Daniel Goldin is the proprietor of Boswell Book Company. He may be reached at daniel [at] boswellbooks dot com.
In my twenty-fifth season as a bookseller, and my second as a bookseller-proprietor, I’ve come to believe that the only constant is change. When I started, the local department store still had a book department, and our fiercest competitors were other independents. Since then I’ve dealt with the rise of book superstores, the growth of mass merchant book departments, the push of book publishers into nontraditional retail (cooking stores, home improvement, craft stores, etc), internet sales, and now e-books. So what else is new?
Despite trying to play in all the major areas, we are predominantly a traditional bookstore, getting more than three-quarters of our revenue through the sales of new titles. Our gift product, excluding calendars, runs about 10%, our second hand just north of 5%, and our bargain slightly south. As a new business, my projection had been for sales growth in the second year. I’m glad to say we’ve been hitting our numbers about half the time (generally projected for 10% increases over our first year), and have been less than 5% below projection the other months. One factor is our yearlong publicity hits and word of mouth, which often pay off in the holiday season. In addition, a local competitor that had selectively strong customer loyalty quickly failed.
I’ve heard about the e-factor from other stores. We’re continuing to have a conversation with our customers, and the ones who got devices (often as gifts) are using them selectively. Of course you’d figure that the ones who are devotees would just disappear but it’s my thought that early adopters also jumped quickly to internet purchases. That said, the big fans think nothing of talking my ear off about their devices. It seems odd to me, but I have found it best to just listen and learn. Though we are an ABA e-commerce partner, I chose to wait on signing up for Google Editions until after the holidays.
Our sales successes are fairly close to other independent bookstores of our profile, with The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Unbroken, Cleopatra, and Life topping our sales lists on the nonfiction side. It’s pretty much the nonfiction bestseller list minus the conservative politics (we sell Decision Points at a respectable pace, but not at the velocity of other outlets). Awards drive sales for us, as do the New York Times and NPR, and our local paper, especially at this time of year. I’ve continued to see great numbers from our New York Times best-of-the-year display.
The hardcover fiction business seems to have become very brand-driven in the fourth quarter, and even most of our hits (Franzen, Martin, Sedaris) are, in effect, brands. Only Emma Donoghue’s Room has that awards-plus-word-of-mouth something that seems to be working in all the indies. It had a pop on the national lists and I suspect it will be back on them after Christmas. Aside from that, we’ve had to make our own bestsellers—would you like a Peter Geye to go with that pile?
One of my worries is not so much about our store itself, but the changing nature of publishing as the model tilts towards e-books, and for us, print on demand. We’ve had more customers rejecting books because of bad paper, print quality, and large price increases as backlist moves from traditional printing to POD. My argument to one customer that she could double her reading speed by reading both sides of the page without turning it held no water. And another core backlist book (a novel with a local setting) jumped 50% in price when it moved to POD is now simply unsellable, despite the continuation of trade terms. I fear that these are all moves that will inadvertently move my customers to e-readers. What happened to the focus on quality that publishers tossed around at panels? And can we start that bundling conversation going again?
In the end, we’re a sort of long-tail store, with lots and lots of singles selling, and people browsing through our sections for what seems like hours. I’ve thought for the last few years that if customers know exactly what they want, we’re more likely to lose them, and we’ve been trying to build experience. I’m willing to selectively sacrifice turn to keep our core nonfiction sections interesting, but this is also where I’ve been able to use second hand books to good effect. I’ve also thought that the only thing we have over our competitors is a genuine relationship, so more than anything else, I find myself trying to remember customer names, sometimes at the expense of my book knowledge.
For the future, I’m cautiously optimistic with my usual mix of enthusiasm and panic. I agree with some pundits that there is room for new growth in the indie market. I see many metro areas around the country that currently have no strong indie bookseller that would find a place in the hearts of customers. One sign of hope that I have is that by providing what is pretty much the same product but in a different way, we’re able to create draw regular customers from quite a large geographical area. I know there are folks that would love our store that simply don’t know that they love it yet, and I’m hoping word-of-mouth, good marketing, and a broad assortment of events will help us gain new fans.
Despite being affected by national and international trends, what happens to Boswell is also profoundly local—the Milwaukee-area economy, the health of my retail strip, the energy of my booksellers, and the renewal of our lease. And I always say you’re only two or three strategic mistakes away from closing. Sadly, that mistake can be one of either action or inaction. Here’s to not messing up (too much) in 2011!