Wi4: Publishing Leaders on the State of the Industry

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Moderator Roxanne Coady began last week's Winter Institute keynote event by reminding the three panelists that an independent bookstore is a business, not "a great pet." Coady, the founder, president, and CEO of R.J. Julia Booksellers, asked the panelists to discuss how indie booksellers can be viable and active partners in shaping the future of the book industry.

"We do need to sell more books," said Nan Graham, vice president and editor-in-chief of Scribner. Graham said she hoped to see sales spurred by innovations in book packaging, citing the example of Roberto Bolano's 2666, which was simultaneously released in hardcover and in a three-volume paperback set.

Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, encouraged indie booksellers to continue working with publishers to find and promote "books that contribute to the conversation." He noted, however, that retailers, like Amazon.com, who order Grove/Atlantic books nonreturnable, are the most "efficient" way to sell those titles.

Booksellers enjoyed a light breakfast at the Wi4 keynote event.

Bob Miller, president and publisher of HarperStudio, echoed Entrekin's enthusiasm for nonreturnable orders, noting that independents already return books at a rate well below average. "I don't understand why booksellers who are more efficient" aren't working with publishers on returnability, he said. Coady encouraged her colleagues to analyze their return rates and discounts for each publisher when making financial decisions for their stores.

All three panelists encouraged booksellers to develop and expand their Internet presence. "To me, you guys have always blogged," said Graham, pointing out that stores already have valuable content in the form of newsletters and staff picks. There was disagreement, however, on how e-books will fit into the future of the industry.

Entrekin was skeptical about e-books' growth potential, saying that he didn't expect them to make up more than ten percent of the market by 2014, but Miller said that it's essential for booksellers and publishers to quickly get involved in e-book sales. "If we don't figure out a system like that, no one in this room will get a piece" of the future book business, he said.

Miller described two e-book retail models that HarperCollins is exploring. Through the company's Symtio affiliate, several CBA bookstores are piloting the sales of gift cards good for the download of a particular title. Miller was also enthusiastic about developing an incremental pricing model that will allow a consumer to own a book in multiple formats without paying full price each time -- for instance, buying a hardcover at full price and adding a digital version for a few dollars more.

The conversation also turned to evaluating the intangibles an independent bookstore offers. "Everything we do that is valued by the consumer is free," Coady said, repeating a point she had emphasized while moderating a similar conversation at the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show in September.

Graham suggested consumers commit to "an honor system to buy the book in the place where you had the entertainment experience" or got the recommendation.

Entrekin said he didn't believe customers would really browse in a bookstore and then purchase online, but the audience of booksellers quickly confirmed that it happens frequently. "We have to make them feel guilty" about taking their business elsewhere, he said.

Graham concluded the discussion by suggesting that the time was right for a resurgence of independent bookstores: "Now that we have a community organizer in the White House, we need a community bookstore in the neighborhood."--Sarah Rettger