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Are bookstores really dying out?

Books | Publishers at annual gathering are hopeful about the future of brick-and-mortar shops despite reports of their coming demise

NEW YORK—Online retailers like Amazon are still gobbling market share for books, but book publishers are unexpectedly optimistic about the future of physical bookstores.

Publishers held their largest annual gathering in New York last week, the BookExpo America (BEA), where they show off their titles and discuss trends in the industry. On the eve of the gathering, the trade group American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced that 2,000 independent bookstores now exist nationally, the highest number since 2005. Twenty years ago, there were twice as many independent bookstores, but after several years of decline the trade group is pointing to a resurgence.

“Not only are we still here, there are more of us,” said Oren Teicher, the CEO of ABA.

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“It’s hard to get a computer screen to pour a glass of wine for you,” said Joyce Meskis, the owner of Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore in Denver. Her shop has thrived by hosting more than 500 events a year, including a book happy hour and family Friday nights where children can come listen to a story in their pajamas. Teicher added that Americans are shopping at more independent stores in general, including bookstores.

“The localism movement in America has changed everything,” he said.

Some publishers and retailers also think the eBook trend has leveled out—in other words, eBooks are unlikely to take much more of the market than they currently do. Several publishers discussed successful experiments they’ve done in pairing a physical book sale with a digital edition, so customers can read wherever they are. The more time people spend reading, they said, the more books they will buy.

But what about the beleaguered Barnes & Noble, one of the last big-box bookstores standing? Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, said she and others were “bullish” about Barnes & Noble.

“They’re making changes at the store level that are really smart and are having concrete effects on selling books,” she told me. “We see it in our numbers weekly.”

Barron’s last week published an article arguing that Barnes & Noble’s stock was heavily undervalued. The booksellers’ retail stores continue to be profitable, and its digital side, Nook, is posting fewer and fewer losses.

Perhaps the optimism is wishful thinking. Publishers desperately want bookstores to survive. The animosity toward Amazon, which holds the majority market share of online book sales and eBook sales, was thinly veiled at a discussion about the future of bookstores.

“We want to make books of all publishers equally available at all times,” said Teicher, to wild applause. Amazon has been in the middle of a conflict over sales terms with Hachette, a huge publishing house, and many Hachette titles are unavailable on the website or face shipping delays.

Despite being a significant publisher itself, Amazon had no presence at BEA beyond a lone bookshelf stand with a small sign. Small publishers and self-published authors I talked to love Amazon because it gives them the opportunity to expose their titles to an audience they wouldn’t otherwise have.

But online retailers like Amazon can’t provide well what industry people called “discoverability.” Though online retailers can provide recommended titles based on past purchases with scary accuracy, nothing replaces the physical browsing experience. Even eBook publishers acknowledged that principle.

“The idea of the true browsing experience remains a real physical experience and it shows in the data,” said Michael Tamblyn, president of Kobo, a company that produces eReaders and publishes eBooks.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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