Will the bad economy kill book sales?

One of the most valuable aspects of going on book tour is the perspective it gives you on book selling across the country. And as I travel from town to town, from bookstore to bookstore, one thing that’s struck me is how quiet all the stores are. In mall stores, in superstores, in major chains and small independents, customers seem to be missing. Many booksellers have told me that traffic has been way down these past few weeks, and they’re concerned. I know it’s of little comfort to booksellers, but nothing else seems to be selling either. Malls are deserted. Stores selling clothing and furniture and kitchenware are all silent. No one seems to be spending money.

What does it mean for the book industry?

Books, unlike milk and bread, are discretionary purchases. Instead of shelling out 7 bucks for a paperback to keep them entertained for a day, customers can just click on their TVs. Or they can head to their local library. There are, thank heavens, many consumers who consider books essential for life and they will continue to purchase books no matter what, but I fear that much-valued segment of readers is shrinking. And with the political season now white-hot, everyone is distracted by the upcoming election and scarcely paying attention to the latest offering of new titles. So it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the current state of book sales, given the tough economy.

But strangely enough, given the bad economy, I think it’s going to be a really strong Christmas for bookstores. I haven’t heard anyone else say this, but that’s my prediction. And here’s why.

No matter how bad the economy may be, we will all be shopping for Christmas presents. We all expect to see pretty packages under the tree. We can’t disappoint our families, so yes, cash registers will be ringing in November and December.

And I suspect they’ll be ringing in bookstores, because how many gifts can you give that will only cost twenty-five bucks? Forget the fifty-dollar blouses and the hundred-dollar sweaters. Forget the expensive jewelry and electronics. Belts must be tightened, and giving a hardcover book as a gift is both thrifty and comfortingly traditional. Books can be passed around and shared with the rest of the family. They can be re-sold on Ebay. As the world goes to hell in a hand basket, we want to give our children gifts that will enrich them intellectually and make us feel better as parents.

At least, that’s what I hope will happen this Christmas.

16 replies
  1. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    That’s so true about the hell in a hand basket thing. That’s all I’ll say haha. It’s just really really true. Very sad, though.

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I really hope you’re right! What a state we live in today… I guess I chose the PERFECT time to graduate from college, eh? *sigh*

    I was at the bookstore on Sunday, and you’re absolutely right, it was almost completely dead there. Wonder if it’s the same back on Boston? Curious…

  3. Niki
    Niki says:

    I too hope you’re right Tess. I know that I went the book route for my best friend’s birthday this year. I know she loves books and I could afford to buy two books for the price of one DVD. I inteed to stick with book giving. I hope others feel the same way. 🙂

  4. Jill James
    Jill James says:

    I hope so too. I know when my family doesn’t know what to get me for a holiday, I tell them, “Just get me a BN gift card and I’ll be a happy camper.”

    It was nice to finally meet you in person last night in Clayton. Thanks.

  5. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    I don’t know if this helps, but I found this on Bookcatcher.com. I’m sorry for the length of the article.

    As consumers seek to compensate for budgets threatened by spiraling fuel costs and the rising cost of essentials such as food, one of the discretionary budget areas where they’re cutting spending is on books.

    The book business in the United States in 2007 registered $29.93 billion in sales, producing 2.377 billion units, about the same as 2.383 billion in 2006, according to the Book Industry Study Group.

    While the book business has been relatively stagnant in recent years and even months, it now appears to have turned the corner downward.

    Net sales of books in August fell 3.5 percent to $472.7 million, based on data from 79 publishers as reported to the Association of American Publishers.

    Not all sales were down. Among the book categories registering increased sales were inexpensive e-books, up 19.9 percent to $3.4 million; university press hardcover sales, up 12.1 percent to $5.6 million; adult mass market sales, up 4.7 percent to $53.2 million; adult trade paperback sales, up 4.5 percent to $118.3 million; and audiobooks, up 1.7 percent to $12.6 million.

    The categories showing sales increases were offset by those declining. Among the book groups registering decreased sales were higher ed, down 30.5 percent to $8 million; religious books, down 21.5 percent to $34.2 million; children’s/YA hardcovers, down 19.9 percent to $39 million; university press paperbacks, down two percent to $2.7 million; the important adult hardcover sales category, down 4.6 percent to $110 million; and children’s/YA paperback sales, down 3.1 percent to $39.3 million.

    According to Great American Bargain Book Show organizer Larry May of Knoxvile, Tenn., one of the strategies bookstores and other book retailers might pursue in the wake of declining sales is to acquire inventory at lower cost.

    “Most bookstores buy stock for 20 to 40 percent off suggested retail,” May said. “But they can buy remainders and other bargain books for as much as 90 percent off retail price. That means they can sell the books for less in a time when consumers are spending fewer dollars on books, and still make a higher profit margin.”

    May said an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 bargain book titles will be offered to buyers at bargain basement prices. “It’s a great opportunity for bookstores and other retailers to stock up for the winter holiday season, which accounts for a disproportionate part of annual book sales,” May said.

    I hope this puts something in perspective.
    Abe

  6. maatlockk
    maatlockk says:

    Just letting you know that I checked the bookstores on campus on the 2nd October and I saw your noew book already on display. It may have been there for a few days, I wasn’t sure. I bought a copy and I can’t wait to dive in.

    oxoxoxox
    from NZ

  7. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Books are one of the few used items that can be resold many times and retain their value,which is the content.
    Some books appreciate quite a bit in value.
    There is really no limit as to how many people can use a book,provided there aren’t TOO many ketchup and coffee stains on it.:)

  8. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I believe your prediction will be correct. A book makes a great gift, and entertains much longer than a TV show. I never speed read the novels I receive. 🙂

  9. struggler
    struggler says:

    I would make a pretty shrewd giver of books at Christmas, but if I’m given a book myself there’s a fair chance that my “Oh thank you, it’s just what I wanted” will have a ring of insincerity, maybe because I already own that book. I know exactly what kind of books I like – crime fiction of course – and it’s extraordinary how my wife doesn’t seem to know what a crime fiction book looks like in a shop, despite my home library creeking under the weight of the years and years of collecting them! And of course if I tell anyone what I want, bookwise, that kind of spoils the surprise!

    Thanks for the observations, Tess – it’s amazing how often you start a thread with a topic I was thinking of asking you about just days before! And it’s just good to have you ‘back’ doing what you do so well.

  10. therese
    therese says:

    I think you are right on Tess.

    The average consumer has been a bit overwhelmed at the moment with news and big concerns. Everyone I talk to (and I talk to everyone – clerks, people in line, students, seniors) feels they have been on a roller coaster through life these past months. What I think will happen is a lot of people will have a nostalgic urge to curl up with a good story this winter.

    The publishing world operates on the edge of the esoteric field with editors buying books today the feel readers will want next year that were written last year. From a business perspective, the whole industry doesn’t make sense… Unless there is some internal need/passion for writers and readers to connect through story. Which history through every culture has shown to be true.

    Keep writing Tess! Your books are just what we need.

  11. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    I had recently thought up a (very controversial) solution of sorts to the overall cost of hardcovers

    In much the same way that there are alternative, generic labels for what is basically the same food on your grocery shelf, I think maybe a certain number of authors should maybe have generic labels.

    It could be done up in paperback format (wether it be trade paper or mass market)

    Just a plain color background and the title and name of the author—the back cover could still have the usual detailed plot of the story but I should think by doing this that they could save a decent amount of money on the making of the book which (in theory) should translate to the customer at the bookstore shelf.

    It would still be the same story inside, just a much more boring cover. And maybe they wouldn’t have to do this with all their authors but perhaps use it at least for first time authors who I should think (if anything) are a higher risk for the publisher and by having a generic cover, maybe it could cut the cost of the risk while still maybe getting the same audience to buy the book.

    I am not saying I have all the answers but in these tough times I should think this might help out and keep the ship afloat, even though it seems we’ve already hit the iceberg

  12. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Huh. I’d rather bundle up in all the clothes I have than get a sweater instead of a book for Christmas. And what do you get a dad that has everything? Get him a book. What do you get a brother who has a small bookshelf half full of books that are all dusty? A DVD!!!!!!!!!!! *tears up from laughing*

  13. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Tess & all concerned
    I found this small article on today’s Publishers Weekly webpage
    by Calvin Reid — Publishers Weekly, 10/3/2008 3:22:00 PM
    In what may be a preview of the financial crisis’ effect on small publishers, Atlas & Co., an independent house that partners with both HarperCollins and W.W. Norton, was forced to delay its Spring 2009 list due to the financial crunch. Atlas & Co. founder and publisher James Atlas acknowledged that the house postponed six titles originally scheduled for the Spring until Fall 2009.

    “We’re small and we’ve been hit by the same financial crunch you’ve been reading about,” said Atlas, who described his current dilemma as “the lot of an independent publisher. I’ve been through all this before. Nobody said it would be easy.” Atlas was quick to point out that the house is still publishing its fall list that includes such books as Rimbaud by Edmund White; Madame De Stael by Francine du plessix Gray and Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia by Wojciech Tochman, all published, he said, to impressive reviews.

    The books that were postponed are: A Sixties Reader edited by James Atlas, Embedded: A Father’s Quest for the Truth about This Son’s Mission in Iraq by Darrell Griffin, Sr., The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson by Fances Brent, Sentenced to Life: A Story of Redemption by Kenneth E. Hartman, The Other Side of Silence: A Biography of George Eliot by Brenda Maddox and An Educated Man: Reading Moses and Jesus by David Rosenberg.

    Atlas emphasized that he intends to publish all the delayed books. “I have a loyal board and I’ve been in talks with potential investors,” Atlas said. “I expect a happy ending, or rather, a happy non-ending, to all of this.”

    A small portion of the big picture of course but bad news for fans of those particular books that are now delayed.

  14. Yasmine
    Yasmine says:

    I always maintain that in a bad economy, people are looking for inexpensive ways to escape. Movies are more expensive than paperbacks now, and books will still sell. While hardbacks may slow down a bit–they are more gift-quality when you’re talking 25 vs 7 bucks, paperbacks will definitely continue to move. People need a way to forget about the problems they’re facing, and movies, TV, and books give them that opportunity.

  15. burnsrunner
    burnsrunner says:

    I believe that as long as the book has a focused target group, the book will sale. Books are still selling these days. My latest purchase was A Day With My Dad by Lance Waite. A beautiful picture book that my kids absolutely love.

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