NEW YORK — For the second straight year, independent booksellers will have good news to share as they gather with the rest of the publishing industry for BookExpo America.
The number of stores in the American Booksellers Association has again gone up. And they can thank, in part, the real estate bust.
“The soft real estate market absolutely works to our advantage,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the booksellers association, which represents independent stores. “Landlords are far more willing to negotiate for new owners and existing stores have been able to renegotiate their leases.”
In a reversal from a decade ago, Borders is shutting down stores, while independents are adding them. According to the booksellers association, membership increased by 102, from 1,410 to 1,502, the biggest jump in years for an organization that had been more than cut in half by superstores, the Internet and the economy. In 2010, membership edged up from 1,401 to 1,410.
Independent stores are still going out of business, with recent examples including Special Occasions in Winston-Salem, N.C., and San Francisco’s A Different Light. But Teicher says more people are looking to open stores than in previous years and some stores that had not been members have changed their minds. The association also is looking to take advantage of Borders’ troubles. The superstore chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February and plans to close some 200 stores.
“We’re working on a project to help some stores where Borders has closed. There is an opportunity in some markets that might be underserved,” Teicher says.
Thousands of booksellers, publishers, authors and agents are expected at BookExpo America, the annual national convention, to be held next week, May 23-26, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Featured speakers will include Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jeff Eugenides, “Sookie Stackhouse” author Charlaine Harris, Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright and actress-writers Jane Fonda, Julianne Moore and Diane Keaton.
An attendee who skipped the past couple of conventions will find a very different floor plan. Two years ago, just a handful of kiosks were devoted to digital publishing, according to BEA event director Steven Rosato. The digital real estate jumped to 6,000 square feet in 2010 and is expected to reach 10,000 square feet this year. Digital screens at the main entrances will offer live updates on convention-related Twitter feeds. Among international publishers, China’s space will have more than tripled, to 2,900 square feet.
Independent sellers are holding on at a time when the industry is changing so fast that “bookstore” and “publisher” have become open concepts. Apple, maker of the iPad, will be hosting events throughout the convention at its store in downtown Manhattan, with featured authors including David Baldacci, Christopher Paolini and Erik Larson. Amazon.com has been a longtime presence as a retailer, but for the first time will have a booth dedicated to its ever-expanding book publishing program.
“Like other publishers, we’re excited for booksellers and other industry folks to have a chance to check out our books in person and meet some of the authors who will be signing at our booth,” said Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman. “We’re looking forward to having a chance to introduce our authors to potential readers.”
“Barnes & Noble did something similar a few years ago; the business goes through cycles,” says HarperCollins Publishers CEO Brian Murray, referring to Barnes & Noble’s 2003 acquisition of Sterling Publishing. “I’m just watching to see what it [Amazon's publishing] means. There’s a potential conflict for Amazon if it’s a retailer and a publisher and agent.”
Publishers have been reporting e-book sales of 15-20 percent and higher of the total market, double from this point last year, and Amazon.com now says Kindle sales are higher than hardcover and paperback combined. Barnes & Noble is expected to announce a new version of its e-reader, the Nook, during the convention. For the e-phobic independent store — and some still are — the booksellers association suggests a BookExpo seminar called “E-Books 101.”
“Are you lost in the e-book woods?” the program’s description reads. “You are not alone! Come to this beginner-level discussion about the rapidly evolving digital marketplace. This session is for booksellers who need basic answers about what e-books are, how they are used and why they matter.”
Book people are dedicated worriers and e-books have opened a new channel for concerns. A few years ago, publishers debated whether high prices for hardcovers were driving away customers and turned increasingly to issuing books as paperback originals. Now, the question is whether prices have dropped too far as readers download cheap e-books and free ones. Amanda Hocking became a self-publishing sensation after selling her paranormal novels for $2.99 and less on Amazon.
E-books could also relieve one of the industry’s oldest headaches: how books are distributed. Publishers and stores have acknowledged the inefficiency of a system that often leads to large amounts of books being returned unsold or a store being left without stock when a book becomes a sudden best-seller. E-books have no “returns” and never run out of supply. But publishers say stores are a proven way to promote books in general.
“Physical bookstores are incredibly effective vehicles for publishers to get out books and introduce authors, especially new authors,” Murray of HarperCollins says. “And what happens when people don’t visit the bookstores as frequently and that discovery has to take place on a tablet or an e-reader device, where the amount of real estate is so small, when you’re talking about a 10-inch screen?
“It’s very hard to introduce hundreds of books on a very small screen.”