One might be tempted to think that the rise of giant chain bookstores has been a boon to authors. After all, the typical Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore stocks upwards of 150,000 titles, compared to an average of 20,000 for an independent.
Not so, according to a new study written by David Kirkpatrick on behalf of the Authors Guild. Midlist titles—serious nonfiction and literary fiction books which typically sell fewer than 10,000 copies—are more available now than ever before. Publishers continue to turn them out. More and more shelf space is devoted to selling them. Yet, midlist titles are fast losing market share.
“The best explanation for the leveling off of midlist book sales in the 1990s is in the rise of the superstores and other large chain booksellers,” concludes Kirkpatrick. A close look at sales data reveals that most of the titles stocked in a superstore “serve essentially as wallpaper.”
People buy a much narrower range of titles at chains than they buy at independents. Few in publishing believe this is the result of a change in readers’ tastes, noting that popular interest in literary works, as evidenced by the surprise success of books like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, is higher than ever.
The explanation lies in chain store marketing policies. The chains exact subsidies from publishers for promoting titles through prominent in-store placement and advertisements. A publisher might pay $10,000, for example, to have a title tabled at the front of the store for two weeks.
Only bestsellers, celebrity autobiographies, thrillers, and other big name books get this kind of promotion. This impacts midlist book sales in several ways. Publishers have fewer resources left over for marketing midlist books. Superstore customers are drawn to the prominent displays and give little notice to other books. Small presses can’t afford to have any of their titles get the star treatment.
Independent bookstores also take some promotional money from publishers. But while the chains rarely promote a book without being paid to do so, independent booksellers do it all the time. They recommend and “hand sell” good books for free, because they like them and think their customers will too.
“Virtually every time a midlist book succeeds its editor credits independent bookstores with having gotten it going and kept it alive,” the report notes.
Moreover, independent booksellers make their own decisions about what titles to stock and promote. At a chain, these decisions are largely dictated by the head office. The result is that independent bookstores collectively promote a vastly broader range of titles than those promoted by the chains.
As chains muscle out independents, bestsellers are muscling out midlist books. Between 1986 and 1996, bestsellers almost doubled their market share from 7 to 13 percent.
While this trend is most disturbing in the book industry—ideas, after all, are the lifeblood of a democracy—it is a trend underway in every sector. Big supermarket chains levy hefty fees for shelf space, to the detriment of both small food producers and independent grocers. Department store Goliaths like Wal-Mart bully big manufacturers and refuse to deal with small ones. Future issues of this bulletin will take a closer look at this problem in other sectors.