The problem with the past is that there’s just so damn much of it, especially if you’re an avid reader. The last 200 years or so is particularly flush with books—so many of them, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to keep up with more recent lot, of which there are roughly 350,000 each year in the U.S. alone.
A few months ago, it occurred to me that I’ve fallen a bit behind in my contemporary reading. Do I know what others of my generation are thinking? Do we have the same concerns? Could they shed some light on my own life? I resolved to pick out a few titles and give them a whirl. I made out a six-item list — four titles, plus two authors whose work was widely enough regarded that I’d take what I could get from them.
The easy thing to do (as we all know only too well) would have been to simply order some or all of them online, but not only did I want to buy recently published books, I wanted to buy them new, and I wanted to buy them from an actual, honest-to-god bookstore. Moreover, I was prepared to be stubborn about it. In any one of the stores I visited, I could have talked to the staff about ordering the books on my list, but to what end? Even as a partisan of bookstores, I’m reluctant to see them survive at the cost of becoming what amounts to mere kiosks for online retail. If getting a book is going to require ordering it one way or the other, most readers are going to need a pretty compelling reason to forgo simply ordering from Amazon.
By this point it would be tedious to retread in detail the familiar arguments concerning the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. Suffice it to say that they’re dying off in droves, muscled out by the long arms of Amazon’s online distribution and almost fathomless selection. It is important to note, however, the half-truth involved in the claim that digital reading and e-commerce are killing the bookstore. Better to say that they’re killing a particular economic model, and taking with it any bookstores too snugly tied to that model.
As a matter of strategy, then, bookstores have to rely on other strengths. The difficulty is that those strengths are often less immediately apparent than the convenience of online retail. Many of them can be bundled under the heading of “community feel,” by which I mean the ability of a store to reflect the needs and tastes of the readers it courts. It is, at this point, a de facto standard to which bookstores must aspire if they hope to survive in an industry dominated by Amazon.
That was what I was looking for with my list: a bookstore that knew enough about the local community to stock at least one of the books I had decided to read. Or, barring that—since, after all, I may not be especially representative of my community — some sense that my local bookstores are plugged into community demand at all.
Much of what I saw instead were bookstores that had plugged into national trends on the assumption that local interests will mirror the media zeitgeist. The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Gray series loomed large, taking up far more than their share of shelf and display space. I’ve worked in bookstores before, and have witnessed the arrival of shipments of bestsellers. They arrived on wooden palettes, enough copies to allow us to build a habitable gazebo out of them in the storeroom while a dozen or so stood on displays up front. When the title fell off of the lists again, we boxed up the remainders and sent them back to the supplier for redistribution as bargain bin filler.
Not coincidentally, the bookstore where I worked went bankrupt shortly after I left. It dutifully reflected the national trends, but save for where they occasionally overlapped, it did a poor job of catering to the community that actually shopped there. The margins are much slimmer these days, and the bookstores that remain can’t afford to look through the wrong end of a telescope.
• • • • •
Nevertheless, some of the larger stores I visited with my six-item list continue to overstock the latest national craze, even to the exclusion of books that might perform better with local readers. Series must seem like an especially safe bet, and not just the episodic novel cycles so popular as of late. I can’t help but wonder how many pop culture renditions of philosophical doctrines a store needs—presumably Philosophy and Seinfeld commands a different audience from Philosophy and Twilight—and how many books I might have actually bought had the store decided to reserve that shelf space for something less desperate to piggy-back on someone else’s success.
The stores are trying, of course, though to varying degrees. Many have staff recommendation shelves, a traditional fixture that works partly on the premise that a local staff stands a pretty good chance of reflecting local interests. Others advertised author readings and similar events. That method may very well bring in customers, but whether or not they’ll buy books still depends on the stock.
In some ways, the most promising were those stores that showed some evidence of having attempted to build a presence online—to adapt, that is, to the very thing that threatens their existence. They have Facebook pages or Twitter feeds; at the very least, an email list. They use those social media channels to promote in-store events and broadcast gentle reminders that they still exist. In most cases, though, their effort stop there. Those venues end up serving mostly as another advertising platform, like a dropping a message into a bottle and floating it downstream. There’s a bigger opportunity here, and one that bears exploration.
Rather than thinking of it primarily as a bullhorn, local booksellers should also look at social media as an opportunity to understand the community from which their patrons are drawn. One of the few things social media does well is facilitate interaction, no matter how clipped or superficial. If the proprietors of brick-and-mortar stores can tap into that dialog, especially the dialog closest to home, they can steadily build a more accurate sense of the sort of books being read around them. That, in turn, allows them to tailor their stock according to what’s most likely to sell.
As I shopped around with my list of books and authors, I began to keep a mental tally. How many stores had I browsed? How many of them had titles from my list in stock? I began to wonder if other readers in my area faced the same difficulties finding the books they wanted to read. If I used Twitter to investigate the question, what would the results look like, streaming across everyone’s feed?
Better yet, I thought: what could bookstores do with that information? Would the little independent store down the block from me know how to respond to a stream of tweets that suddenly reveal the reading trends that prevail among its customers? Would they see the value of being told when local readers are driven to order books online because they can’t be found in neighborhood stores? If not, could they be awoken to those demands by a report of how many books the customer had been unable to find?
• • • • •
What I came up with was a hashtag: #BookScore. They’re homely little things, these hashtags, but if wielded with savvy, they can be effective ways to corral information.
The idea here is to stage a kind of crowd-sourced data dump. By volunteering a little information about local reading interests, as well as a quick scorecard of how well they’re playing to those interests, we can perhaps help local bookstores make stronger business plans. At the same time, we’re sending a big signal that the best way to use social media to track the local market is to ask readers what they want. That, at least, is the idea.
The steps are simple:
- Make a list of up to 6 already published books (or authors) that you have an interest in reading;
- Visit a nearby brick-and-mortar bookstore and see how many of the items on your list are already in stock there (you can even buy one or two if you’re so inclined);
- Tweet your results with the hashtag #BookScore;
- Include the Twitter handle of the store, if they have one, so they can see how they scored; otherwise, include the name of your city or neighborhood as a hashtag to make your results searchable by local bookstores.
Note that it’s #BookScore with a c, as in “scorecard,” not a t, as in “store,” though the pun is intended. If you’re not on Twitter, post your results on some other form of social media—preferably somewhere that the bookstore will see it.
For example, I could tweet the results of my list like so:
@localstore Aurorarama, Drifting House, Leaving the Atocha Station, The London Train, Danilo Kis, Michel Houellebecq #BookScore: 0/6
• • • • •
You saw the number at the end there, right? Zero for six. That is to say, of the six items on my list, I managed to find precisely none in a local store. It might even be more accurate to say that I went zero for eighteen, since I searched not one, but three different stores. After coming up short at the nearest Barnes & Noble, too, I decided it would be easier to check the remaining locations online.
Admittedly, four stores is a small sample, but it would have stretched the notion of buying locally to have expanded my search much beyond that. Ten years ago, I’d have had four more stores in the same area to choose from, including a Borders and an off-campus branch of a college bookstore. I can’t definitively say that those four went under because there was so little demand for most of their supply, but nor can I count how many times I went in with a list and came out empty-handed.
It could be objected that I’m demanding too much of my local booksellers. They can’t be expected to carry everything. Could the problem be my list? It’s entirely possible that I just chose a bum lot. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not my list was reasonable, but the following points can be marshaled in its defense:
- All of the items fall under the category of fiction, putting them in the single biggest section of most stores. None were bestsellers, but then, that would be setting the bar pretty low.
- Five of the six items I had discovered through reviews and interviews in major literary journals or the book sections of major papers, most of which were carried by the stores I checked. That equation is either improbable or profoundly wrong-minded. If you’re selling a literary review to your customers, isn’t it a fair bet that those customers will have some interest in the books it reviews?
- Two of the items weren’t even books; they were authors, both of whom have received significant press in the last six months. Between them, they have 13 works of fiction, any one of which I’d have considered. Tallied that way, my scorecard looks more like zero for fifty-one.
- With the exception of Kis’ books, and counting a few of the English translations of Houellebecq’s, all of the items on my list were published within the last two years.
- Most importantly, I was genuinely interested in each item. That, in essence, is what this #BookScore is about: finding out how well bookstores anticipate desire, and searching out ways they can do it better.
Maybe the explanation is that I’m an outlier, an oddball in a neighborhood that actually does follow the national trends. Maybe the usual fare around here centers on true crime or pop psychology. Maybe, maybe, maybe—but I doubt it. I live only a few miles from several universities, at the intersection of traditionally upscale neighborhoods. Every summer there are book festivals and wine festivals. A coffee shop down the street hosts weekly science club meetings. I’ve bought modern world literature at local yard sales. Probably those other genres get plenty of play, but not to the exclusion of contemporary literary fiction.
As an experiment the flaw in my search is its diminutive sample size. Hard and fast conclusions would be unwise, but as a broad assessment I don’t think it’s risking credibility to suggest that the stores I visited could have done a better job of anticipating that someone in the area would pay good money for at least one of the items on my list. Each book that they didn’t carry was another lost opportunity, but that isn’t really the point. After all, no physical store can carry everything. The point is that some of those opportunities were more or less predictable, provided that you know your market.
A social media call-out like #BookScore can seem like adding insult to injury, but it isn’t meant to be mean-spirited. I would even go so far as to say that bookstores shouldn’t stop at simply following their scores over social media: they should invite their customers to use #BookScore, posting signs by their exits where frustrated customers will be likely to see them on their way out. Many will no doubt wince at the low scores they get, but it’s an educational kind of pain, the kind that makes you stronger. For those who don’t learn to turn such tool to their advantage, there’s always the other, more final kind of pain.