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Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Independent Bookstores Can Survive

The other day Mulluane pointed me to an interesting discussion on independent bookstores and blogs and one of the quotes stood out to me as a particularly absurd statement:
Very small stores may not have the time or the resources to devote to maintaining a blog. Small to mid-size stores may not be able to dedicate someone to consistently write a blog (and you must be consistent). Some bookstore owners or managers may not feel they have the technical expertise or Internet savvy to create a blog. Some stores question the effectiveness of a blog in generating sales. I’ve heard all the excuses.
Small stores don't have the time or resources to devote to a blog? Perhaps this explains why so many independent bookstores are suffering right now and have been suffering for a while: they simply haven't converted. I would argue that the only hope for independent bookstores to survive is to establish web presences, to enlist the avid support of cause-oriented web-goers, because there will be a point when almost all purchases, particularly of books, will be made online, rather than in the store, and no store can hope to survive if it cannot make itself available online. But that's not what this post is about. This is about blogging on a busy schedule and a tight budget (and it is advice that is useful to anyone, not just bookstores).

I think the above quote really makes it clear what kind of people tend to run independent bookstores: not particularly web-savvy ones. Blogging is essentially free, and probably always will be so long as places like Blogger and Wordpress continue to offer their services. Obviously bookstores want to host their own websites, which does cost money, but a blog is free to start and relatively easy to transfer over to a personal domain, which I'm not going to talk about here. Basically, you don't have to pay anything to start a blog and maintain it. You can use a free service, get a free template that suits you, and blog like nobody's business.

But bookstores also have resources: they have supporters, friends, etc. There's no reason why an independent bookstore cannot create a small following of Internet friends who would be happy to provide their words free of charge to support the store. This is why we have websites dedicated to supporting independent bookstores and why the Internet is flooded with people who buy indie (there's sort of a movement both online and otherwise that puts the indie store at the top, and I suspect this is an extension of the hippie movements).

This all depends on the store and the people who run it. Independent bookstores cannot hope to survive the rapidly technologizing industry without adopting within themselves the complicated mechanisms that make up the Internet. They have to adopt new practices including social networking on places like Twitter and Facebook, creating websites that incorporate all aspects of bookselling and promotion (from author events to buying books online), and reaching out to supporters. This isn't to say that doing these things will guarantee the survival of indie stores. I suspect that bookstores are a dying breed; we'll likely reach a point where only a handful of stores will exist, whether chains or otherwise. When even massive stores like Powell's are feeling the burn (a store that has, in my opinion, surpassed any other bookstore in existence by not only having the widest possible selection--which, understandable, not all stores can have--but also staff who have actual experience in the various genres/sections of the store itself) it is perhaps a bad omen for bookselling in physical form in general.

But the death of the independent bookstore need not be because of negligence. Let it be because of forces outside of their control (shifting buying habits, change in markets, the economy). There is no reason why independent bookstores cannot devote some time to their own promotion online, and it is, in my opinion, and essential part of running a bookstore. If you don't have time to do even something as simple as running a blog, then don't be surprised when your store dies because nobody knows about it.

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