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Bye-Bye Book Stores

It looks as if the book store as we know it is doomed. National statistics on book stores show that they peaked, in terms of number of stores, in 1994 and have been pretty much falling in number ever since. Now, these data only extend through 2007 (data for years after 2007 in the chart are forecasts only). That means that the impact of the “Great Recession” is not captured in these data, nor is the rapidly growing impact of eBooks.

Number of book stores by store front

Nonetheless, we see that a downward trajectory had already set in before 2007. The chart also shows another pattern, namely the pattern of growth in the size of stores over this whole period. On average book stores employed 6 people per store in 1982 and by 2007 they employed 14.5 per store (shown as blue dots on the chart). So, in the 1980s book stores were humming along, their numbers stable or growing slightly but their per store size remained reasonably steady. We know that the large book stores were already busy acquiring existing stores and expanding their holdings, their retail chains. But, it wasn’t until the 1990s that these big book stores started to have an impact on the average size of book stores. This occurred when they began consolidating stores and expanding some into the big box super stores outlet that were so typical of the retail sector generally in the 1990s. This we can see by the rising average number of employees per store which starts in 1990 and never stops rising.

Independent book stores have been struggling for years. An Internet search for articles about “book store closings” will produce a mind-numbing list of stories about the demise of independent booksellers of all sorts and kinds, many quite well-established institutions in their communities. The articles date back, for the most part, to the mid 1990s, to that spot on the chart where the bars begin to decline.

What has changed about the flood of book store closings in the last couple of years is the fact that they are happening across the sector. The independents continue to close in large numbers but now so do stores that are part of the big book store chains.

While there is a lot of talk about eBooks these days, the fact is that at 3% of the market in 2009 they were not yet a large enough part of the market to have played a big role in the dramatic decline of book stores through last year. It isn’t eBooks that are killing off book stores (at least to date) it is the complete restructuring of the book distribution business.

Two things explain the shift. The online sale of print books and the ready availabilityof all the best sellers—at big discounts and in huge numbers— in general merchandising outlets everywhere; Walmart, Target, Costco, Sam’s, etc.

We found this out by reading lots and lots of articles about book store closings. A theme emerged. Here are four quotes that show that theme (citations for each are provided below in the Source Note section):

“…customers told him (the owner of a closing bookstore) they were being “good stewards” of their money by buying The Purpose Driven Life or the latest Max Lucado book at Wal-Mart for 40 percent off the retail price. (1)

“People would come to the bookshop with their notepad, make notes of what they wanted and then go buy it somewhere else,” Wilbert Hasbrouck (co-owner of a closing bookstore) said last week. (2)

“It’s touch and go right now… The walk-in trade hasn’t changed. People come and browse here and then go home and order the book on the net.” Quote from a bookstore owner still struggling to keep the store open. (3)

“It’s not that surprising. As great an indy store as Pages is, it’s not cheap. It has become, like many bookstores – independent or not – a place to browse what you’re going to buy at Amazon for far less… I know many people who shopped there regularly before the era of online bookstores, and tried to stay loyal, but couldn’t justify the added cost. (4)

What seems clear is that while we moan, complain, protest, and cry about the loss of book stores, we are—the book buying public—actually unwilling to pay a little extra for books in order to maintain all the other benefits that come from having a book store near by. Then again, it is human nature to take things for granted until they’re gone. Nonetheless, we appear to be a people who will shift our buying patterns to save a buck pretty easily.

Into this retail environment we add the whole issue of eBooks. The signs of impending doom only get clearer. This is the daunting future that has booksellers concerned, and publishers too. In a very interesting article on this subject, available here, industry analyst Mike Shatzkin presents some numbers—calculates what current industry assumptions about the shift to electronic books will really mean to book stores.

The assumptions he uses, and considers conservative, are these:
(you know what eBooks are and pBooks here mean print books)

Industry Assumptions about eBooks

Given these assumptions, by the year 2015 bricks-and-mortar book stores can be expected to see their portion of the market shrink to 25% of all pBook sales (that’s print books and doesn’t include the book stores’ own electronic sales). That represents a two thirds drop in market share, from approximately 72% of the market to 25% of the market in a mere 5 years. No wonder Barnes & Noble and Borders are scrambling to make themselves into online booksellers. But, what is an independent bookseller to do with this sort of forecast? Nick-knacks, greeting cards, and scones will only make up for a fraction of the likely decline in sales. Besides, if many people are using the local book store as a sort of live catalog, good for browsing but not good enough to purchase from, doesn’t it make more sense to start looking into other businesses?

There will be creative types who figure out a way to make the book store work— but those new book stores aren’t really going to be what we now think of as book stores. The march of change continues…

This restructuring of the whole system of book distribution has profound implications for publishers too, of course. A good topic for another day.

Source Note:

Quotes taken from the following:

1- “Locking the Doors for the Last Time,” by Cindy Crosby, available online here.

2- “ Chicago’s great architectural bookshop facing the end of its own long story,” Chicago Tribune, available online here.

3- “Tough times, but some bookstores have a different story – Some face closure, while others expand,” by Vit Wagner, published in The Star (Toronto, Canada), available online here.

4- A reader’s reply online to the article “Pages Books of Toronto to Close,” by Core Doctorow, available online here.


Reading in Color, Why is this such a big deal?

Reading a New York Times article this weekend, titled “Reading E-Books in All the Colors of the Rainbow,” [available here] got us thinking about why there’s such a seeming rush to make e-reader displays colorful.

When I go to my bookshelf [that’s me, Monique, one of the editors], 99% of the books on it are black & white, no color whatsoever inside. Ok, the truth is, I’m ignoring all of my husband’s graphic novels when I estimate that 99% figure, oh, and the children’s book collection too… but, otherwise, really, they are all black & white.

Thinking about this, three things seem to explain the apparent rush to color. We should also note that Amazon has been quite content, at least publicly, with the black & white display on it’s various iterations of the Kindle. So while they too are talking about a color display in the future, they do not seem overly anxious to rush to color.

So, why the push for color displays on e-readers? Here are the three ideas we have.

First, because we’re all quite accustomed to seeing color displays when working with our electronic devices, computers for the most part. This makes it seem normal to have color display even though on paper we are still quite comfortable with black & white.

Second, because newspapers have made the transition to color and are now shying away from printing as much as they can choosing instead to push their readers towards consuming their product electronically. In going with color, newspapers have also begun to use color graphics which are designed differently than are black & white graphics and converting from color to black & white is not entirely a straightforward affair for graphics. This same issue is becoming more and more relevant in textbooks as well. Most textbooks are now produced in color and as they are converted into eBook formats the need to convert to a black & white display is an added cost. Thus, the educational arena is part of the push towards color displays for e-readers.

Third, because hybrid electronic display devices, like Apple’s iPad—designed to serve as an e-reader as well as a multi functional communications device—have color displays. These multi-functional devices are competing with more traditional e-readers [sounds almost funny to say traditional when referring to such new devices] and using their color displays as one way of distinguishing themselves from black & white e-readers.

But the real question is, do we need color displays when we’re curling up to read a novel?

We’d love to hear what you think.

The statistics on e-reader shipments quoted in the above mentioned New York Times article gave us an idea of what we’ll tackle next in terms of tracking this business through statistics. In 2009, according to iSuppli, 5 million e-readers were shipped worldwide. In 2010 the market research firm forecasts e-reader shipments will reach 11 million units. We wonder how many eBooks per e-reader are being sold annually. We’ll try and track that down next.

Book Store Statistics – Part 3

Today we’ll match up Census Bureau statistics on the U.S. retail book industry with the sales reported by the top three booksellers—Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Borders—in their respective Annual Reports.

Top Bookseller Stats

In order to try and capture the rising importance of eBooks in the overall book selling business, we have used Census Bureau data on the Retail Book Store industry and combined it with the book portion of the Electronic Shopping and Mail-Order House industry. Census data is not broken out by product except in Census years and therefore we extrapolated the book portion of the Electronic Shopping industry for non census years based on their percentage of the industry in census years. These extrapolations are shown in detail in the table at the bottom of this post.

We thought it was particularly interesting that the top three booksellers, together, grew to represent 55% of book sales in the United States in 2008, up from 46% of the market in 2001. Thus, all other booksellers have seen their combined market share fall to 45%.

The experience of each of the top three booksellers between 2001 and 2008 has, of course, differed greatly. While Barnes & Noble’s market share has held steady at approximately 20% from 2001 to 2008, Borders saw its share shrink from 16.7% to 12.6%. Over the same period, Amazon has more than doubled its market share, from 9.6% in 2001 to 21.7% in 2008.

Here are the detailed figures used in the graph above:

Top Bookseller Stat Table

Note on age of data.

In a day and age when we are all quite accustomed to being able to get almost instant satisfaction to any question we may have—just check the global brain, the Internet—it is understandable that many people find it very hard to appreciate that when it comes to national economic statistics, real data takes several years to collect and compile. Thus, in this world, 2008 data is, actually, quite current. During 2010, the 2009 data are being collected from thousands of entities, compiled, standardized and checked. They’ll be reported on, at the earliest, in December 2010 and more likely in early 2011. Educated guesses on what happened in 2009, based on surveys, for example, can, of course, be made. But, do not mistake those guesses with actual census data! Patience… the picture will become clearer in time.

Source Note:

2002 Census data:

2007 Census data:

Annual Retail Sales data 1992 – 2008

Barnes & Noble Annual Reports:

Borders Annual Reports:

Amazon Annual Reports:

Book Store Statistics – Part 2b

It occured to us when considering the last post—which seemed pretty obvious, really—that books are sold by a lot of retail outlets, not just book stores, book clubs and online. Gas stations and truck stops sell books, audio books for the most part. Airport shops sell books. Office supply stores sell all sorts of computer manuals and business books. Then there are all those topic specific and how-to books sold at places such as health spas, building materials stores, and craft stores. So, before moving on to a closer look at book stores specifically, we wanted to finish the picture on where we buy books. We dug around in the rich data made available by the Census Bureau and came up with the following detailed breakdown of book sales by retail outlet.

Books Sold by Retail Outlet

Once again, this graphic reaffirms what we’ve already seen in recent posts. Book stores have lost ground in terms of the percentage of all books sold that they sell. Electronic outlets—read online sales— have gained ground but not only against book stores but also as compared to all outlets selling books, all that is other than used merchandise stores. “Electronic shopping and mail-order houses” and “used merchandise stores” are the only two categories that saw growth in their share of the total book selling market between 1997 and 2007. Granted, “used merchandise stores” only saw their book sales grow from 2.2% of the market to 2.6%, this was the only category other than electronic shoppping and mail-order houses that grew at all. And the e-commerce and mail-order category, well, it grew from 11.5% of the book selling market to 30.9% in 2007, and has only grown since then.

For the even more detailed figures, here is the table we keyed in order to produce the chart above.

Detailed Retail data on books

Source Note:

Data for 2007: “2007 Economic Census — Sector 44: EC074413: Retail Trade: Industry Series: Preliminary Product Lines Statistics by Kind of Business for the United States: 2007” available online here.

Data for 2002: “2002 Economic Census — Sector 44: Retail Trade: Industry Series: Product Lines by Kind of Business for the United States: 2002” available online here.

Data for 1997: “1997 Economic Census — Sector 44: Retail Trade: Merchanide Line Sales: Merchandise Lines by Kind of Business: 1997” available online here.