By Claire Walla
The closing of the Borders chain of bookstores two weeks ago served as another reminder to those in the book biz of how fragile the industry has become in the last few years. And it’s caused some to wonder: what’s the future of the book?
In a serendipitous course of events, last week our local independent chain Book Hampton in Sag Harbor hosted a talk with Harper Collins publisher Jonathan Burnham, called “On The Edge: The Future of Publishing.” In a conversation with BookHampton owner Charlene Spektor, Burnham discussed the elements now plaguing the industry, and what booksellers can expect to see in the future. (The forecast is rather uncertain.)
“What’s happening at the moment is that there is a migration of readers from books [or, what the publishing industry now refers to as p-books] to e-books,” Burnham explained. He said digital sales at Harper Collins started as a nascent trend about a year ago. But, while e-book sales were about five percent of Harper Collins’ overall business last year, that total has now hit around 40 percent.
“What’s interesting to us is how fast that’s happened,” Burnham continued. “There has been a huge change [in consumer spending habits] and we the publishers are finding it hard to keep up.”
While many have blamed Borders’ downfall on the company’s failure to latch on to e-book publishing as early as its competitor, Barnes & Noble, which actually manufactured its own e-reader, the Nook, the boom of the digital market has made waves locally, as well.
Burnham called this “the year of difficult questions,” an assertion with which independent book sellers here in Sag Harbor would agree.
Both Spektor, owner of BookHampton, and Maryanne Calendrille, owner of Canio’s Books just up the way, expressed uncertainty when it came to the future of their business. Though both shops are finding creative ways to increase local interest and up revenue (including upping their online presence and expanding the scope of business to include public speakers), neither can tell what the future will hold.
For Spektor, changing times has meant shifting gears. While she said BookHampton rests on a tradition of personal service, that concept has broadened in the wake of the digital revolution.
In the past year, BookHampton has begun selling e-books to customers, largely in response to the fact that people began walking in the store, taking stock of interesting titles and then purchasing those books online at a later date. The chain has also put effort into boosting its online presence, creating a website that, Spektor said, bears the intimate feel of the store itself. In fact, employees refer to the site as “the fourth store.” (BookHampton has physical locations in Sag Harbor, Southampton and East Hampton.)
What it really boils down to, she said, is that “independent bookstores reflect the community that they’re in. “What we have is a tradition of personal service: making recommendations and listening [to people’s questions],” she explained. “All of those things you don’t really get when you go online. Online, it’s just an algorithm.”
On a warm Tuesday afternoon, Maryanne Calendrille answered a customer’s questions and made literary recommendations at Canio’s Books on Main Street, just up the road from BookHampton.
After noticing a worn collection of Harvard classics lined-up atop one of the store’s many shelves, the customer wondered aloud, “Is anyone interested in this anymore?” As it turned out, Calendrille knew of a local author, Chris Beha, who happened to write a book about his experience reading the entirety of the Harvard classics in a single year, called The Whole Five Feet.
The woman’s husband, Harold Rubin, spoke of his fondness for the store as his wife purchased the book. “Coming here, you can talk to people who are knowledgeable and can give you the feel for a book,” he said. “Online, you get the technical. Here, you get the emotional.”
It’s a notion Burnham referenced last week. He said there are certain genres, like romantic fiction, erotica and—surprise, surprise—vampire books that sell very well in electronic form.
“The Internet is a world of geeks and cults,” he explained. Whereas non-fiction tomes and even business-related texts tend to sell better in paper. For many book buyers, he added, sales are contingent on that idea of the bookstore as a community.
Like BookHampton, Calendrille said the purpose of her local shop is not only to provide a place where people can browse for books. It is a gathering space for those in the community. And it’s a reflection of the creative interests and outgrowth of the neighborhood. Local artwork hangs on the walls, writers speak in the shop on the weekends and Calendrille herself teaches writing workshops in the back.
“You can’t deny the business is changing,” she said. “But, what we have here are the kinds of books that curious readers are interested in. It’s a collaboration of our interests and our customers’ interests,” she continued. “And to me, that’s the beauty of the place.”
As Spektor put it, the survival of independent bookshops is contingent on the communities in which they exist. “In the long run,” she said, “it depends on whether or not you want to see these Main Streets thrive, or whether you want to see Main Street as a concept dry-up.”