What If You Ran Your Bookstore Like a Library?

Author’s note: This piece originally ran in the April 15, 2008 issue of Library Journal. Since the link to the article no longer works on the Library Journal website, I’ve reproduced it here. The header photo was taken by Alfred T. Palmer and is in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The troubled book business can learn from libraries’ willingness to share

Ten years ago, stories like “B&N: The New College Library” (LJ 2/1/98) and “What If You Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?” (American Libraries, 3/98) kicked up a controversy about the viability of libraries. Ironically, these days it’s the book business that has an aura of crisis and gloom, while visits to libraries are surging. Over two billion items are checked out annually, and nearly all libraries offer free Internet access along with many of the amenities of a bookstore.

Truth be told, the book business has always had an aura of crisis and gloom. It’s the Eeyore of industries. But lately, it’s become clear that the book industry really does need to be saved: from itself.

It might start by looking more closely at what libraries do. After all, libraries know that developing a strong book culture involves making it easy for people to discover and sample new books, to acquire books quickly even if they aren’t on the local library’s shelves, and to share their reading experiences with others. One of the most powerful reasons for choosing a book is having another reader recommend it. In short, sharing isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.

So, what’s the problem?

I hang out with crime fiction writers, and lately the curmudgeonly tone of the conversation has surprised me. “Are libraries unethical?” was asked not long ago on an online writer’s forum. The general consensus was that the whole sharing thing is a bit dodgy, but libraries aren’t all bad because they buy a lot of books. On the other hand, buying used books is entirely unethical, as is using online book swap sites or passing books on to friends. After all, authors only make money off the sale of new books; without sales, they will be dropped by their publishers and readers will lose out. The solution? Take a leaf from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and educate readers that Sharing Is Bad. Or, as one writer suggested, print books on paper that self-destructs after three readings. Then people would have to buy new books.

The idea of self-immolating books is hard for a book lover to fathom, and avid readers are not likely to be persuaded that sharing books is morally wrong. What’s more, it’s not at all clear that preventing sharing would be good for business. Without the word-of-mouth publicity that comes largely through exuberant sharing, most author’s works would go unnoticed. In any case, sharing is a fact of networked life: used books begin to circulate as soon as new ones are published, through swap and sale sites. There’s no stopping it, short of mass book burnings or a revision of copyright law too horrible to contemplate.

As I mulled over these writers’ unexpected hostility toward normal, even healthy reader behavior, I was similarly struck by the reception to the launch of Amazon’s Kindle. I read the reviews and commentary and realized why I’d never buy one: it’s an expensive if lightweight box to carry a bunch of books that are rented at only a small savings over the cost of discounted print books. I say “rented” because the buyer can’t share them and can’t sell them. They can only shop at one bookstore, and it works only if the buyer happens to be in the parts of the United States that have the right sort of Sprint coverage. (Amazon to Montana: drop dead.)

As usual, news of the latest ebook revolution has been met with either horror or delight, but, in fact, this latest iteration of the dedicated reading device won’t change anything. It will not grow the market for books; it will not lure technophilic but illiterate teenagers to reading. In reality, Amazon’s Kindle is a fussy luxury gadget for people who already buy a lot of books. And though the lock on sharing books may seem ideal to a shortsighted writer, it is meeting enormous resistance in the marketplace. People tend to think digital should mean free or almost free, and most readers-who are doubtful about ebooks anyway-would still prefer to pay twice the price for a printed book that they can truly own.

Publishing is a gamble, and most of the English majors working in the business aren’t good at calculating the odds-not that it matters, because nobody can accurately guess what will sell. On top of that, the industry suffers from enormous inefficiencies, with print runs determined by guesswork, books trucked around the country, and a quarter of those carted back for a full refund when they don’t sell. The outlets that buy the most books at the steepest discount return the most-around 40 percent of what they stock. Ebooks would seem to avoid that wastage. But rather than learn from the mistakes of the music business, book publishers seem poised to repeat them-with restrictive digital rights management (DRM), a sluggish if not hostile response to digital media, and a tendency to ignore consumer preferences.

Don’t worry. I have some immodest proposals to save the industry.

Think globally to increase demand

First, publishers need to give consumers incentives to buy new books. Times have changed. Why pay full price when you can buy a mint-condition used copy the day of release? Each new book purchased should include a code that entitles the purchaser to a percentage off the cover price of the next new book they purchase, anywhere, from any publisher. Yes, it would require publishers, who are notoriously averse to agreeing with one another on anything, to voluntarily participate in the scheme, and, no, I don’t know how it would work, but there are plenty of 12-year-old code monkeys who could figure it out. And since we’re talking about a discount off the cover price, not off an already discounted price, this would give consumers an incentive while allowing the smallest of independent booksellers-the ones who lovingly hand-sell books and return them to publishers at the lowest rate-to compete with the megachains and big-box stores that bully publishers into high discounts and expensive placement.

Second, if publishers worry that ebooks will escape and reproduce like rabbits, then they shouldn’t sell them. Imagine Netflix saying, “Through our service, you can buy a DVD for only half the price of a movie ticket. What a deal! But you can’t sell it, you can’t share it, and you can only watch it on a DVD player that you buy from us for hundreds of dollars.” Obviously, that wouldn’t get very far before the wheels fell off. Instead of selling ebooks, offer an all-you-can-read subscription to a banquet of possibilities. Even with DRM, people would be more likely to pay a monthly fee to subscribe to a service for books they could download to the device of their choice rather than purchase copies filled with restrictions. [For more on portability, see Bill Kasdorf’s “The XML Advantage” in the netConnect supplement with this issue of LJ .] And if ebooks are rented, rather than sold like print books, there’s no reason publishers couldn’t negotiate subscriptions of collections to libraries that routinely spend lots of money to provide electronic resources to their communities. This would both generate revenue streams and grow market acceptance of ebooks. Do I know exactly how this would work? Of course not, but it shouldn’t be much more complicated than developing the clunky Kindle.

Act locally to fulfill demand

Perhaps most important, publishers need to find more efficient ways to get new books to readers. Publishers wildly guessing at how many copies a new book will sell are almost always wrong. Books are printed, shipped to a warehouse, shipped to booksellers, and shipped right back when they don’t sell; otherwise, demand outstrips availability and books are missing from the shelf when a customer is ready to buy. It’s financially ruinous, time-consuming for everyone involved, and environmentally unsound.

Print on demand (POD) technology is the most promising solution. Ten years ago, Jason Epstein imagined such machines being available like ATMs-ubiquitous and convenient, with millions of titles to choose from, printed while you wait. To be sure, it would mean the end of bookstores, but we don’t miss having bank tellers, do we?

Only there’s a difference. Readers don’t always know what they’re looking for. Bookstores, like libraries, are all about discovery. A good independent bookseller knows her customers, knows her books, and knows how to put them together. In spite of the convenience of Amazon, brick-and-mortar shops retain the lion’s share of the retail market for books because they serve a purpose-just as libraries as public spaces have a purpose, even in the Internet age.

The problem for the book business is that making books available to readers when they want them is a difficult proposition. Paying for books, shipping in advance, and providing the space to display them until you pay to ship them back is expensive. Ideally, booksellers could offer a browsing stock including single copies of new releases they think their customers are most likely to buy but would also be able to provide books that aren’t on the shelf within 24 hours. Companies such as Ingram’s Lightning Source already fill that niche-but, though their equipment can print a book quickly, shipping still takes time. An impatient reader could secure a cheaper used copy online just as quickly. A local solution with quicker turnaround could solve the problem-but even if a POD machine were to get cheaper than Epstein’s Espresso machine, which rolled out last year, few bookstores could afford it. What’s needed is a collaborative, regional solution that quickly delivers to bookstores the books customers want.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a future in which a $100,000 next-generation Espresso machine-let’s call it a Macchiato-can print books that match the quality of traditionally printed books at about the same cost. It’s not impossible to imagine publishers cooperating to make their front- and backlists available in a standard format so that anyone with a Macchiato could download and print any of the books on their lists in minutes; most of them already work with POD services. This one-at-a-time method wouldn’t be efficient for the small percentage of frontlist titles that sell in large quantities-say, those expected to sell over 20,000 copies after returns-but the “long tail” of books could find new markets at a much lower expense.

Imagine further that these Macchiato machines are located at regional centers that take orders from local bookstores, process them, and deliver them through couriers by the end of the day in urban centers and within two or three days elsewhere. No shelf space required. No returns. Customers don’t have long to wait, and there’s much less environmental damage than that caused by transporting books across the country, then transporting those that don’t sell back so they can be pulped.

It would be a radical change in the way books reach readers. But though there would eventually be savings, the start-up costs would be prohibitive. Who would take the leap and establish these regional cooperatives?

Wait a minute! They already exist. They’ve been taking orders and delivering books efficiently for years-among libraries. Regional library consortia could expand on the potential created by the New York Public Library when it installed the Espresso machine to print public domain books. If they added a Macchiato and enough staff to print books and expand their existing courier services to include bookstores on their route, we could see a revolution in making a wide variety of new books available quickly through local booksellers. The consortia could charge enough to recover costs and even make a small profit, which could be invested in the kinds of research into book culture and reading that publishers seem reluctant to fund. Libraries could take advantage of the service to acquire books that are suddenly in demand. The most recent Association of Research Libraries study of interlibrary loan found it was growing cheaper to borrow and lend books, but the average transaction still costs $10 or more. At that rate, buying on-demand books that may suit a local collection could be an attractive option for libraries-and for publishers.

Should libraries get into the book business?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my pinko tendencies. I have long resisted commercialization in libraries, objecting to everything from links to booksellers in library catalogs to programs that tie book choices to advertising. I don’t think libraries should be run like corporations. I do believe we should be concerned about the future of books and that means caring about the viability of publishers. After all, to paraphrase Willy Sutton, that’s where the books come from. And at the moment, publishers are imagining a future in which sharing is a threat. Libraries know better.

My solutions are a bit fantastical. I’m sure there are things I don’t understand about the large and complex distribution system that underlies bookselling, and we’d have to persuade publishers that libraries are partners rather than semi-legitimate piracy schemes. No doubt it’s all more complicated than I imagine, and it wouldn’t happen quickly; the publishing industry adapts to change with all the alacrity of a glacier.

Still, as a writer I am dismayed when I hear authors scold readers when they do what comes naturally-share books. As a librarian, I want book publishing to recognize the virtues of our values. As a reader, I want books. Lots of them. Right now.

My regional library network is wonderful. Though I live in a tiny town in a rural area, I can get almost any book I want within a matter of days. The independent booksellers I know are just as fabulous. They work hard to promote books and reading, and they struggle to make ends meet. Every person whom I’ve met in the publishing business cares deeply about books and wants above all for them to find readers. Why not help one another out? With imagination, collaboration, and some technical innovations that are just over the horizon, we can come up with solutions that stick.