Are You Keeping a Crawling Eye on the Print Industry? A Bookseller’s Lament


Complacency. This is what – if anything – will kill print.

People who leave it up to other people to purchase books in hard copy, to frequent brick and mortar stores of any product while patting themselves on the back for “saving” money need to wise up. The entire retail landscape is under fire. You now have to drive further, pay more, and find less for any product – including books.

This is not a “sign of the times.” It is an orchestrated effort to rearrange the retail market into a handful of distribution outlets that feed the pockets of wealthy individuals whose ideas of enlightenment include the replacement of workers with robots because “they never get sick” and “they never take vacations,” as well as the ultimate privilege of determining not only what the public will want to have access to, but what they will be allowed to have access to.

We are living on the cusp of censorship…the Horror Story is yours…

And in truth, some of the earliest and loudest voices of warning came from artists, musicians, and independent bookstores.

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Step One: Divide and Conquer

It is increasingly hard to recall what it was like to venture into the mom-and-pop book or record stores of the past, to see the variety, to taste of the unique personalities that nested there, providing pleasant and integral niches of the labors of the humanities. Fewer still seem to recall the bitter and angry fights that occurred between the rise of the big box stores and small, locally owned ones. But they were there, ripping flesh from bone and real people from real careers even then.

As a shopper I knew it, and left it up to others to save the small stores. I rationalized that the big boxes were more convenient, and enabled my tiny, minimum wage paychecks to buy more deeply discounted books. What I didn’t acknowledge was that if a lot of people thought like me, our collective buying power would strangle small shops to death. What I didn’t consider was that this was part of a battle plan to “do away” with choice and channel profits and editorial power to a bunch of rich non-book people.

But the result was real.

The result was a domino effect of dead independent booksellers, and a transfer of the murderous intent of modern “competition” to destroy all others to a war between the big boxes. Once again I rationalized that I could buy books no other way, and flocked to the cheapest bargains. And then Borders was suddenly and horrifically gone – and it was as though the scales fell from my eyes and I realized what my rationalizations had cost me ultimately.

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Now we live in a retail bookselling environment where the last of the big boxes are struggling, are consolidating territories, reducing inventories, not unwilling – unable – to cut costs any more to stay alive. And the vultures are circling, waving their iPhones in our retail spaces, daring us to price match or they will “go to Amazon.”

Just what do they think Amazon is going to do if and when the big boxes disappear? Let me awaken you, Sleeping Beauty: just because they sell books does not make them book people…

I’m not even sure if they are people people.

Just who exactly do these self-described “savvy shoppers” think took things this far? Non-book people do not care about choice. They care about dictating choice. They care about making money – not to share it, not to “create jobs” but to buy robots and take your last greenback even if it means your future home is under a bridge.

Choice is a freedom, folks. Are you willing to sell it for the savings of a few pennies and free shipping?

This is the exact same argument (simply resuscitated and slightly tweaked) which small bookstores made against the big box bookstores. And we as customers didn’t listen. And now in equal measures, customers come into bookstores and complain loudly about the lack of choice, the missing classics, the critical and growing hole where actual contemporary Literature used to be, the absence of those “fun” sections of cheap mass market genre paperbacks, the invasion of non-book items onto our floors, taking up precious “book space.” Some even wax poetic about the loss of those very same old independent bookstores.

Yet where were they – these very people – when the e-publishing-induced crisis upended the publishing industry and shuttered the doors of dozens of big box competitors to those brick-and-mortars left standing?

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They were elsewhere. Rationalizing. And all the while, the snake in the garden was slithering along… the e-snake…Amazon with all of its tentacles and its great, bulbous, glowing eye…

It’s time to wake up. Because there is still time to save print with all of its ambient, job-creating light, but only if we are willing to rip the e-scales from our eyes and vote with our feet and wallets.

For me, retail has been an education during these times of transition. And here is what it has taught me…

This is Not a Coincidental Evolution: This is a Contrived Assasination

After years of working in retail book sales, one thing is clear: the battle to survive rages on, and far too many eager people with plans to pocket a writer’s profits continue to promote the rumor that the print industry is dead, and the only salvation is online.

But why don’t we really look at that hideous monster? Are we afraid to gaze into that naked eyeball looking back at us and all we can sacrifice in its name?

The tech industry continues to advertise with their deep and diversified pockets that “no one reads anymore” and “print is too costly” and how “economically friendly” e-printing is… Never mind the severe ecological damage of many computer parts tossed into our landfills as opposed to the growing and harvesting of trees, never mind the current push-back of people preferring to own hard copies of books, never mind the threat to vision too much computer-time represents, never mind the consolidation of thousands of middle-class jobs into a handful of exclusively-awarded upper class incomes.

Working in retail book sales, I can tell you honestly that the prediction of the death of print is premature and greatly exaggerated. Yes, the profits are not what they were. Yes, the selection is not what it was. No, the career path is not as clear or certain. However, neither is the future of e-anything.

But there is still a segment of population that never wanted anything else but print books. And there is a new generation of people who are discovering the pleasure of print books. And there is yet another group of people becoming disenchanted with electronics, with hacking, with tech glitches, with unending costs for expiration-date-stamped toys with infinite, expensive upgrades.

Yet the biggest snake in the room is still in the room. (Shhh!!! It’s looking at us….)

The problem is greed. Like anything else, the tech industry is hyper-focused on how to enrich itself. It doesn’t care about the future of books period, nor does its avatars care about the future of writers or artists who spend their lives creating that content. It cares about content that it can acquire for as near to free as possible and sell either at its own profit or giving it away while charging for ever more expensive hardware and upgrades in order to access that allegedly “free” information.

This has been promoted as “good business” or “business savvy.” But what it is, is self-serving greed.

It is industry-killing, job-killing greed.

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It’s time to wake up. If you are a writer or artist, a fan of the product, or a purveyor of either or both, it’s time to put our collective foot down and stop participating in the demise of the middle-class in order to pocket the promises of the elite whose intent to abolish whole industries means the ultimate loss of jobs, careers, education, and even more important – choice.

Part of that is saving brick-and-mortar bookstores. That means going to brick-and-mortar bookstores. And buying books.

Why It Matters/How You Matter

I cannot tell you the publishing industry will return to its former glory days, that writers will write better, and once again it will be safe to become a complacent shopper.

But I can tell you that an increasing number of people come into my store and complain to me (probably because of my age) that they cannot afford to keep upgrading e-book software and hardware, that they cannot figure out what happened to their cloud-saved books or movies or music, that they can’t find something for sale that used to be for sale last week in e-catalogs, that they can’t understand why “timeless classics” in books, movies, or music are not carried in-store and are print-on-demand, that they want to come in and browse items, not see pre-selected “excerpts” of things to decide if they want to make a purchase…

I can tell you that people are starting to realize that their own personal choices are not what they used to be: that instead of an entire writer’s or artist’s catalog, there is only a single title or single “best of” anthology, that their section is less than half of what it was or is gone, that “reviews” are sales-motivated and not true to quality, that items bought online are often badly used or never show up, and that there is no one to ask questions of or discuss books or music or movies with.

But are these realizations happening in time to divest the tentacles from our hag-ridden, tech eyeball-affixed lives?

Can we still change things? I believe the answer is yes – if we do not dally.

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I can tell you that all it takes for brick-and-mortars to blink in this war is a “downturn” in the retail economy (currently around 10% nationwide and across the entire retail landscape), less foot traffic, smaller purchases, and an old threat gotten a lot worse – theft – to change the trajectory of things.

People like me used to think that theft – as an inevitable part of retail – was just another write-off, part of an insurance policy that would keep my favorite stores afloat. But that is only true when theft is marginal. When the loss to theft ratio exceeds sales figures, the corporate hatchet comes out. Something is leaving: sales clerks, product, discounts, departments… perhaps even locations. And currently, brick-and-mortar everything is being hit by thieves in huge, professional numbers.

Many of them steal to resell – wait for it – on the internet. At Amazon’s many marketplace vendors. On Craigslist. At flea markets.

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Bean counters don’t look at the number of sales transactions and say, “we have a healthy gatecount of customers”… They do the math and reconcile the cost of stolen items to profit. They make decisions about item availability based on numbers. Because they are not book people, even when they represent book people.

And thieves are doing so well because so many people are not coming into bookstores, are not buying higher priced items, and brag how they will just “find it cheaper” on the internet.

(No kidding. Let me ponder why those items are cheap…and note, there will be consequences.)

Already we are seeing in the book retail industry a trend that foreshadows what is coming in actual retail choice. CDs, DVD/BluRay, Literary Classics, Indie Press offerings, self-published, and niche-published items are all going to Print-on-Demand. This means now even bookstores cannot order these items into their retail space.

To make things more complicated, brick-and-mortars depend on a kind of cousin of consignment when they acquire product– if things do not sell, they return them for credit and try something else from the same publisher or vendor. With POD items, the product is nonreturnable. And it is also non-vetted, with questionable, uncertain editorial and production quality. These are pay in advance, ship to home offerings only.

This means even less variety, less vouched-for quality, even less choice. But it is one sure way to keep thieves hands off bookstores’ and publishers’ bottom lines. And that makes it attractive, this selling of images of things…

All of this affects the creators of books and film and music and art. It makes for even less places to market their creations, and while perhaps “offering” more control, requires so much more in time to market, promote, and additional costs to edit, assemble, and then to undersell in order to be “competitive” that the “advantage” is really quite obscured by the endless paychecks of the elite few.

 

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How can we reverse this trend of slow strangulation? By purchasing from bookstores – large, small, independent or corporately run… by making an actual physical appearance and literally buying items right there instead of taking a picture of it and purchasing it on Amazon.

We do have to pick our poison, to choose from the many monsters that feed off our work and desires like parasites. But at least the older professions of publishers provided middle-class jobs and a solid market base from which writers could concentrate on writing, and readers could somewhat count on more-truthful blurbs and actual Critical reviews.

And in truth, it is not all bad news… there are signs of life in the small, independent bookstores carving new niches, starting to return in lesser numbers. There are an increasing numbers of independent presses springing up. But the threat to print remains viable. How it plays out will be up to you – the customer.

If you love print (or anything else you want to hold in your hands first), you need to support it right now. Your brick-and-mortar retailers need you… in their stores. Making purchases. Sustaining industries…

You may think you are all right if your choices are all online and you get to choose between vendors for the “best price.” But once brick-and-mortar bookstores are made extinct, your choices will join them in the tar pits. Non-book people have no interest in books. It’s all about them. It’s all about money – theirs.

Is your freedom of choice for sale? Keep in mind real Horror may be the alternative.

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