Book publishers seek ways to adapt to Web
Clusters of TV and computer screens beam chatty videos about cooking, travel and wellness books. A music kiosk lets visitors download MP3s or burn CDs, while another offers tips on how to publish your own novel.
Welcome to the newly opened Borders "concept" bookstore in Southbury, Conn., which looks less like a traditional branch of the nation's second-largest book chain and more like what customers might see on their home computers.
"We wanted to go beyond selling books, CDs and DVDs and become a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment," said Borders Group Chief Executive George Jones. "We needed to do something new in our stores to compete with all the alternatives people have at home when they shop online."
As Book Expo America, the nation's largest annual book convention, opened Thursday in Los Angeles, innovation - some would say desperation - was the main order of business. More than 2,000 exhibitors from every facet of the publishing world, nearly 1,000 authors and more than 25,000 people were expected to gather at the Los Angeles Convention Center to discuss the state of an industry that's at a critical crossroads.
The $37 billion industry's generally flat sales are likely to continue and perhaps worsen in the near future, according to a report issued Friday by the Book Industry Study Group.
Dozens of Book Expo panels will explore the possibilities of digital publishing and the expanded use of the Web to market to customerswho view the Internet as the best way to buy books. Another promising trend is the rising sales in young adult fiction - Borders' concept stores have separated a young adult section from the children's books.
Nobody is immune from the economic turbulence: Barnes & Noble, the United States' largest book chain, is exploring a bid to gobble up financially troubled Borders. Random House, the nation's largest trade book publisher, was rocked last month when its German owners installed a new cost-cutting chief executive who is generally unknown in New York's insular book world.
"Change is the key word now," said Allison Hill, president of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, which was recently named Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly. "If you want to survive in publishing, you've got to start thinking outside the box."
The rapid growth of author videos is one example. In a small Manhattan studio, Marisa Benedetto is spearheading an effort at HarperCollins to produce more than 500 such interviews a year, which are designed for online distribution.
And although publishers are getting comfortable with the Internet, it still poses challenges for booksellers who are trying to hold on to loyal customers while attracting new ones who are used to buying books online.
Borders representatives said they hoped the new concept stores would bring the two worlds together. But even with all the bells and whistles of the Internet transplanted to a physical bookstore, there are some aspects of the online world - like digital publishing - that can bedevil smaller, independent shops.
E-books, which can be downloaded on demand and read on lightweight portable devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, have captured only a small share of the general interest book market. Yet many believe the right device will eventually meet the right format, paving the way for a transforming "iPod moment" in the book world.
When this moment finally comes, how do you sell digital products to customers who prefer to buy traditional books? More important, how do you convince them that they can buy e-books just as easily from an independent store as they can from Amazon.com?
Enter Peter Osnos. The founder of Public Affairs Books recently launched the Caravan Project, an experimental, grant-funded effort to educate publishers and an initial target group of independent bookstores about digital books. A key goal has been to show sellers that they can participate in the sale of digital books like anyone else. These days, that can include an e-book, a digital audio book, print-on-demand titles or the downloading of individual chapters.
PAPERBACK DREAMS is the story of two landmark independent bookstores and their struggle to survive. The film follows Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books, and Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler’s Books, over the course of two tumultuous years in the book business.
In the last decade, competition from big chains and the internet has put booksellers in a vice. Half the independent bookstores in America closed in the 1990s. But in the 1960s, bookstores like Cody’s and Kepler’s redefined intellectual life, democratized literature, and helped launch a counterculture. Publishers were putting the classics into cheap paperback editions for the first time. Literature—once the purview of academics and elites—was suddenly affordable for the masses. Most established booksellers dismissed the new editions as drugstore pulp. Their indifference allowed a new kind of store to emerge, and it opened the door to a new breed of bookseller.
Roy Kepler was a committed pacifist who spent World War II in a labor camp for conscientious objectors. His strong personal ethics and love of learning lead him to open Kepler’s Books near Stanford University in 1955. Around the same time, Fred Cody, fresh out of grad school at Columbia, found that a teaching job would require him to sign an unconstitutional loyalty oath. So he struck out with his wife Pat–an accomplished intellectual in her own right–and opened an eponymous paperback bookstore on the edge of the U.C. Berkeley campus.
At various points in time, these stores endured vandalism, harassment, and firebombs—all for the simple act of selling books. Protesters were tear gassed outside Cody’s during the Free Speech Movement. For his politics of peace, Roy Kepler repeatedly received phone calls threatening his life. But they influenced a new generation of booklovers, and by 1977, when Andy Ross bought Cody’s, bookstores were booming. Clark Kepler soon took over his father’s store, and they built upon on the proud traditions of the stores’ founders, including their commitment to free speech.
In 1989, Cody’s was firebombed for selling The Satanic Verses. This lead Waldenbooks and the other chains bookstores of the day to pull Salman Rushdie’s controversial book from the shelves. Owner Andy Ross called a store meeting, and asked the staff what they wanted to do. They unanimously voted to keep selling the book.
Today, both Cody’s and Kepler’s are still standing, but the ground beneath their feet is shifting. Economic pressures have booksellers in a vice, but these tight financial times don’t reflect the full value of these stores to their communities. In 2005, Clark Kepler closed his store after fifty years in business, and was talking to bankruptcy lawyers. The loss of the store was mourned from handwritten posters on the shop’s shuttered windows to the pages of the New York Times. And then—in a scene straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life—Kepler’s loyal customers bailed them out, and the store reopened after 40 days. But not every community is wealthy enough to stage such a dramatic rescue. For the rest of us, the future of the local bookstore is uncertain.
Independent bookstores function as literary laboratories, and publishers rely on them to champion new and controversial work. To passionate booksellers, selling books remains revolutionary. PAPERBACK DREAMS celebrates what these stores offer our local communities, and mourns the cultural loss that comes when a good bookstore closes its doors.