Publishers Weekly does such a good job in reporting on research that affects the book industry and their recent snapshot on today’s educational e-book market prompted me to think about how the results will affect the sale of print books in bookstores as students become familiar with using e-books.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Quoting from the 2014 School Library Journal “Survey of E-book Usage in Schools,” PW notes that 66% of schools across the country currently offer e-books, a 10% increase over the previous year. The portion of children who have read at least one e-book has increased steadily over the last five years.

There are issues galore that the educational community are grappling with: the digital divide; the cost of ongoing investments in technology, tech support, and staff training; selecting and sourcing e-books; plus providing the format that is best for the student and the subject being taught.

If we look to the future, it appears that the number of ways we can read will expand. Being able to read has always been important to success in life, now technical skills will be needed to access information.

It’s interesting that booksellers whose spouses work for Apple and Facebook note that families with roots in the field want their children to read print. They want their children to be well-rounded and able to focus on reading without distraction. Many limit “screen time” and look for ways to maintain a healthy attention span when there are many temptations for digital escape.

What will the students of today prefer as they age? My call is that those who have a balanced diet of reading electronically and reading in print will be proficient in researching and skimming information as needed for tasks. When it comes to reading for fun, turning the pages of a print book will be a break from technology, offering a sensory experience during those cherished moments for quiet adventure.

In today’s issue of Shelf-Awareness, Hachette’s CEO Michael Pietsch was quoted as offering thanks to booksellers for their support during their difficulties with Amazon.

This section sign says it perfectly: we can work together and all support readers and writers.

This section sign says it perfectly: we can work together and all support readers and writers.

While some may say that indie booksellers had good reason to support Hachette since Amazon has taken every opportunity to drive out bricks-and-mortar bookstores by selling popular books below their cost and significantly discounting for years, the motivation is actually much more basic: this kind of bullying behavior has been foreign to the book business … until Amazon gained substantial power.

Independent booksellers have weathered much during the last three decades: the growth of big box stores, Amazon’s relentless discounting to drive out competition, an economic crisis, the acceptance of e-reading devices and the growth of various platforms for electronic reading. Indies are a tenacious and values-driven group. They are still alive and speaking up for what is right and fair and good for society.

For many of us in business for ourselves, it’s the only way we know how to participate in a collective effort that centers on literacy, lifelong learning, and living an honorable life.

Each day offers an opportunity to learn something new, especially when you open a page of a book. Last night, I read an insight about architecture that sparked thought about the future of bookstores.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

Stephen Mouzon has often been quoted about the mindfulness of architecture and urban design in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). Since Mark and I moved to a TND on Amelia Island twelve years ago and now I serve as president of the neighborhood association board, I’ve loved learning about what makes us feel safe and secure and at home. “Contentment” has been a big word for me as I age, and what I value even more as the years go by is beauty, the comforts of home, and holding a book in my hands while the words enrich the moments.

Mouzon, who after years of studying neighborhoods and homes people love, has developed the leading guide to traditional home design, Traditional Construction Patterns: Design & Detail Rules of Thumb. While the last fifty years of home construction has led to McMansions, sprawl, and “hyper” buildings that have been over-designed, Mouzon helps us see how fascination with the machine became the “expression of our age.” Our obsession with technology still seems to cloud our basic human needs … and still does.

So, as BookExpo America kicks off this week in New York, I am reminded with the first time e-readers hit the trade show and how the IT professionals claimed to know the future of the book was to be purely electronic. For the last decade, many of us questioned the prediction and now, it turns out that the bookstore of the future feels a lot like the comforts of bookstores through time. While things in the back room may operate a little differently, life in the store is still thought-filled, personal, and human scale.

While we’ve all gotten used to finding (and buying) things on the web and reading online, there’s a lingering human need for people, places, and material objects in our lives that are on a tangible, knowable, and comfortable human level.

Take a look around your community and you’ll see that the retail landscape has changed over time. Shops and restaurants go in and out of business as tastes and buying habits change or the cost of doing business escalates. Neighborhood demographics shift, business owners retire, and new concepts emerge. When change is such a constant, it’s surprising to see the same businesses remain at the top of the list of what people most want in their communities: coffee shops, bakeries, and bookstores.

The internet may have come to dominate much of our lives, but there’s still a demand for places to gather and connect with other people. High tech simply cannot satisfy some of our needs for high touch.

Workshop retreat for new bookstore owners and managers

Entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss the opportunities to put a new vision to today’s bookstore.

During last week’s workshop, Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials, eighteen entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss trends, develop competitive advantages, learn the book industry’s metrics and best practices, and chart a course for owning a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the age of technology. While some still used their gadgets to take notes or check messages, the conversation throughout the week kept coming back to the hunger for a sense of place, a healthy environment to learn and grow and gather, the satisfaction from holding a book and turning its pages, and an appreciation for the many ways in which locally owned businesses contribute to their communities.

The growth of e-book sales has slowed and will eventually plateau. Rather than replace books in print, e-readers have simply offered yet one more option for ways to read. E-books have certainly added some turmoil to the book industry and the bookstore business, but by no means will they lead to its demise. While electronic reading represents a little over 20 percent of sales, printed books command the overwhelming share of industry sales.

Format alone does not define a bookstore that sees its mission as far greater than selling books as commodities. A bookstore can be so much more than a place to buy books: a place where we can escape from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, find comfort and peace, stimulate our minds, stretch our understanding of ourselves and the world, connect with others, create community, and contribute to a sustainable local economy. More than ever, there’s a need for high touch in this world of high tech.

Throughout the holiday season, we’d been carefully watching the National Retail Federation’s daily reports on the outlook for retailers. There was lots of talk about how social media would be aggressively used, along with steep discounting to attract customers into stores. And even more speculation: Has the economy sufficiently recovered to put people in a gift-giving mood?

Many national retailers struggled to not only get people physically into their bricks-and-mortar stores, but also eroded profits by discounting to drive sales, believing that even a modest gain was better than a record loss.

Holiday Sales Strong at Indie Bookstores

Holiday cheer at the new location for Litchfield Books

There was quite a different story for booksellers, according to this week’s report from Publishers Weekly. Brookline Booksmith, an award-winning indie bookstore, reported a “stellar year.” The Book Cellar in Chicago boasted a 38% holiday increase, and Beaverdale Books in Des Moines noted being up 29% for the entire year. In previous updates from Publishers Weekly, Andersons Bookshops in the Chicago area, BookPeople in Austin, and a number of others also reported strong holiday seasons.

How do we explain these double-digit increases in sales at indie bookstores that generally offer no discounting? What’s even more noteworthy is that this year lacked the mega blockbusters like last year’s Steve Jobs biography, and e-book sales continue to increase (yet at a much slower rate). If you’re thinking of opening a bookstore or buying an existing store, you might want to ask yourself the same question … what’s special about indie booksellers that they would outpace national retailers?

Maybe a growing number of people want to unplug from the hype and experience something authentic. Perhaps shopping at a place where you can browse “real” books is appealing in a society where a frenetic pace has become the “new normal.” Having someone smile and offer to gift wrap your book for free? How refreshing. Hanging out in a place that won’t text you an offer while you’re browsing, but will offer some delightful personal recommendations? That’s where I want to be – and suspect that I’m not alone!

Sensible family-owned businesses don’t generally jump at the latest trend or rely on hype and bling to connect with customers. While national retailers scurry for the latest high-tech tool or play games with prices, indie business owners will do what they do best: present really great merchandise, invite you to come in and feel comfortable, be welcoming and genuinely nice on a human level, and be incredibly grateful that you choose to support a local business.

Bravo, indie booksellers for a stellar season! The “Indie” and “Shop Local” movements continue to gain momentum, and you’ve proven that the most important business strategies are not only fundamental, but timeless as well.

People who read and especially those who own bookstores are very special souls. Last week we held our spring workshop retreat and while we never really know how the group will relate and how the week will unfold, we are always reminded of the magic that is created when we put our hearts and minds together on the same page.

Independent businesses, thanks to the ‘Shop Local’ movements, have been gaining momentum. But at the same time, people love shopping online and are growing more comfortable with hand-held technologies. The realities of high-tech influence today’s bookstores as does our continued human need for high-touch. Developing ways to address both led us into some wonderfully rich territory.

Spring Workshop Retreat Graduates

Creating a special sense of place for our community took many varied forms. One store will have a nook of comic books and action figures (a passion of one of the owners). Another new store owner will stretch the world of adult fantasy and science fiction into a concept that will help children learn about science and expand their creative horizons. One will spotlight works by local artists. Still another will focus on healthy (and happy) living. And then there’s another who will explore publishing on local topics.

What’s emerging is an ever-larger way of looking at what a bookstore does, what it carries, and how it serves. Today’s bookstore is not just about coming in to pick a book off the shelf. It’s about catering to a lifestyle, sharing interests, and creating a gathering place. Merchandise selections go beyond books. Programs are not limited to visiting authors. Sustainability rests on multiple sources of income.

While there were two people who had worked in bookstores, most had never worked in a retail setting. Sharing insights, lessons, knowledge, and wisdom from other careers, we all stretched our ideas of what a bookstore is for a community … and all the possibilities that can make indie bookstores even more fun, interesting, and vital.

The book industry is one big tent where everyone belongs. Readers tend to think and feel deeply and are interested in the big wide world of life. Unlike online stores, there’s nothing like visiting a comfy bookstore filled with wonderful items where you can simply show up and discover something that might change the course of your life. This very fact that we are readers and serve readers is what makes us optimistic about the future of bookstores.

That corporate behemoth, Amazon.com, is out with yet another gadget, trying to preserve their market share with a “me too” tablet. Their strategy? Just as they’ve done before, sell it as a loss leader and make money in other ways until they can dominate the market — and then raise prices. In both the short and long-term, there’s a high cost to cheap.

In a society where attention deficit disorder is rapidly becoming the norm, imagine how pop-up ads will contribute to the distractions. To sell below your own cost of materials and overhead, money has to come from somewhere; when you can promise lots of eye-balls, advertisers will be willing to pay. The high cost of cheap is that we sacrifice our quiet reading space.

And imagine the value of data-mining private information about individuals. When a corporation can collect information about what we buy, what we read, how and what we research, and then sells that data to others, our loss of privacy becomes their financial gain. So, the high cost of cheap is giving away intimate details about our lives to people we don’t even know.

From a perspective inside the book industry, we see that the more power Amazon.com holds, the more it will attempt to dictate to publishers everything from price to content of the literature published. The high cost of cheap now extends to one company having a disproportionate amount of power. In other industries, this has resulted in a loss of jobs, choice, and quality.

With companies specializing in technology, more flexibility (not less!) is the goal. When customers are used to being able to navigate and buy freely, there are limitations and inconveniences to exercise that freedom. The high cost of cheap means supporting a corporation that wants to limit navigation for its own advantage.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to believe that after a summer of its fervent opposition to paying state sales taxes (as even the smallest retailers manage to do), this corporate goliath would imagine it to be unscathed. The high cost of cheap is rewarding bad corporate behavior.

Ultimately, our decisions about what we buy and what companies we support is a reflection of our own values — and when, in the long run, cheap becomes too costly.

If Harold Camping’s prophecy came true and the world had ended on May 21st, there wouldn’t be much need to consider the future of indie bookstores. Though we would never pretend to be able to predict how life will unfold for brick-and-mortar retailers, we can pay attention to trends and comment on how these trends will affect our industry.

One of the sessions presented at BookExpo America last month by the Book Industry Study Group focused on today’s “power e-book buyer.” Since we’ve heard from a number of booksellers who feel threatened by the emergence of e-books, as well as a number who are optimistic about the future of retailing in spite of the rapid ascent of e-book sales, we thought it worthwhile to take a closer look at available data and the implications for books in print.

It was no surprise to learn that 66% of those power e-book buyers are women, whose average age is 44 years old and average income is $77,000 per year. And it was also no surprise that about 60% of all titles purchased in e-book format are fiction, that the proprietary e-reading devices belonging to Amazon and Barnes & Noble comprise more than half of the market, and that Amazon has a 65% market share of e-books being purchased. But that’s where the data gets a little interesting.

It looks as if romance is the leader and fastest growing segment of all fiction titles downloaded in e-book format. Some of them are now “interactive,” with features that draw the reader further into the setting and story. Yet for most general trade bookstores, “romance” would hardly be a best-selling section. So it’s difficult to see how this trend would impact an indie bookseller, though it does present an opportunity to cater to that market.

Two of the more interesting nuggets from that session were the findings that customer satisfaction for all e-reader devices was less than 50%, and that the young adult and 20-something age groups were now reporting “digital fatigue.” So what are the implications for storefront retailers?

It suggests that the experience of reading (not to mention the experience of shopping) should be made as much of a priority, if not more, than the physical book. It also suggests that booksellers could appeal to market segments previously ignored, especially by staging some special events catering to specific age groups.

With the growing realization within the publishing community that “print pays the rent,” and with research that shows that the vast majority of readers learn about what to read next from a physical bookstore, it will behoove indies to pay closer attention to the art of retailing, in order to become a showroom for the thousands of new titles being published each year.

We strongly believe that the combination of an attractive and inviting physical space, a thought-filled inventory presented in a variety of formats, along with exceptional customer service and an aggressive calendar of events, will well-serve indie booksellers – and their communities – for many years to come.

Some may say “the sky is falling” for independent booksellers, but the data tell another story: even as the economy struggles to recover, indies are holding their own and showing modest gains. In today’s edition of the e-newsletter Shelf-Awareness, John Rubin, owner of Above the Treeline, reports that sales during the first half of the year at 51 large independent bookstores (with average annual sales of $2 million) have risen 1% over the previous year. Above the Treeline aggregates detailed sales data that retailers use to improve their own selections.

If flat is the new up, modest growth isn’t bad at all. Our greatest challenge in the book industry is to avoid the pitfall of polarized thinking and learn to simultaneously hold multiple truths. Though e-books are meeting with early success, it doesn’t mean that sales at indie bookstores are suffering. The fear of the unknown in the publishing world has taken its toll while indie booksellers simply keep listening to and serving their customers.

Chuck Robinson’s It Takes a Village Books: 30 Years of Building Community, One Book at a Time (produced on his store’s Espresso Book Machine) has been a most welcome read. Chuck and Dee Robinson, both former English teachers, own Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. It’s one of the country’s leading indie bookstores and Chuck and Dee have given not only to their community, but to the community of booksellers as well.

What Chuck and Dee have created is a profitable small business that contributes not only to the local economy, but has enriched Bellingham’s quality of life. They employ local residents, recycle money within the community, and are an active participant in Bellingham’s civic life. With regular events, a curated selection of books, involvement with local charitable efforts, they are doing well and doing good. Now that’s a life well lived.

Chuck writes, “… We will continue to fight the good fight. We’ll look for new business models. We’ll cut costs where we can. We’ll go on finding ways to add value. All we can ask of you is to think about what you really want. If you’re happy with a world (or even your corner of the world) without a community bookstore, it doesn’t matter where you buy your books. If you want to keep that bookstore — or any local business — it does matter. Lecture over.”

In combining head and heart, Chuck is a model for most people who choose independent bookselling. Thoughtful and articulate, indie booksellers question, probe for better understanding, think of the cultural consequences of our choices, and run their businesses with integrity. Success is defined and measured in many ways, not just in salary and bonuses. Even vacations are marked by other bookstores visited. Books and all they represent permeate and define our entire lives.

So we’re finding that some people like to read books on their gadgets and we’re seeing that people continue to visit their local bookshop as well. There’s value to be found in reading, regardless of format. While analysts are busy guessing, debating and navel-gazing, indie booksellers are busy creating their own outcomes — by recommending great books, helping build their local economy, and enhancing the quality of life in their community.