A modest proposal: one possible option for booksellers.

Saturday, April 21, 2012
I had an idea yesterday morning and was discussing it with Hubby while we were out hiking. There are a few indisputable facts about the publishing world today that only someone with their head firmly and irretrievably up their ass can deny:

  1. E-books are here to stay.
  2. E-book sales are growing exponentially every year.
  3. The former traditional publishing model is archaic and resulting in booksellers large and small shuttering their doors.
  4. E-books are far cheaper to make and distribute than dead-tree books, and can be far more profitable.
  5. Dead-tree books aren't dead, but the traditional publishing industry needs to reform their model around e-book sales and focus on making print-on-demand cheaper and easier to reduce their print costs and stay profitable and move away from the old paradigm where books are destroyed if not sold.
Okay, those five points, despite how the Big 6 wants the public to believe that point 4 isn't true (indie and successful self-published authors have proved it's true) are pretty much agreed upon by sane people familiar with the face of publishing.

There's another point I'd like to bring up:
  • Cities and counties, faced with making budget cuts due to the recent economic downturn, are either closing libraries, drastically reducing their operating hours, or cutting funding to them.
I know this to be true here locally in Florida. I can't imagine it's any different anywhere else in the country.

Why do I mention libraries?

Hear me out. There's still two huge bookseller chains left in the US, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Milion. Both of these have customer programs where you pay an annual fee and you get a discount card, right? Why not institute an add-on program, for an additional small fee, to create a lending library system?

Keep listening. I used to work for a national auto parts chain. They had a lending tool program, where if you needed a tool to work on your vehicle, and you didn't want to buy one because you knew you either a) couldn't afford to buy it just to use it once, or b) didn't want to buy it, you could borrow it. What you did was pay the full price for the tool, and when you brought it back, you got a refund. We could stock tools normally not available for sale in a DIY parts store, we didn't need to keep a large, speculative stock quantity on hand, and if they didn't bring it back we would just order another one from the warehouse, but we weren't out any money. It also meant we didn't lose parts sales to a garage who did repairs just because the customer didn't have the necessary tools to do the job.

Win-win for us and the customer. Especially in those cases where the customer just never returned the tool, even if they didn't need to keep it. But the law of averages meant we made some "free" money where the tools were kept. Just like many retailers know that with gift cards, there will always be a certain percentage never redeemed, meaning "free" money for them.

Are you following me?

So why can't large booksellers (and maybe someone could create some sort of online cooperative membership for smaller booksellers to buy in to to participate without having outlay in computer programming expenses) do the same? Maybe even have a premium "lending" membership, where they can keep certain titles of current bestsellers (or perennial bestsellers) on hand specifically as "lending" copies that the premier customers aren't charged for (but if they don't bring them back it gets charged to their account)?

They could even have a reasonable time limit and return conditions. Say, you can keep a book and return it, as long as it's in resalable condition, maybe for a month. If you returned it between one month and two months, you only get store credit, or only get X% of the sale price back. There will automatically be a percentage of customers who, for whatever reason, don't return the book, even if they didn't intend to keep it. So the bookstore made a sale it might not have made before.

And they don't even need to make all books lendable. It could be just for fiction. Or maybe even they could have another level of membership where you pay and it gives you the ability to access all books as "lendable." That could be a boon for someone who is a voracious reader, but either doesn't have a library close by, or doesn't want to go through the sometimes long wait times for new releases. And you might have people who buy the membership because it's an add-on to the regular discount membership club fee, but they never utilize the service. Again, that's "free" money for the bookseller.

This is an option that could potentially breathe new life into large booksellers, and offer a lifeline to smaller ones as long as someone could come up with an inexpensive way for small booksellers to participate without a huge capital outlay for computer programming. Maybe even a third-party co-op could charge booksellers a subscription fee, but then if the third party is handling the collecting of all the customer memberships, they could give the local bookseller a kick-back for each customer they sign up to the service. Then the bookseller could also benefit from sales of lent books never returned, and higher foot traffic for people who want to participate.

It's something to think about, isn't it? Instead of booksellers large and small screaming that their business is failing, they could embrace an idea like this and still be able to sell books and keep their business afloat instead of complaining about e-books and online retailers like Amazon killing their business.

5 reader comments:

  1. I think your blog is spectacular! I agree with all of your points. Amazon has a lending library now. And speaking of Amazon - did you know you can return a book for a full refund within 7 days? (I totally disagree with this as I have lost a lot of sales due to returns.) Maybe there is something we can do on a grassroots level?
    Camile Carson

  1. A book lending program is a great idea! Like Camile said, Amazon has had one for a while.

    Sadly, most bookstores in my part of the world don't make their money off books but other merchandise they offer. What better way to lure people in than to offer such a program? They may not make any money on the actual books BUT people would be much more likely to purchase something.

  1. I agree, it IS a feasible & fabulous idea. Try telling that to the big six though. What do we know? We're only indie.
    Yes, Amazon needs to do something about that return policy. We get books returned monthly now and it seems to be only a few particular authors so if I were Amazon I'd have a second look at WHO and how many are being returned by the same repeat customers. They are just giving someone freebies everytime the "buy" anything and that's unfair. What happens when others catch on to this? Eventually, just like piracy, it will. In fact, is there a difference?

  1. Pat said...:

    B&N allows for lending too. Based on my understanding of both the Amazon and B&N programs (I have both apps on my pc and ereader) though, the lending is between people who want to share a book but the book can only be lent out once by a person. So for example, Mary wants to borrow book A from Sally. Sally can lend that book to Mary but once it is returned, Sally can not lend it again. So if Jane now wants to borrow it, she has to find anther person who has the book and is willing to lend it out for a couple weeks (the book owner can not access the book while it is loaned out).

    I think this proposal would allow for a centralized loaning area (instead of relying on finding someone with the book) and the ability to loan multiple times. That is a great idea since it would allow you to borrow books without having to find someone who already owns it and is wiiling to lend out and would provide access to all books...right now not all books are lendable.

  1. Thanks everyone. :)

    Lynn - Excellent point. Bookstores can easily make money on things like cafes (which a lot of larger bookstores already have), cards, and other merchandise.