Thu, Dec 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

The trials and tribulations of booksellers

Competition from e-books has eased, but American book retailers are facing other challenges in a crucial sales month

By Julie Bosman  /  NY Times News Service

Some in the industry say that this year, there’s no viral bestseller that can drive sales and fill stores.

Photo: AFP

All across the US, booksellers have a Christmas wish: that the e-book thrill is gone.

There is reason to believe it will come true. E-book sales have flattened in 2013, giving publishers and bookstores hope that consumers’ appetite for print books will be renewed during the most crucial sales period of the year.

But there are plenty of reasons for holiday anxiety, too, starting with a compressed shopping season, the result of Thanksgiving falling later than it has in a decade. Booksellers also have to contend with the absence of a blockbuster title to drive sales and fill stores, the way the Steve Jobs biography did two years ago. And they must compete with steep discounts on print books from Amazon. It is a grab bag of factors, any one of which could tilt the fortunes of retailers as the holiday book-buying season enters its final days.

This is the time when publishers release their splashiest books and count on Christmas shoppers being much more willing to part with US$25 (NT$742) for a weighty hardcover. The leveling off of e-book sales should help. The Association of American Publishers, which collects monthly data from about 1,200 publishers, said last month that e-book sales had been flat or in decline for most of 2013. In August, e-book sales were approximately US$128 million, a 3 percent decline from August 2012.

“I don’t know if it’s a saturation point with digital,” Len Vlahos, the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, said in a recent interview. “But all the data we see suggests that we’ve hit a state of equilibrium. The trend lines have flattened out. Three years ago, it was a nascent market, but now it looks like a maturing market.”

Jennifer Enderlin, the publisher of St. Martin’s Press Paperbacks and Griffin, said that she thought e-book sales were finding their level, and that it would “start affecting print books in a good way.”

“Independents seem to be having a good run right now,” she said of the bookstores. “They’re having a nice renaissance.”

At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, sales are up 10 percent over the previous year, said Vivien Jennings, the owner. McNally Jackson Books, a bustling store in the Nolita neighborhood of Manhattan, has shown “consistent” growth year over year, Sarah McNally, its owner, said.

But bookstore owners and publishers said they were nervous about the short shopping season.

“I think it’s caught people by surprise that it’s less than two weeks from Christmas and Thanksgiving feels like it just happened,” Cathy Langer, the lead book buyer at the Tattered Cover in Denver, said Thursday. “So I’m expecting the next two weeks to be insane.”

Independents have also been forced to compete as Amazon recently slashed prices on some best-selling print books by 70 percent, an extreme discount even by Amazon’s standards. Concern in the publishing industry over the health of Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain, has only deepened in recent months.

Barnes & Noble has been limping through 2013, abruptly losing its chief executive in July and seeing its chairman, Leonard Riggio, abandon his plan to buy the company’s bookstores and take them private.

Last week, Riggio slightly cut his stake in Barnes & Noble, selling 2 million shares and taking a loss of about US$40 million, a move that he said he made for tax purposes. In November, the company revealed that its revenue had decreased 8 percent, to US$1.7 billion, in the quarter that ended Oct. 26.

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