Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking Market

But first: Finally got my insurance ID card! Still no policy, though. Until an actual printed policy shows up in my mailbox, I have to take Dana’s word I have the coverage I’m supposed to. If you’ve been following my twisted path down the road to Obamacare, by now you know just how far I can trust Dana’s word.

At least the robocalls and sales pitches from insurance agents have just about dried up. I’m hoping the spam emails stop when the open enrollment period ends in February. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of spam for burial insurance. Do they know something I don’t?

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This week I’m disclosing the results of another of my unofficial surveys. This one started last month when I was wandering around a local grocery store. I don’t normally go in this one because the one up the street has better prices, but I was in the mood for homemade stromboli and the one with better prices doesn’t carry those. So I went to the other store and found what I was after and checked out the bakery bargains on the day-old shelf and then went to skim the paperback selections.

Except there weren’t any. The book-and-magazine section wasn’t where I remembered it being. I hadn’t noticed it while I was wandering around the store in search of cut-rate muffins, either. There were still magazines for sale at the checkouts, but the books were MIA.

This particular grocery store is part of a chain, so the next time I passed another one I went in. No paperback shelves in that store, either. The grocery store with the better prices has two spinner racks of books, one for inspirational and Amish-centric and another for Harlequin category romances and bestsellers. At least they carry a selection.

Bookstores were never the only place you could pick up a paperback. Along with grocery stores, I remember finding books in greeting card/party supply stores, tobacco stores, pharmacies, truck stops and department stores. You could pick up a book at just about any place that had a cash register. They weren’t all the bestseller of the month, either. A lot of midlist and bottom-tier novels could be found on those store shelves and spinner racks. Before his cover got blown, Stephen King’s “Richard Bachman” books could be found in this market.

And I say a lot, I mean a lot. One of the local KMarts used to carry a wide selection of cheap paperback entertainment. Ditto for the Phar-more. As for actual bookstores, there was a Walden’s, a B. Dalton’s and a Cole’s all in the same mall. That’s not counting the racks in the anchor stores like J. C. Penny's and Sears, and the discounted romances at CVS Pharmacy. It was kind of like spiders. Science says we’re never farther away than a couple of feet from a spider at any given time. For a long time the same was true of paperback books.

However, as the saying goes, times change. I started noticing toward the end of the ‘90s that book departments in department stores were shrinking. I don’t think it was due to ebooks; I’m not sure the Kindle had been invented yet. It could have been due to the rise of the centralized megabookstore, like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Or it could have been the rising cost of paperbacks. The whole point of paperbacks was they were supposed to be cheap. Have you priced a paperback lately? This is one of the reasons I go to the library more often.

Not only did existing markets start to shrink, some disappeared entirely. Phar-more and its extensive book section appears to be gone. I’ve already mentioned the one area grocery chain seems to be out of the book business. Here’s where my survey kicks in. I went around to places I was used to finding paperbacks to see what I could see.

This is what I saw: WalMart carries books, but they’re almost exclusively bestsellers. KMart still has a broader selection, but the same big names and recognizable series books dominate. Two of the local pharmacies I went to had tiny book displays, all bestselling authors. The single area Walgreens had only one row of books on display, atop the magazine shelves where someone of my height couldn’t even reach them. The truck stop by the exit used to have a spinner rack, but the business was replaced by a Sheetz a couple of years ago. Sheetz (and its big rival, Wawa) doesn’t sell books.

Those three mall bookstores I mentioned? All gone, along with Borders. I think there’s a discount book warehouse where the Walden’s used to be. I don’t go to malls too often any more.

Does this mean people aren’t reading as much? I don’t think so. I think it just means a shift in buying practices. Or not-buying. Our local library does a brisk business and has for a while. Plus you can’t discount the rise of ebooks, or the rise (and then demise) of the megabookseller. Those impulse buys of a cheap paperback at the drug store or grocery store probably started to drop off when the books stopped being so cheap. Any store of that ilk still carrying paperbacks is going to stock the proven sellers only.

What does this mean for us writers? Fewer and fewer outlets for our masterpieces. Less chance of our books getting seen on a shelf. Fewer shelves, period, with the space on them taken up by name writers and series. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s just getting tougher every day.

I don’t know what the solution is. If your goal is to see your book on sale at the corner store, I recommend you write something really commercial. Maybe we’re heading for the day when pharmacies sell e-book readers. You can already rent movies from Redbox at your neighborhood grocery store. Book sales at side venues may make a comeback, just in a different, paperless form.

Now we just need to get people to read more. That means I’ll have to write better. Dang it, there’s always a catch.


Savanna Kougar said...

Those grocery store/drugstore sellers can't compete with Amazon these days, and it began when Amazon first opened its cyber doors, selling Print books. Ebooks didn't exist then, but tentatively began in 1997-1999.

And obviously, these days a lot more people buy online, whether print or ebooks.

Of course, the collapsing economy doesn't help, along with the higher prices. Which is why the big brick and mortar bookstores have closed and are closing.

Plus, the Big Boy publishers not only screwed their non-star authors, but seriously shot themselves in the foot by controlling distribution like a mafia, and believing they could control what people wanted to read by major hype campaigns, etc.

This is one reason Indie ebooks, and print books, are on the rise. Because people want to read what they want to read, and aren't always swayed by big hype. The niche market, is the market these days. Yeah, you have the topsellers, but as one survey showed, topsellers in any genre usually only sell to those who don't buy that many books overall.

It's the niche genre readers who gobble up the books, as much as they can afford. Of course, that's getting tougher these days because so many writers have jumped into the market... which is good... however, the bad economy doesn't help at this point. Although, compared with other entertainment ebooks are generally a good deal.

Pat C. said...

Oh yeah. Forgot about Amazon and the rise of e-tail over retail. Amazon and Ebay are the reason I can't sell my comic book collection for a decent price any more. Ditto for most of my vintage '60s paperbacks, which go for literal pennies online.

It's probably a combination of things: grocery/drugstores can't compete with Amazon/big bookstores, and people can get their books elsewhere for less, or in different formats. Or maybe people just aren't reading as much because other entertainment options are available.

Not to mention both grocery and drugstores now have to compete with WalMart, so low-selling items like books are liable to get dropped from inventory.

Savanna Kougar said...

I think it goes both ways on the reading front. Segments of the population read less because of other entertainment venues... however, because of the rise of the niche market, there are segments of the population who reading much more than they did.