It really is an exciting time to be a bookseller. Some may say the golden years are gone, sentimental feelings now setting in for the slow-paced past of primarily brick and mortar (B&M) businesses. But like other points in history, bookselling is simply undergoing its latest transformation. Let us not look at it as a bad thing.
For starters, the advent of online bookselling opened opportunities for sellers to actually interact with customers in parts of the world most have only read about. I can’t say I ever expected to spend much time conversing with a citizen of Brazil or Yugoslavia. I never even considered either location as a vacation destination. Instead, the common interest of books has brought me into contact with citizens of approximately 20 different nations on our ever-shrinking planet.
Dealing through the digital world has also allowed us to find books we may never have been able to, and obviously to sell to customers we most likely never would have. More obvious benefits are quicker response through email, often-quicker payments, better communication, and less expensive communication. Plus, we pay less postage and have less paper waste in mailing post card quotes to other sellers!
But what one benefit did I not mention? Interaction with our peers. Not only are we able to have more chance to correspond with colleagues and to discover new colleagues, but we are able to interact on a more frequent basis. As well, “support groups” like email lists allow for the cultivation of budding sellers who may otherwise never have been inspired or able to learn as quickly on their own.
It is necessary for most hard copy publications to adapt to the above changes to stay relevant. Book wants, for sale, news, book-related questions (only to have answers published next issue) are no longer viable for print–kept only for mostly sentimental reasons or to satisfy the last remaining bit of non-technically savvy sellers. The idea of publishing “news” and “books wanted” on a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly basis in the face of instant digital chatter seems mostly pointless. The only real alternative is either to report the news in greater detail (similarly how newspapers have responded to cable news) or to offer a more fundamentally different service altogether.
My tenure overseeing Bookseller Monthly began after many of these industry changes already took place. As a result, I don’t look at the publication as a cutting edge source for news. It is provided for sellers and collectors alike to enjoy interest stories at their leisure, when their eyes become strained from the phosphorescent glow of their computer monitors. A format of collective, basic news that might only be found through multiple or obscure online sources. A chance to allow individuals to participate by sending along local news, respond with letters, or enjoy on their schedule, eliminating the artificial rush created by online life. So, no, I don’t think of hard copy as a thing of the past. Just as books will be around forever, so will publications about our passion for books.
Discouragingly though, I noticed that advertising has become the primary function over content for many of our so-called primary book-related publications. It seems rather than adapt, many are conceding to the ‘net advantage. Not wanting to mention particular names, they seem more like a “yellow pages” than anything of reading interest. Ironically, it seems many non book-related publications continue to have some type of book review or book-related section, sometimes with more content on books than our own industry publications. As well, more and more book-related newsletters are popping up online. A “hats off” to Joyce Godsey for creating Sic. And we see that most, if not all, hard copy publications have web content now.
I am always trying to improve features and to keep Bookseller Monthly from becoming outdated, or at the very least a redundancy to what we can learn instantly online, or from being another “yellow pages.” Granted, advertising pays the bills. But I try to keep a good balance of content versus advertising. One thing that I realize though is that the transformation to the new technology is not yet complete. I have never researched the ratio of booksellers that interact online, but from those I have dealt with over the past two years I would have to guess that approximately 60-70% do not deal with online bookselling beyond listing on a paid-for service. A good majority, if asked, would not know what the Bookfinder Insider list is, or the IOBA, or the Bibliophile group. They may list on the Advanced Book Exchange, but often that is where it ends. Therefore, they often do not receive the information regarding current online issues so many ‘net savvy sellers do.
But is that a bad thing? Does the new wave of bookselling have to include complete online interaction? Or can the above benefits primarily be achieved simply by listing online and then going back to dusting shelves of paperbacks? Additionally, will we ever see a complete transformation to the ‘net for booksellers so that most do get their news online?
It is wonderful to see how things are unfolding. So many times with the growth of technology we hear the doom and gloom of losing tradition and appreciation. I think we are seeing that the worthwhile and good things about this trade continue, and will continue, to advance, prosper and be handed down to future sellers.
I still print “book wants” in Bookseller Monthly, a long time tradition still keeping some post card suppliers in business. To some this is an insane effort considering the efficiency of the Internet as I alluded to above. And I freely advertise monthly book shows to remind everyone that browsing for titles and personal interaction are still enjoyable experiences, even though there are numerous places online to find the same data. But I do feel I publish good enough feature articles worthy of a read in the tub! Now THAT can’t be attempted with a computer.
Change keeps us on our toes, having to continually improve what we do. Unless one’s desire for sentimentalism helps keep an inefficient system alive out of a sense for history, it will either disappear or stay alive because it serves a useful purpose. I always have to try to think of better ways to keep reader interest, to find unique services to offer. I believe most would never honestly expect to lose hard copy entirely. I, for one, hope to continue to adapt and provide something worthwhile in Bookseller Monthly, if only to serve a small group (even if it is just for those who read in the tub).