The Importance of Bookstores

So you’ve written a manuscript; it’s been accepted for publication; and it’s gone through the production process! Congratulations! …but what’s a story without its readers? And who are you, an author, without books to read? This is where the last rung on the publishing ladder comes into play: the bookstores where readers go to buy books to read and find stories to love.

In the publishing process, the last step is getting the books into consumers’ hands. This oftentimes happens at bookstores, though other retailers also peddle books: big box stores like Walmart, mom-and-pop shops, gift stores, and—of course—the Internet. As a publishing professional and lifelong reader, the crisis facing small bookstores isn’t lost on me and I take every opportunity I get to tell others about it.

Bookstores: Chains and Independents

The first thing you might think of when considering where to buy a book is a dedicated bookstore. In the publishing world, we separate these into two categories: chain stores and independent stores. A chain store is one like Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million that has dozens of stores in dozens of states. An independent store is any store not owned by a chain, typically with only one or two locations and much smaller than a B&N or BAM store (though, not always—Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon is huge!).

Bookstores operate on a relatively straightforward model: they sell books and sidelines (non-book items like bookmarks, mugs, scarves, CDs, toys, etc.), and money from those sales goes towards supporting their business and keeping things running. Without sales from books, the stores close.

I have so many wonderful memories of bookstores I’ve loved throughout my life. While chain stores are nice—who doesn’t love B&N cafés?—I have a particular affinity for independent, or indie, bookstores. They are a staple for communities and an incredibly important part of the book industry.

Supporting indie bookstores, as authors and as readers, benefits both the industry and yourself. The publishing industry needs to sell books to make money. That much is obvious. However, an important part of selling those books is keeping sales outlets open. This includes indie bookstores. If these stores remain open, publishers have more places to sell books; authors have wider exposure; and more readers get their hands on great stories. Having these stores in your communities also helps you as a reader and a writer. You have a community location focused just on books. You have a place where you can go to buy books and learn and talk to booksellers who know everything about the market and trends. What’s more, indie bookstores will be the ones to sell your books when they’re published. Supporting small businesses is crucial to keeping the book world alive.

The Amazon Problem

But there’s a problem: the Internet monolith, Amazon.

Amazon uses books as a loss leader. It makes no money off selling books. Rather, it prices them below market value in order to attract customers to the site. Once there, Amazon expects that those users will remember that they need to buy a garden hose, potholders, furniture, whatever. Ideally for Amazon, you spend less on books, but you buy more things.

Now, as a graduate student I understand the urge to save money. Buying books on Amazon is much cheaper than buying them in a bookstore. However, when we buy books on Amazon, we’re taking money that could have gone to indie bookstores and giving it to a massive corporation that doesn’t even need books to continue to thrive.

Without book sales, Amazon is fine. Without book sales, indie bookstores die.

While Amazon is convenient—Two-day free shipping for Prime! I don’t have to leave my house! Cheaper prices!—the effects on community small businesses like indies is more significant than the slight inconvenience you might perceive in driving to a bookstore and buying a book for a higher price.

Amazon is perfectly aware that it is having a negative effect on small businesses and indie bookstores. However, the pull of consumers’ money is obviously more important than keeping the community book-places open. So it’s up to us.

What You Can Do

The first, and most important, way to support indie bookstores is to find them and shop there. If you’re going to spend money on books (which I’m sure we all are!), why not support important community small businesses? They will return the favor, both in places for you to enjoy and maybe even in places for readers to find your work in the future.

Second, if you don’t have an indie bookstore near you, but you do have a chain bookstore, shop there. Shopping at Barnes & Noble or BAM still supports the book industry. Having a brick-and-mortar store where consumers can find books encourages respect for bookselling and book places and may even spark indies to grow in your community.

Finally, try as hard as you can not to shop for books on Amazon. Although it’s sometimes financially necessary or you want a book that simply isn’t in print to be stocked in a store, many times we do it simply for the convenience. Amazon doesn’t need your book money. Spend it where it counts.

This Saturday, April 29th, is Independent Bookstore Day around the country! This event takes place on the last Saturday of April every year. I encourage you to find an independent bookstore near you (or many indies!) and check out their Indie Bookstore Day deals and events. They’re always a bunch of fun and a great opportunity to get to know your community stores.

We can save independent bookstores. We just have to do it together.


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