For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 25, 1997 - Booksellers
Maren Francis is the owner of Hooked on Books, an independent bookstore in Castle Rock. She also happens to be a member of my library board. Maren just got back from a big conference of the American Booksellers Association, and shared some of her insights with me about trends in the book business.
The main issue among booksellers these days is the rise of such big chain stores as Borders, and Barnes and Noble. For consumers, this certainly looks like a good deal: the big chains offer big discounts.
But (at least until recently), those big consumer discounts were made possible by big publisher discounts. Moreover, these discounts were not available to the independent booksellers. Then, a couple of years ago, the independents sued the publishers for more equitable treatment. They won.
But the publishers haven't forgiven them. And the independents still tend to get stuck with shipping charges that don't get billed to the chains.
Booksellers operate on pretty slim margins. Many independents are down to about 1% over their costs. Publisher discounts and shipping charges can make or break them. So the basic situation hasn't changed: when the chain bookstores come in, many independent booksellers go out of business.
Here's another wrinkle. Some book publishers actually pay the chain stores to feature the titles of certain authors, much as soft drink companies pay grocery stores for prime space at the end of an aisle. So for the discount chains, displays mean "advertising."
"But they don't pay me to do that," Maren told me. Independents tend to build their book displays based on what either the local public has gone for, or what the store workers found of literary merit. So displays mean "good books." Maren said, "I would love to see some of these authors get a wider audience."
There's another challenge. "When I walked onto the floor of the conference," Maren said, "all the row markers -- huge overhead banners -- said 'amazon.com.' amazon.com is an Internet-based bookstore. For those folks with Internet access, amazon.com offers great discounts, no doubt because its overhead is so low (smaller staff, no retail rents, no warehousing costs). (Note: Denver's own Tattered Cover is also on the Internet at www.tatteredcover.com. And other booksellers probably won't be far behind.)
Some librarians express the concern that bookstores, the Internet, and libraries are competitors. Maren and I don't see it that way. Each serves its purpose, has its niche. Generally speaking, the more all of us promote books and reading, the more of a market we have. People who like books use the public library for some things, and bookstores for others.
On the other hand, despite the rapid growth of the chain stores the overall purchasing of books has remained relatively flat throughout the United States. In other words, the rise of the chains and "virtual bookstores" has not resulted in a larger market for booksellers, merely a more fragmented one.
A more pernicious influence of this competition is that mainstream publishers are making bigger but fewer deals. That is, they look for blockbusters: bestsellers that go straight to movie options. The big advances and hype mean that publishers have less time and money to look for more purely literary books. The result is a shallower catalog of offerings, a market place of more glitz, but less substance.
I asked Maren what so many people ask me: "Will the book survive?" She thought it would. "In a time when our lives are more frenetic, people turn to books because they offer a reduction of stimuli." Because of this, she suggested, some of the chains won't survive either; their very busy-ness will work against them.
Yet Maren observed, "The perceived value of books is much lower than it was a few years ago. Consider how you feel about a book you see stacked in huge numbers with a sign announcing 30% discount. Compare that to how you feel about a book you find in a hand picked display, lovingly arranged and reflecting the taste of a bookseller whose instincts you trust."
Maren is right that, "Any bookseller has to offer something special." For some of us, it's the best price. For others, it's warm, personal service. For all of us who love books, it's an interesting time.