Bookstores holding their own against digital onslaught

Amid the ongoing dirge for businesses the internet has decimated, books occupy a special place. From the parchments of the ancient Greeks to the Gutenberg Bible to the worldwide spread of lending libraries, books were arguably one of the primary engines of civilization's growth, spreading knowledge and delight to humanity. 

So laments about their decline resonate deeper than the nostalgic regrets inspired by, say, the demolition of a beloved local sports stadium. The number of paper-bound books bought has tumbled over the past decade as bookstores have closed down. Robert Gleason, executive editor of Tor Books, last month stood in the middle of Book Expo America, the largest U.S. book fair,  and remarked, "This used to be so much more crowded."

But there's some evidence that the long, sad slump in book purchases has hit bottom. Sales are creeping upward. And, yes, there may even be a rebound taking shape, however modest, among independent booksellers, whose ranks have been pared harshly. Of course, in addition to digital competition for people's time, another factor in books' slide may have been increased consumer thriftiness in the aftermath of the Great Recession. So an improving economy should be a help to book sales.  

"This is a tough business," said Otto Penzler, who founded a small publishing house called Mysterious Press and also runs the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. "But everybody's business is better than five years ago," referring to booksellers.  

After peaking in 2008 with 778 million printed books sold in the U.S., sales tumbled to 591 million in 2012, a 24 percent drop, Nielsen BookScan figures show. But starting four years ago, book sales began inching upward again, to 674 million sold last year. Print books in 2016 showed a 3.3 percent rise in unit sales, marking the fourth straight year of increases. 

Indeed, this is still about 100 million books shy of the peak, and the U.S. population has grown, meaning there are more non-readers of printed material than before. In per capital terms, this boils down to 2.55 books bought for each American a decade ago, versus 1.96 today. 

There's an important nuance to all this, however: The advent of e-books, which chewed into mass-market paperback sales starting around 2010. Both are more portable and cheaper than hardcovers (which cost around $27) or trade paperbacks (which are the same dimensions as hardbacks and go for around $15). Mass-market paper sells for around $7 and e-books about $9.

Yet e-books, propelled by Amazon's Kindle reader and other such devices, have leveled off in popularity. According to the Pew Research Center,  the share of adults who have read a book over the previous 12 months were 71 percent for print and 17 percent for e-books in 2011, and 65 percent for print and 28 percent for e-book in 2016. Print books have maintained the same mid-60s levels for the past three years, while e-books have stayed in the high-20s.

Meanwhile, independent bookstores have come back somewhat, although the gains leave them far short of their glory days. Over the past eight years, the number of bookstores, most of them independent, increased by 25 percent to 1,757. (This figure doesn't include chains like Barnes & Noble.)

By the American Booksellers Association's reckoning, the peak for bookshops around the U.S. was in 1989, at 3,300. In the 1990s, many closed up from the onslaught of big-box sellers like Barnes & Noble (BKS) and Borders. Then a new force came on the scene -- Amazon (AMZN) -- which not only sank more independent bookstores but also forced Borders out of business in 2011, closing 1,150 branches, and hobbled Barnes & Noble.

To be sure, any comeback for print may not be an unalloyed blessing for physical bookstores. Industry blogger Jane Friedman noted in a post this spring that if "print is indeed 'back,' it's because of Amazon." She pointed out that the online retailer's print sales increased 15 percent in 2016, while those of Barnes & Noble declined by 6 percent, along with large merchandisers like Target (TGT) and Walmart Stores (WMT).  

Still, "The industry is holding its own," said Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International, a publishing consulting firm. What should help it this year, she said, is a spate of big-name authors such as Scott Turow, Stephen King and Ken Follett, whose latest works are out, or soon will be. "A lot were postponed from the last third of 2016, because nobody wanted to publish a big book and compete with the election," she said.

Such best-sellers are like the tentpole action movies that Hollywood produces, which help the rest of the industry. Certain segments of the book world are doing quite well, such as children's titles. James Patterson, the prolific thriller author, has even jumped in with a juvenile line. 

All that said, what's remarkable is that in the face of society's enormous shift to the internet for information, print-format books and individual bookstores that sell them have staged a fitful, if undeniable, comeback. Why has the counter-trend occurred?

To Neil Nyren, editor-in-chief of the G.P. Putnam's Sons publishing house, it's simply a matter of "people deciding they like to read books" in a paper format. "Not long ago, the digerati were telling us it all was going electronic, but that hasn't happened." 

Perhaps this is because most schools still use physical textbooks, so even young people are steeped in the culture of turning pages and dog-earing them. "The book market is healthy when a lot of young readers are buying books," bookseller Penzler said.

The Book of the Month Club, long associated with aging readers of middlebrow tastes, has been revamped to appeal to the younger set -- and quite successfully. It delivers hardbacks to subscribers, and enhances the experience with active social media interactions.

As for the return of independent physical bookstores, that may be a result of the "locavore" trend, which lauds small neighborhood merchants who provide the personalized service and friendliness absent from major emporiums, whether online or in a mega-store. 

Editor Nyren enjoys going to small bookshops where the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about volumes they stock. "I'll buy the stuff they like," he said. "It's better than having an algorithm pick it for me." 

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.