Some Doubts About the Future of Independent Bookstores

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?

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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