First off, accept my apologies in advance for the length of this post. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been ruminating about the future of bookstores, if there is one, what it might be. This is the likely the last post on bookstores that I’ll write for a while, for reasons that will become clear.
I just recently attended Kepler’s 2020, an unusual gathering of nearly 80 booksellers, publishers, book industry service providers, librarians, and members of the Menlo Park community in Silicon Valley, where Kepler’s Bookstore is located. The gathering took place over two-and-a-half very packed days of conversation and debate. Publishers represented included Sourcebooks, Chelsea Green, Chronicle Books, and Workman Publishing. Also represented were folks from Village Books (Bellingham, Washington), Book Shop Santa Cruz, and Booksmith and City Lights (both in San Francisco).
For folks who don’t know, Keplers Bookstore has a rich history going back 56 years. As one of the country’s leading independent booksellers, it has played an extraordinary role in the San Francisco area’s cultural life over the years. Kepler’s has also gone through not one but two financial crises (2005 and 2012) and is now closed for renovations and a rethinking of its future. The Kepler’s 2020 gathering was an attempt to envision that future and develop, a template that might serve for the community bookstore of the future. Kepler’s has also already received donation pledges of over $725,000—an investment on the part of the community in building that future. Heading up the new Kepler’s is the “literary entrepreneur” Praveen Madan co-owners of The Booksmith, an independent bookstore in San Francisco, and the co-founder of the Berkeley Arts & Letters, an artist and author lecture series.
The Kepler’s 2020 event was led (brilliantly, I felt) by Sandra Janoff, PhD, through “the principle-based methodology called Future Search,” as described on Keplers 2020 blog, “a process used world-wide to get the ‘whole system’ focusing on the future and creating value-based action strategies.” The premise of the event was hampered, I’d say, by trying to “future search” Kepler’s future while simultaneously trying to lay out the future of the community bookstore in general. For some of the participants, these two themes often seemed quite disconnected. But, to be fair, the event was clearly (or at least it became clearly) aimed at creating community around a vision for the future of Kepler’s, specifically a vision that people would be willing to work together to realize. The event was well covered by the Washington Post and Shelf Awareness, so I’d like to focus on the results of the event rather than what the future of Kepler’s and bookstores, in general, might look like.
At the culmination of the Kepler’s 2020 gathering, attendees were ask to envision what “your ideal Kepler’s will look like in 2020.” What emerged–or perhaps more accurately, what was distilled–are the following principles on which the future of Kepler’s is to be built.
We all, as a collective, envisioned Kepler’s, in 2020, to:
That’s the bones of it, the bare bones. And while the ultimate articulation of these principles—especially in the areas of integrating technology in-store (7) and agnostic delivery of e-books (6)—are potentially really interesting, I definitely came away from the whole event discouraged, depressed actually, by the lack of innovative thinking.
This is where the two strands of the agenda came unbound, at least for me. Kepler’s will thrive or fail largely due to factors other than the eight guiding principles above. (Will area book lovers want to patronize Kepler’s—not just buy books but frequent the paid events? Will the rent expense remain manageable?)
The other strand of the conversation, about the model for community bookstores in general, leads me to think about another set of key principles that I’d want to add:
While I hate Amazon as much as anyone, it is totally counterproductive for indie booksellers to let Jeff Bezos get their dander up. It’s just silly to consider some sort of political action or grass-roots campaign to educate people about unfair advantages Amazon has over the indies—something I heard at Kepler’s 2020 and from lots of indie booksellers. Why? It’s tone deaf. What many book readers hear in this argument against Amazon is: “Help us! Big bad Amazon uses predatory pricing strategies and because of this you have to pay less for your print books when you shop online and you get them conveniently delivered to your home the next day and, soon, same day.” Really? That’s the row you wanted to hoe? Instead, amplify what you do best and uniquely and forget about Amazon.
While some of the folks at Kepler’s 2020 were open to the idea, the general attitude among indie booksellers is to do whatever they can to discourage their customers from buying e-books from Amazon. While the American Booksellers Association is looking to field an e-book solution to its members soon, I don’t think anybody believes that the solution will be good news for existing Kindle customers (70% of the e-books market, or is it more now?). Why can’t indie booksellers acknowledge Kindle’s market dominance and serve its customers with easy ordering in-store and via indie bookstore websites, securing an affiliate fee.
So much of what I heard at Kepler’s 2020 (and elsewhere) was focused on how to raise revenues in ways that don’t have much to do with selling books. Instead it seems to be all about:
While there’s nothing wrong with any of this, I have to ask if it’s really wise for bookstores to plan to survive by selling something other than books. Is that really the future of the bookstore? Indies’ main strategic partners are publishers—who have a vested interest and commitment to supporting this influential sales channel. But as the cost of servicing the indies goes up and up, bookstores need to focus on delivering value to publishers—selling the same or fewer books while focusing on other revenue streams, bookstores aren’t going to serve that strategic partners.
Many if not most indie booksellers seem very hesitant to take full advantage of their relationships with their customers via social media and email. I subscribe to several bookstore email lists and follow a number on Twitter and Facebook. By and large, the outreach is purely informational, focusing on new books being released or in-store events, trivia, etc. The proven techniques of direct marketing could be adopted to drive sales via indie bookstore websites, expanding their potential reach. It seems to me that if you’re going to sell online, you need to invest some effort in direct marketing.
On the way home to Boston from San Francisco, after the Kepler’s 2020 gathering, I asked myself the following question. “What does the community bookstore of the future look like in eight years?” I spent some time really turning this over in my mind. All I could come up with in the end was, “Well, that doesn’t look much like a bookstore to me.”