Challenge,  publishing

A Scary Topic

A Realization Tonight…

Bookstores might not survive this virus in any form I know. Online bookstores will, sure, but physical bookstores, not so much.

Here is what made me jump to that idea. First, some history and a lesson on how major publishing used to work and works now.

Back 15 years ago…

Traditional publishing was in total control of the industry and had been for forty years. A book would go into one of the offices through an agent, get bought, get rewritten for cash flow reasons, then copyedited and sales meetings and so on and be ready to go in one slot or another in the monthly imprint sales list.

The sales team would go out and get orders based on the level the book was at in the sales list that month and also the cover of the book. (Ever heard of the term “Lead Title?” That was from this list.

The manuscript would be set and then would go off to a massive web press printer. The appointment to run a 10,000 copy run, say, would have been made months before, maybe even before the publisher knew what book would fit in that small time slot.

Books would be cased and then shipped to different warehouses for distribution, (B&N, Borders, Ingrams, B&T and so on) with some ending up in the publisher’s warehouses. (No way to really know how many ended up there since print runs were contracted for plus or minus 10%. And no one counted, didn’t matter, really if all the distributors got their orders. After all, to publishers, the books would spoil quickly and extra copies would be tossed in a year anyway.)

Publishers then would do mailings, advertising, and so on, to get the small indie bookstores and bookstore buyers and grocery store buyers to know the book was there. Those bookstores would then order a copy or two from a distributor who had the book in the warehouse and would ship it to the store. And buyers for distributors to the grocery stories and such had also ordered and those spread out to the grocery stores.


All standard. (I wrote 106 books for that system.)

I used to call all that above “The channel.” A book got into the channel and it did what it was supposed to do. Very seldom any surprises.

Then came Amazon and ebooks and the indie movement.

And the major publishers just flat thought none of that mattered and made bone-headed moves (including illegal ones that they got caught for) that I am still stunned to this day over. Traditional publishing could have easily made indie publishing a flash and gone. But they let all us horses out of the barn. They gave writers control of their own work and their own covers and their own publishing schedules and no way those horses were ever going back into the traditional publishing barn.

Is it possible for any of us indie publishers to put our books into that traditional channel? Absolutely. Yes. Very easy to do once you learn it.

But the problem is that smart indie writers and publishers took one look at the channel and decided it flat wasn’t worth the costs to get a book spine out in a store when selling paper in online stores all over the world and ebooks all over the world was easier. Higher profit margins to start with. So we toss our books into IngramSparks and if a bookstore owner finds it, great. But we are not going to spend thousands to sell a hundred books in the promotions in the channel.

Turns out, thanks to this virus, we were a lot smarter than just looking at the costs and going, “Nope.”

Many, many bookstores, and maybe even B&N are not going to survive this virus. Why do I say that?

Small indie shops do not have large pockets. B&N has been on the ropes for years. I have been following all that in the news and the trades, even though traditional publishing is putting up a good front and lots of hype through its mouthpieces like Publisher’s Weekly.

So in the last few days I did a very informal poll of about forty writers, some of which answered this question in an assignment in a workshop.

I asked simply a discoverability question… “What method did you used to use years ago to find new books that you no longer use?”

I expected some people to say libraries, and I was right. But many still use libraries and will again when things open back up.

But to a person, the people I asked said in one form or another that they had not been in a physical bookstore, new or used, in a long time. Normally numbers of years. (This was all pre-virus.)

A lot of them bought paper books, but they bought them online.

Okay, articles in places have talked a lot about that. Nothing new. Right?

But I have seen no articles at all yet about what will happen post virus to bookstores.

Many, many avid readers had gotten out of the habit of going to bookstores before the virus. Now, with the virus, even more people have learned to shop online and not need to go into physical bookstores.

Realize that the entire sector of physical bookstores have little to no profit margin.  This kind of retraining of many, many of its customers to not go in a store is just flat doom.

Blockbuster Video kind of doom.

And once again traditional publishers, all four of them now, have ridden the wrong horse down the wrong trail. They increased ebook pricing to the point of stupidity to “protect” their paper books in the channel. They got in wars with Amazon, the biggest seller of books in the largest market on the planet. And they refused to accept print on demand as a printing method, instead sticking to the massive union contracts with printers.

And they think indie writers are not a threat, even though indie books are now far, far outselling traditional books and have been for years.

Traditional publishers do not have buckets of money either at this point, but traditional publishing’s only hope is to support bookstores with cash (in some legal way) to keep them open and keep the “channel” alive.

But hang on, even that is falling apart. One of the largest book printers just filed for bankruptcy. Oh, oh… Publishers may have to run to China for printing and if that happens, watch the prices of their books go even higher.

There are many, many, many areas of this society that will change after this virus clears. But I got a hunch that this retraining of customers to order online will be the death of all but a few special bookstores.

And I honestly can’t see anything that can be done to stop this from happening because I love bookstores, owned one up to January 2019. If I could think of a way, an idea, I would put it out.

But I liked Blockbuster Video as well, so what do I know.

The world it keeps on changing.



  • James Palmer

    Good thoughts, Dean. Bookstores were struggling before the virus. Now it’s their death knell. But perhaps this could be just an end to big chain bookstores, and a return to small indie bookstores and used bookstores. Who knows? A lot of things will be different on the other side of this virus. I don’t think movie theaters are coming back either.

    • dwsmith

      Used bookstores and libraries will go right through this. Like you, I’m worried about movie theaters as well.

      It’s only the channel and the massive print runs that will be a thing of the past without the big new bookstores in all but a few instances of big names going to small outlets in airports and such. POD will take over more and more. Indie writers/publishers will survive and thrive just fine since we are nimble and already set up for this new future. Just my opinion.

      • Chong Go

        Any idea about what percentage of the market that airport bookstores normally account for? I doubt the airport bookstore is going anywhere, but those sales have got to be ugly.

        • dwsmith

          Not a clue. And that is assuming they last through this year. Going to take a huge bite out of the traditional bestsellers, that’s for sure.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I’ve been wondering about that as well, Dean. From what readers say, they do love paper books still, and they like to browse the stack when given the chance. I see opportunities for an expansion of existing traveling shows, such as the Scholastic book shows in schools. Those were always very popular with both kids and parents, lots of strategic purchasing took place for birthdays and holidays, especially since the schools got a slice of the profit as a fundraiser. (Most of their sales are on pre-order, so they minimize browsing stock that way and reduce risk.)
    I see an opportunity for an enterprising person to arrange for a traveling bookstore of sorts, the kind that would pop up at regular intervals where people gather to buy things.
    I’m no retail guru and I’d rather be writing than do this type of selling myself, but any organization with the right kind of infrastructure that already has a, say, a snack bar in the lobby, could fill the void. Hotels with lending libraries might consider offering select titles for sale. Think of any physical location with a civic space and a cashier (gyms, civic centers, foodie stores, garden centers.) I’m more a B2B type person, and I wouldn’t mind proposing ideas along these lines to the right organizations. Also, I think this might result in specialized venues where people know to go for books they want in paper format.
    It will take time to shake up into a new system, though.

    • dwsmith

      Not likely I’m afraid, Kate. Too many costs and traveling will not be a popular thing for a time either.

      What I find amazing along these lines is how really, really stupid writers/indie publishers are about taking advantage of the stuff that is out there. I have seen entire groups of writers in hotels marvel at how a hotel has a reading shelves for guests to take, yet not a one of those writers leaves one of their own books on those shelves.

      Used bookstores will survive for the most part. I see no writers (besides me and Kris) just trading in our own books to used bookstores to get them into circulation. Or donating their own books to libraries to get the books into circulation to find readers who will then go online and buy more if the book is good.

      Writers and indie publishers do not take advantage of the massive discoverability systems that are in place and will remain in place. Major new bookstores going away will only hurt traditional writers in the channels. But Indie publishers need to get a lot smarter along the way and I am just not seeing that either.

      • Kate Pavelle

        After you explained the “leave books behind” concept, I kick myself when I travel and forget to bring a bag of books to spread like Johnny Appleseed. Will donate to libraries when they open again.

      • Vera Nazarian

        Unfortunately books donated to libraries end up tossed at the first opportunity or sold for pennies at library sales (discovered this the hard way). Just ask any librarian what happens to your lovingly donated (and autographed) book a couple of weeks after you donate it… Go back to that library and check. Or better yet, just search their online catalogue. *sigh*

        Leaving freebie books behind in interesting places was something I’ve tried for decades whenever I could afford a copy or two, and ultimately it’s just a waste of printed books.

        • dwsmith


          Wow, are you flat wrong in so many ways. You just spouted a bunch of myths. Sorry. As I said, books almost never make it to a library shelf, but they are never tossed away, they are sold in library sales for like 50 cents or so to benefit the library. And THAT’S A GOOD THING. You might find a reader and the library makes a little money.

          And as I said, NEVER sign a book. You want it sold for heaven’s sake.

          And you have no understanding at all of how readers find authors, if you did, you wouldn’t have said leaving books is wasted. Granted, you can’t track it (although a few experiments have been tried tracking a book in the wild and was fascinating where the books traveled to). You have to be patient and understand discoverability.

          So folks, I let Vera’s post through because it showed so many uninformed myths that you need to just ignore or shake your head at.

  • Kevin P Menard

    I know one. My wife goes to Barnes and Nobles weekly. Because she likes bookstores. She usually buy tea and a magazine but she still goes. I haven’t been to one except an independent in years (Tattered Cover in Denver or BookPeople in Austin – about 1-2 times a year at most)

  • Leigh Kimmel

    I get most of my paper books through the local library, with occasional eBay purchases for out-of-print items. I’m trying to recall when I was even in a bookstore, and I’m thinking it was about six or seven years ago, to escape the heat on a day when the libraries were closed. And it was still more taking my computer and writing than browsing for books I might buy.

    For small indie writers, the biggest hurdle to overcome now is visibility. It’s much the same for all the small businesses that are trying to pivot to online sales, especially the small fannish businesses whose bread and butter was conventions, especially the big comic and anime conventions.

    • dwsmith

      Leigh, called discoverability and lots of ways to get discovered after a certain point, but it takes a base of work. In my magic bakery class, I use the example that if a customer happened to stumble on a bakery and went in and there was only a couple things on display and a lot of empty shelves, the customer would turn and leave. Beginning writers think because they have written a few novels they should be discovered, but they only have a shop with a couple items, so nope. You have to fill your store with enough that customers can find you and actually have something to shop. And that takes time and patience to build.

      Now imagine your experience with not being in a bookstore, but using libraries and online for books. Now imagine a person who was used to going into a bookstores suddenly, over a period of six months, being trained to not do that. Even if bookstores only lose a fraction of their customers, it will be too many, sadly.

  • Philip

    Great analysis, Dean. I’ve noticed kind of informally as a reader that many of my favorite traditionally published authors have seemed to move away from writing books at all. It seems they break into entertainment with a couple novels, then they move into writing and developing “prestige TV” shows and miniseries for the endless number of thriving networks and streaming content providers. Look at Gillian Flynn, for example, a blockbuster novelist who jumped ship.

    My point is writers are abandoning the “traditional” ship, one way or another.

    • dwsmith

      Philip, that’s licensing and we all do it, sometimes out in the open, sometimes behind the scenes. It’s part of making a living as a writer with your IP. The novelist you are talking about went to being a show runner and producer and working in the film industry. Got a hunch the book stuff didn’t have much to do with the second part.

      • Chong Go

        I love a well curated indie bookstore, but how many can survive paying three months of rent with no income? Even getting their rent delayed, they’d still have to make enough to cover current expenses and pay down on the accumulated rent. I just don’t see how that could happen unless the store owners wave it entirely.

        Barnes and Noble is probably in the same boat, although the malls might be willing to cut them a break as part of an attempt to preserve their anchor stores. I can’t imagine corporate has that much of a cash reserve anymore.

        • dwsmith

          Good indie bookstores have a better chance if they are out of the old think and into modern thinking, like using ebay and online stores and selling on Amazon. I know one very successful small bookstore that has every book in their inventory for sale on Amazon. Makes total sense with the right cash register software, but many bookstore owners can’t get out of the stupidity that Amazon is the enemy and instead make money from them. So older-think small bookstores won’t make it either, sadly.

          • Chong Go

            I loved your idea of setting a quota for employees to list 25 items per day on ebay. Just a perfect way to get the job done one bite at a time.

            It’d be interesting to see what Amazon’s Kindle sales have been looking like. I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who’ve finally taken the plunge and bought an ereader after being stuck at home for so long. That instant, free delivery of ebooks is probably going to take away another slice of the physical sales.

          • dwsmith

            Yeah, but nothing wrong with buying physical books. But we just get them all online these days. Physical books pour into this place constantly, but can’t remember the last one I bought at a physical bookstore.

  • Lorri Moulton

    I think there might be a possibility in the future, when we can all get out again.

    The coffee shop that promotes books. Like having a musician playing in the corner, authors could sign books, bring their paperbacks, offer online sales, etc.

    This probably is already happening, but what if some of the larger chains decided to do something like this en masse?

    I also think/hope that the very small “quirky and charming” bookstore may make a comeback. It would be lovely to have a bookstore in our little town. I think it would have to offer coffee, tea, etc. and maybe be more of a cultural hub….but it would be nice. 🙂


    I don’t think anything will be “normal” again. Here in New Jersey, we are starting to re-open slowly, but I have no desire to go anywhere. I wish I could.
    Writing kept me from absolutely losing my mind from the fear of all this.
    I went to the post office yesterday and had some guy cursing me out because I was wearing a mask and latex gloves, I was only doing the right thing. More stress none of us need. I guess the guy was overdue for his Clorox IV drip, but I digress.
    My wife and I took these months inside and started downsizing, in case we decide to move. It’s looking very likely we will. Sold a lot of books and stuff I don’t read or use anymore on Ebay. I was surprised to see people actually buying.
    I know I’m rambling. I’m just glad to see the curve coming down here.
    I’m plugging away at writing. This will be a huge part of my new normal.
    Thanks for everything, Dean.

  • Stefon Mears

    Libraries may not be so badly off, because of their digital offerings. I know I’ve got nine ebooks out from mine right now, and they also offer audiobooks and music for streaming.

    And you and Kris aren’t the only ones dropping off yours own books from time to time. I haven’t done it as often as I should, but I’ve done it at least a half-dozen times, including a couple of local businesses as well. (One even asked me for more books, because people took them!)