Monday, March 8, 2010

Brick and Mortar Bookstores vs. Amazon for Authors

An experience, a stat and a reflection on brick and mortar vs. Amazon:

An Experience

I write resources for those teaching character and life skills in public schools. When the two Superbowl contenders are decided, I immediately find out who the highest profile athletes are so that I can research them for character stories (what led them to such a high level of success.)

So Kurt Warner was quarterbacking in the Superbowl a couple of years ago and I decided to read his autobiography. He'd led his team to the Superbowl several years earlier in a spectacular bag-boy to Superbowl hero story and I thought, "This is as high a profile person as you can get. The Superbowl's a week away, the most watched media event of the year; so I'm sure his autobiography will be in my local bookstores."

I called Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books a Million. None carried it. One said they couldn't even order it. I ordered from Amazon.

A Stat

A few experiences like this one and people begin defaulting to Amazon. Here are the stats from 2008:

Barnes and = $466 million
Borders/ Waldenbooks = $3.11 billion
Barnes & Nobel/ B. Dalton = $4.52 billion = $5.35 billion (book sales only)

More importantly in 2008, Amazon’s sales grew by 16% while each of the other bookstore chains lost money. If this trend continues, Amazon will rapidly become a bigger and bigger player for authors, and bookstores will become less and less - particularly for small-time authors who can't be guaranteed to get into bookstores and be continually stocked there.

A Reflection

Don't get me wrong; I love bookstores! But after a couple of experiences like that, I began defaulting to Amazon. I support bookstores. I hang out at bookstores. But I depend on Amazon. It's a time issue. A local bookstore can carry only a small percentage of the millions of books in print, even of books that are recognized classics in their fields - like a Psychology text on "Persuasion" I couldn't find locally. After signing up for Amazon Prime, we never pay postage. And books come quickly to our door.

If you're a major selling author like Sue Grafton for novels or David McCullough for biographies, traditional brick and mortar bookstores, Walmart, etc. are wonderful sales outlets. For the rest of us, they are a useful outlet that people can order from, but not likely to carry us long-term.

If a person with as high a profile as Kurt Warner's (incredibly "high platform", which all publishers are looking to publish) can't keep his autobiography in the bookstores several years after it was written (and it was truly a well-written, inspiring book), then what chance do us low-profile authors have of keeping our books in bookstores over the years? At best, for low-profile authors, I'd suggest that brick and mortar bookstores are typically a short-term rather than long-term strategy.

I have a book on church music, published 17 years ago with a traditional publisher, with no marketing done for it in the past 15 years, that still sells steadily on Amazon. It probably lasted only a couple of years in bookstores.

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