Last week, GalleyCat reported on the possibility of Borders buying Barnes & Noble. I don’t give a lot of credence to rumors, and I’m doubtful this one will actually happen. But the idea scares me.
Let me tell you a story from years ago. Tobias Buckell and I were in Chicago for Windycon, along with my then-agent Steve Mancino. When we weren’t conventioning, we headed out to various bookstores to sign stock: Crystal Rain for Toby, and Goblin Quest for me. Within an hour, we had the routine down:
When we went into a Borders, I would run to grab my goblin books, autographing like a fiend. Toby got to sit around twiddling his thumbs.
When we went to B&N, it was my turn on thumb-twiddling duty while Toby did his autographing thing.
There were a few exceptions, but we hit a lot of stores, and the pattern was obvious. Borders liked the goblins, but wasn’t interested in Caribbean steampunk space adventure. B&N liked Crystal Rain, but wasn’t excited about goblins.
In each case, the chain’s buyer had looked at our books and decided whether or not to stock our books. How much better would Goblin Quest have sold if the B&N buyer had liked it? How much worse would I have done if the Borders buyer hadn’t?
These are the two biggest brick & mortar chains in the United States, meaning a good portion of book sales go through these two businesses.
Imagine this hypothetical merger actually goes through. Now it’s one chain. One buyer. One person’s opinion will have an even greater impact on your sales. One person determines which books you find on the shelves, and which ones you don’t.
It scares me.
I imagine some will see this as yet more proof that brick & mortar stores are dying, and online sales/e-books are the wave of the future. Amazon has millions of books available, after all. (Aside from the ones they ban for being too naughty.) But that means your book is one among millions. I know Amazon is working to help readers find new books/authors they’ll like, but I don’t think they’re there yet.
I believe there is a need for a gatekeeper function. Physical stores have to rotate stock, emphasizing new releases, popular titles, and books they believe customers will buy. They go through those millions of titles to find the ones they believe their customers are most interested in. So if your book gets into the stores, it has a better chance of being seen by random browsers.
Let me put it this way. Amazon has a listing for every single Publish America title. Your local bookstore might special order a PA title for you, but you’re not going to find them eating up shelf space.
When you have a lot of bookstores making different choices, I think this model can work. Particularly when stores have the autonomy to buy and stock books that will be popular in that region. When only two chains dominate sales, the bookstore-as-gatekeeper model develops problems, but it’s better than a single big chain. The idea of merging the two, or of Borders simply going out of business . . . either way, you’re left with one giant. One gatekeeper controlling a frighteningly disproportionate number of books.
My agent has posted his thoughts about the state of Borders and the two big U.S. chains. NPR recently published an article talking about how the changing nature of bookselling could actually strengthen the independent bookstore.
What do you think?