I own a hybrid full service bookstore in a medium size town in a time when bookstores are rare gems of the world. Daily I hear about the joy people have when they stumble in. Some are passing through from one place to another and others have lived in the town for years but are making it through these doors for the first time.
It is usually only a matter of minutes that their joy begins to fizzle. I hear an outraged voice from between shelves, “Is THIS the price?” Sometimes they are talking to me and sometimes they are only talking to their companions. Sometimes they want me to hear, to justify the grossly over priced new book in their hands.
Retail price is dead.
But where does that leave small locally owned businesses?
Most businesses are dealing with retail and wholesale prices and finding the right profit margins to stay open. Books do not have a suggested retail price, they have a retail price that is set by the publishers. This price becomes the millstone around the necks for many independent bookstores. This retail price determines our wholesale price.
When a customer looks at Amazon, what price do they see? Do they see the retail price crossed out, grey, and tiny or do they see the large price right next to it?
My reality for most new books is the realization that Amazon is selling at wholesale price or lower. When I buy from a traditional distributor, I pay more than an individual can purchase the same book for on Amazon.
What does that mean for me?
I no longer carry most new books. This is disappointing to many people who are excited to find a bookstore, but competing with Amazon is a huge burden. I have select titles that I curate and provide to the local community. I focus on titles that they would be unlikely to find on their own.
What does that mean for my customers?
It is hard to tell customers to spend more money with me when budgets are already tight. My suggestion to them is to be kind and understand that I do not set the prices of new books in my store. And if they can pick select items occasionally to focus on purchasing at local businesses it can be a win for all parties involved.
Having a hybrid bookstore means that I carry both new book and have a large stock of used inventory primarily supplied through a trade in system. New books are hand selected based on the interests of customers and staff favorites. Each book, both new and used, must be assessed beyond the quality of the storytelling or writing. It has to be more than just a good book.
For each book we consider the potential future buyer and the price they are willing to pay. Used books in particular provide me with a better profit margin, but I am limited to the selections brought in by the members of the community. I am able to supplement these offerings with particular new titles, especially backlist items, that aren’t available for the impulse purchase at Walmart or you don’t know to look for on Amazon. This supplementation feeds into the cycle of books as they are traded in and become used stock.
The price point of the used inventory has also fallen victim to the death of retail price. We use the conventional used book pricing scheme when assigning value to the books in our store. We start at a price that is half of retail price. But retail price is no longer a concrete starting point for many of my customers. Not only are my new books grossly overpriced, but my used books are priced closer to a new discount priced book from Amazon.
Is this the price we pay for convenience and low prices?
Is there really a place for small business in the future?
Small bookstores provide the human element that can be lacking from the online or big box shopping experience. They can connect readers with new books through tangential recommendations. Small bookstores also serve as a gathering place and create opportunities for community engagement. But are these benefits worth the higher price?
These issues should be on the minds of book lovers and authors as the future of book acquisition and consumption continues to change. These issues are on my mind every day.
Megan O’Sullivan has owned Main Street Books in Cedar City, UT since May 2012. This year marks the 24th year the bookstore has been in business. She considers herself a bibliophile of the most extreme case. She has been obsessed with dystopian literature, Chris Pratt, and noodles, but is currently pursuing an interest in culinary history and the social conception of food.