After decades of decline, independent bookselling has become a growth industry.
For the fourth year in a row, membership has increased in the American Bookseller Association, the independent stores' trade group. According to CEO Oren Teicher, the association now includes 1,632 members - some operating in multiple locations - up 65 from last year. In 2009, there were 1,401 members and strong pessimism in the face of superstore chains, the online power of Amazon.com and the recent financial crisis.
Teicher notes the liquidation of Borders in 2011, but also credits the ongoing "buy local" movement and independents' growing comfort with modern technology, whether for more efficient inventory systems or more effective online promotion. Another positive sign: Established stores, such as the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., have made successful transitions to younger ownership.
"There was a time when people were ready to retire and couldn't sell their stores, so they closed them," Teicher says. "The fact that these stores are now remaining bodes well for the future."
Teicher and others see a reversal from the peak days of Barnes & Noble and Borders, when nonstop superstore expansion often forced out the smaller stores. Now, the problem has shifted from saturated neighborhoods to underserved neighborhoods. Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin cites not just the fall of Borders, but also the "sharp reduction in shelf space for books at B&N." Shatzkin says demand for physical books is declining, but that physical stores have been shrinking even faster.
"So the incumbents benefit and that means independents," says Shatzkin, founder and chief executive of Idea Logical, a consultant to publishers.
Independent sellers and superstores will gather this week along with thousands of publishers, writers, agents and librarians for the industry's annual national convention, BookExpo America. The event runs Thursday-Saturday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Featured speakers will include historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Bridget Jones" novelist Helen Fielding and a star among teens, "Divergent" author Veronica Roth.
The book world meets at a moment of relative calm during an age of revolutionary change. Overall sales are steady and the e-book market is growing at a slower pace - a helpful trend for physical stores. "The years of spectacular share growth for e-books are over. The rise will be steady for a long time, but it won't be explosive," says Shatzkin, who adds that art books and other illustrated works are simply not "e-bookable."
At this time last year, the industry was wondering about the impact of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit filed in April 2012 against Apple and five leading publishers alleging price fixing for e-books. Apple's iBookstore, launched in 2010, established an "agency model" for selling e-books. With Apple, Amazon and other retailers, publishers were able to set their own prices, a response to Amazon's charging just $9.99 for best-sellers. Publishers, writers and rival bookstores had feared that Amazon's discounts would lead to its domination of the e-market.
The trial is set to begin June 3, just days after the convention. But all five publishers have settled and Amazon.com has neither radically dropped prices nor, publishers say, taken away a significant number of customers from competitors.
"I don't think the benefit to Amazon has been that great," said Michael Norris, a senior analyst for Simba Information, a research and consultancy company. "I think that's because the e-book market has not been growing as rapidly as it had been before and that Amazon probably realized there is a limit to how much it can cut prices."
At BookExpo, the digital presence has increased steadily. Event director Steven Rosato says a record 80 e-companies are expected this year, located near the center of the convention floor. Day-long programs in the conference rooms will feature speeches, interviews and panel discussions about the present and future of the electronic market.
Meanwhile, Penguin Group USA will launch an old-fashioned, print-only Book Truck and Pushcart, a 27-foot mobile store "inspired by the design of the classic New York City hot dog cart." After the convention, the truck will travel nationwide selling Penguin releases, following the famed Route 66 journey in one of the publisher's most celebrated novels: John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."
Not all attendees will be industry insiders. A "Publishing Hackathon" will feature teams of entrepreneurs and digital designers presenting ideas for how books can be discovered online, with the winning team receiving $10,000. Venture capitalists and others from the financial world will be looking for possible deals in an industry that has never been a dependable profit maker. Robin Warner, managing director at DeSilva & Phillips LLC, said she first went to BookExpo a few years ago but found the pre-digital environment "staid." Now, she says the rise of e-companies makes book publishing more interesting to investors.
"That's what people are looking for," she said.
BookExpo also has expanded last year's "Power Readers" program, when some 500 members of the general public were allowed in with the sole credential of loving books. This year, around 2,000 are expected, including some attending for a second time.
"I learned about the work it takes to get the book from the publishers and into the hands of readers," says returning "Power Reader" Sherae Allen, a teacher and New York City resident who learned about the convention through a promotion at Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore. "Many people don't realize the print, social and online media effort it takes to get the book visible to the public."
"It was an interesting opportunity to mingle with people at all steps of the publishing process, from authors to distributors," adds Power Reader Rachel Auclair, an Internet sales representative who works in Raynham, Mass. "Of course, free books are never a bad thing!"