Some Doubts About the Future of Independent Bookstores

Last week I posted somewhat optimistically about media reports suggesting a rebirth for independent bookstores. In reply, below is a guest contribution from my colleague Paul D'Angelo, a professor of communication at the College of New Jersey.

--Matt Nisbet

I wish I could be as optimistic as you are about a "rebirth" in independent bookstores, Matt, but I think your second paragraph says it all. Marketshare of indies has been sliding over the past generation, and I see no reason why it won't continue to do so. Sure, certain indies seem to be indomitably rooted in their respective urban nooks--the DC stores you mentioned, for example. On a recent trip to Denver, I desperately wanted to venture into The Tattered Cover Book Store, an esteemed indie in the city's downtown. But having family in tow and sights to see prevented that. In general, I think the fate of indie book stores mirrors that of their brick-and-mortar brethren: the main culprit behind the decline of market share of all stores that sell printed books--chain and indie alike--is technology.

 Consider, first, that is now the biggest retailer of printed books in the world, having recently nudged aside the Barnes&Noble/B. Dalton juggernaut. Revenue metrics vary among sources; some take into account the gamut of "media" these organizations sell (e.g., DVDs and CDs in addition to printed books) while others do not. But however you slice it, Amazon comes out on top in US and overseas sales of books. Information from the Foner Books website, which caters to self-published books and e-books, supports this claim. The two charts at the top of the page graphically depict Amazon's ascendancy. In addition, the table just below them shows an interesting fact: the one area where B&N has showed positive growth is selling printed books online. Finally, even as Amazon's sales peaked in 2007, the company still shows stunning positive revenue growth.

 Of course, digital exhibition (re: books available for sale online), coupled with the fact that just about everyone owns a computer, are the twin technological forces that have driven Amazon's rise to book-selling prominence. How easy and wonderful it is to browse the online bookstore, where even a slow internet connection is no hindrance to shopping. With a few mouse strokes one can pinpoint specific books of interest, learn the entire output of specific authors, wade through vast numbers of books on a certain topic, and so on. And since multitudes of boutique online-only book sellers have glommed onto Amazon's site, it is quite easy to shop for cheaper, used editions of books.

 Somehow, all of the amenities of actually going to a bookstore (where, in many cases, you have to browse THEIR online catalogue in order to purchase a book that's not in stock) pale to insignificance when placed beside the shopping experience of Amazon. Coffee, live music, and crowds seem to offer little over the expediency of shopping and buying from the bookselling mega-portal.

 What does the Amazon story tell us? I think it points to a central flaw in the business model of brick-and-mortar bookstores. This model seems to be built on the notion that online sales of books can defray losses that occur due to fewer and fewer physical sales of books in the store. This model is similar to how printed newspapers operate at present: they try to offset loss of advertising revenue in the printed paper, particularly of classified ads, by drawing readers to the online newspaper site, where they will be exposed to display ads, and pre-roll and other rich-media advertising.

But as everyone knows, this is a losing proposition. Just as the value of a print newspaper customer is worth several times more in ad revenue than a registered online user, for books, the albatross of a physical plant and overhead, plus the high costs of distribution and dwindling in-store customers, will always outpace gains from online sales of printed books.

 Making matters worse for brick-and-mortar bookstores, e-books and e-readers seem to be catching on. This development augurs a future moment when many, and perhaps most people will favor reading books on tablets. What's the evidence? According to one study, e-book sales grew exponentially in the first quarter of 2010, jumping from just 1.5% of total US book sales in 2009 to 5% of the market in the first quarter of 2010. Indeed, an Executive Summary of a 2009 Association of American Publishers report clearly shows both flat sales in all areas of printed books and the astronomical rise of sales of e-books.

 Of course, sales of e-books still account for less than a billion dollars in bookselling revenue. But here again, the writing is on the wall: as common technological operating platforms are applied to the plethora of e-readers, and as e-readers get more affordable and user-friendly they already are quite user-friendly, according to most reviews, people will gravitate toward downloading the books they want to read rather than buying printed editions.

 Printed books will probably not disappear as quickly as printed newspapers. But even as my reply to this blog post shows, we as a society are decamping to personalized yet physically isolated social spaces. Operating in these spaces (re: to do work, to talk to other people, to buy books, etc.) is so prevalent as to be felt as "natural" and sanctioned. Comfortable, atomized behavior by more and more people that is engendered by technological progress is at the core of many contentious debates about a host of social and political issues. At the very least--and in the context of the discussion here--it does not bode well for booksellers.

 --Guest Post by Paul D'Angelo 

See Also:

A Rebirth For Independent Bookstores?

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.