Do indie bookstores really have that much to fear from digital disruption?

Publishing savant and veteran book world journalist Jane Friedman has just shared “5 Valuable Charts That Show How Publishing Is Changing” from her personal Pinterest board, which she uses “for speaking at conferences and providing insight into how the industry is changing.” All of them are fascinating, and well worth perusing. But I’d like to concentrate on just one, and on just one finding from it.

digital disruption
That chart, reproduced here, is Bowker’s Books & Consumers US’s chart of the “Retailer share of books bought by US consumers, Jan 2010-Nov 2012. And it shows some of the patterns that you’d expect. For instance, sales attributed to ecommerce are bearing down on the other categories, from 25.1 percent in 2010 to 43.8 percent in 2012, crushing the “Large Chains” category in particular like a piston. The Barnes & Nobles of America and their ilk are squeezed from 31.5 percent of sales over that same period to 18.7 percent. Book clubs also don’t fare well, although at least they rebound slightly from 2011’s 5.5 percent to 6.1 percent, still well down on 2010’s 11.5 percent.

But the other categories of retailer don’t show much decline at all. Almost all the sales picked up by digital platforms seem to be coming at the expense of large bookstore chains alone. And in particular, independent bookstores rise from 2.4 percent of sales in 2010 to 3.7 percent.

Now needless to say, that’s only one data point off one chart – although Bowker is tolerably authoritative in this area. And the collapse of Borders in the course of this period might well have hit the chains hard enough to create an anomaly. And Friedman doesn’t pick up on this item herself in her list of key takeaways.

Nonetheless, I’d really like to know if anyone has recorded a similar trend. Could it be that, for whatever reason, the indie bookstore sector is not doing so badly at all, while market changes impact mostly the bigger chains? That certainly supports the arguments by some that the biggest menace facing indie booksellers – at least in the UK – is not Amazon, but the politicians who are setting new business rates.

3 Comments on Do indie bookstores really have that much to fear from digital disruption?

  1. My take is that the large chain bookstores will be the first affected by eCommerce alternatives because they currently attempt to offer the same service — one-stop browsing through a wide range of more or less contemporary books at reasonable prices. Neither of them are going to attract customers like my wife, who shops online for physical books written by or about distant members of her family, since these can only be found in antiquarian bookstores. But as the range of eBooks available online increases, they will inevitably finish off the large chains, and start eating the lunch of the smaller specialists as well.

  2. I think indie bookstores have a much better shot at long-term survival than the chains; their cost are lower and they offer what neither the chains nor online vendors can– cozy setting; personal service; and knowledgeable, book-loving staff. But I think some of their chances will hinge on the price of POD technology getting cheaper. Right now an Espresso book-printing/binding machine costs about 100 grand, and that’s too steep for most indies. If that gets down to a third or even half that price, it could help in keeping backlist books “in stock” for indie stores.

  3. In 2010 most of eCommerce disruption had already happened.
    Do you have those shares also from around 1990-1995-2000-2005? That would really be interesting!

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