosperous roll-outs and how worried the eccentric but kindly bookstore boss was and didn’t, for now-obvious reasons, need to be.

43 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:34 pm

serious appetite, fulfilled, circa; bah , bah , bah

44 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:43 pm

fired onions, and cheeseburgers, coming up . . .

45 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm
46 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm

a big, chirps up, 4 a change . . .

47 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:45 pm

scary person tweeting . . . , the girls love him, . . .

48 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:47 pm

he should know . . . , some nice dames were fond of him, . . .

49 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:48 pm

still alive, old 55, taking in the beauty . . .

50 Mc June 22, 2016 at 5:49 pm

billie holliday singing . . . , everybody else can go whatever, . . .

51 anon June 22, 2016 at 5:45 pm

This is a time of transition, from a well cataloged paper past, to a still uncertain digital future. I notice a few things:

1) It is possible to read your fill every day, without resorting to “books.”

2) It was previously impossible to read 3 or 4 in-depth reviews of a book and then say “no, I get the idea.”

3) Snapchat shows public focus.

4) Pricing is still weird, with one foot in paper and one foot in digital.

Long term I think “books” will be read less, but one counter to that might be that once old grey book buyers drop out of the market, e-books will find a new natural price. Lower.

52 The Other Jim June 22, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Percentage of people in the USA who have bought a dead-tree book that they haven’t read in the last 5 years: 0.001%

Percentage of those people who are under 40: Zero.

53 Urstoff June 22, 2016 at 6:44 pm

As a consumer, I’ve never been worried about the production of any form of media, be it books (if those count as media), music, television, or movies. All the worries come from the suppliers. As a consumer I can’t possibly consume all of the great stuff that’s on offer even if I had 100 lifetimes. So if supply declines a bit, we’ll still be set.

54 Benny Lava June 22, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Sloppy sloppy sloppy. I expect more from Tyler. The first representative view is largely fiction. Large book stores helped the smaller publishers because with more floor space allowed a bigger selection. The small book stores could only publish a few classics and a few big names.

Check your nostalgia Tyler.

55 dan1111 June 23, 2016 at 2:55 am

Tyler did not claim either view was his own.

56 Benny Lava June 23, 2016 at 8:08 am

It is implied. He says “The first of the two is my memory”

57 Benny Lava June 23, 2016 at 8:07 am

It is implied. He say “The first of the two is my memory”

58 Benny Lava June 23, 2016 at 8:08 am

Whoops replied to wrong post.

59 James Liu June 23, 2016 at 9:00 am

I think the point that the Emily St. John Mandels of the world would suffer without the superstores is a bit overstated. Sure, Station Eleven was a big hit for a literary novel, but that was her fourth novel. For her first three, she was a small press/indie bookstore darling. She never received an advance for any of her first four books, though the manuscript for Station Eleven sold for enough so that she could finally quit her day job.

Remember when the superstores were suffocating the indie bookstores? Now, there is an indie bookstore renaissance, and I think Amazon suffocating the big box bookstores is no small part. If anything, I think the example of Emily St. John Mandel shows that the new equilibrium of Amazon displacing the big box stores, and indie bookstores occupying a larger niche as a result, is good for literary fiction readers and authors alike.

FWIW, when I was grew up in the suburbs in the 90s, I loved B&N. I loved Amazon then and now, and love the indie bookstores all over Chicago. But these days, the big box stores, why bother? The indie bookstores are better at curation. and that’s one way to stumble upon books I otherwise wouldn’t. (Disclosure, I discovered Mandel when I was a contributor to 57th Street Books’ Front Table blog, and reviewed all three of her previous novels for that blog). If I know what I want, I am surer of getting it on Amazon than anywhere else (imagine embarking upon a Nabokov completion project, for example).

The old critique is keener. It’s a version of Hayek’s distribution of knowledge problem. Barnes and Noble and the big publishers are more like command and control economies. Relatively few readers (the buyers at B&N, and formerly Borders) and the editorial teams in the publishers’, and the fiction editor of the New Yorker choose what is going to be the literary culture. That system is very good at getting us Jonathan Safran Foer. Both the indie boosktore/indie publisher and Amazon/self-publisher model rely on more widely distributed networks of knowledge. Sure the online self-publishing world brought us break through hits like Fifty Shades of Grey, but also it brought us The Martian.

60 Kyle Motsinger June 23, 2016 at 9:25 am

The fact that used book stores can now be corporate chains (e.g., Half-Price Books) rather than just run-down, dumpy little places (I love those too, of course) must indicate something about the market. I’m just not sure what it is.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: