Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Book Blogs the Next Big Threat to Independent Bookstores?

First it was Barnes and Noble. Then Amazon. Then Target and Wal-mart and Oprah's Book Club Then the Kindle and iPad. So what's the next major threat to independent bookstores? Here's a hint: you're reading one right now.

I've been thinking about the relationship of bookstores and book blogs for a few months now, ever since I openly thought about how best to spend $100 on books. The long and short of it was this: you can get more for your money through Amazon, but patronizing a local bookstore has significant, if difficult to quantify, benefits as well. Depending on whom you ask, these benefits range from supporting the local economy to supporting new and emerging writers.

Last year Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, outlined the three qualities that separate independent bookstores from their big chain brothers and online retailers: provide a cultural experience, provide an outlet for new and lesser-known writers, and enable positive social change in their local communities.  Their article is definitely worth a read, but the thing that struck me about the functions they described was how much book blogs do these things as well. Let's have a look:

1. Provide a Cultural Experience

 Madan and Evans: Like a wine sommelier, good independent booksellers are valued by readers for their thoughtfully curated selection of books and personalized service.  Good independent bookstores facilitate discovery of new books and provide a life-long means of education and learning for their customers.

To be blunt, book blogs are amazing at this. Not only will your typical book blog be open and accessible to readers, but book blogs are also extremely well-networked. I know of a book blog for every kind of book I can think of and that book blog will be connected to many other book blogs in the same niche. Recently, I was perusing the new fiction wall at my local bookstore and realized I had already heard of all of the books there--and noticed the absence of some others.

2. They Provide a Nurturing Environment for Lesser Known and Emerging Writers

Madan and Evans:  Independent booksellers are valued by authors (and their publishers) for their skill at promoting new books and emerging writers.

I'm not sure there is anything most book bloggers like to do than tell the world about an unknown gem. From what I can tell, it's not clear whether the book blogging community can move the needle on a particular author or title, but if my buying habits are any indication of what's possible, then book blogs have the potential to do everything an independent bookstore can do to promote a book. And, given the book blogging world's use of social media, there's a upside of distributed promotion that has yet to mature.

3. They Enable Positive Social Change in Local Communities

Madan and Evans: Another function independent bookstores have historically served has less to do with books, and more to do with thought leadership and good citizenship. Many independent booksellers have been the catalysts of enabling positive social changes in their communities.

I'll have to admit that positive social change is not something I readily associate with bookstores, but it seems that some do. From what I can tell, activism in the book blogging world is present, but in it's nascent stages. Recent conversations around banned books, gender bias in reviewing, and the funding of public libraries shows that there is room and interest in book blogging for issue-oriented activity, but this seems a tertiary concern at the moment. The physical location of independent bookstores is something that would be difficult for a blogger or group of bloggers to replicate in a local community, but the potential for regional, national, and possibly international activity is largely untapped.  

I'm not sure if this congruence in the functions of bookstores and book blogs is good or bad...or even for whom it might be good or bad. There's more to be said about how they are different, of course, but it does seem that, at their core, good book blogs and good bookstores are in much the same business. 

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  1. I will be the very first to admit not understanding all of the benefits of the local bookstore, other than a certain amount of charm. For me, the benefits seem to end somewhere around there. And charm can mean a lot. I like to GO to the bookstore. But let's face it. I have two little boys and I need my money to stay with my family. So, if I can get a book cheaper somewhere else, I will buy it elsewhere. The prices at the nearest indie bookstore are outrageously high when compared to Amazon. I know people rail against the evils of Amazon, the corporate giant, but I may be too economically dumb to understand how they are a problem. Well, other than being a threat to similar business entities.

    What I do find challenging is finding great book blogs. There are so many that I find it dizzying. I like this one because you discuss book-related topics, in addition to simply reviewing book after book.

  2. Perhaps independent bookstores need to start hiring us book bloggers to blog specifically for their stores? Maybe install the local ones as a novelty, people can come by and watch us read or blog and chug down the Latte of the Month.

    *ahem* I'm for hire, by the way if there are any bookstore owners out there. I will work for coffee, danish, and a place to sleep.

  3. What's interesting is that a lot of book bloggers are affiliates with Amazon et al, so perhaps they are a threat to independent bookstores.

    In Australia, the prices of our goods are grossly overinflated, so it matters not if one shops in independent bookstores, or chains. Prices are pretty much the same (i.e. expensive; so I'm not too sure what Americans are complaining about), therefore online retailers or even eBay are starting to look pretty damn sparkly.

    Though, to be honest, I only buy books once in a blue moon. It's the library for me.

  4. I don't see it personally. The local bookstore clerk interacts with people on a personal level. Book bloggers don't really. We just get on our blogs and talk. We don't generally get a dialogue going. We don't often get to know our readers and vice versa on a personal level. Not like a clerk might see a book and think "oh so and so would probably like this book, I'll have to remember to show it to her." I think the biggest threat to the independent book stores is their prices. I would like to support them, but I can go to the big box bookstore and get 3 books for the price of one of theirs.

  5. I think the more book chat, the better. The main problems facing booksellers are the difficulties with publicity and distribution. Book blogs are fantastic at providing publicity for books old and new as well as famous and obscure. If someone reads one of my posts and heads off to the local independent store to order the book from them, then we've all won.

    It's the zero sum game that the book world insists on playing that gets to me. I don't see why ebooks have to spell the end of paper books, or why blogs might challenge independents, or make newspaper reviews unnecessary. To my way of thinking, the more people involved in the book conversation,and the further it can be spread, then the better the chance of a vibrant book market. If we ditched the competitive mentality and worked collaboratively, how productive might that be?

  6. I think book blogs do, to a significant extent, fulfill some of those important functions typically associated with indepdendent bookstores.

    I specifically wanted to note that there is at least one verifiabe example of a book blog achieving point 2. Colony by Hugo Wilcken apparently was featured on the Book Depository website and went from #990,000 to #4,633 on the Amazon UK sales rankings over a four hour period following a post by John Self at the Asylum.

    I can also attest to purchasing books from lesser known authors solely due to the recommendations of other book bloggers.

    And, I am not sure it counts, but the Tournament of Books is, essentially, a special book blogging project that every year highlights some relatively obscure writers (along with bigger names).

    So, yes, I think some of the functions of independent bookstores are being usurped/enhanced by book bloggers.

  7. Joining you from over at the hop. What an interesting and informative post. All I can say is as a blogger I'm no threat. Indeed visiting all these blogs and reading about so many wonderful books has encouraged me to spend more in my local bookshop.
    Nice to have met you, I've enjoyed my visit.

  8. Hi, I found you on the hop. I understand the reasons for utilizing Amazon to get more for your money. I advocate shopping locally and frequent the local book shops quite often. I would love it if I could get into a relationship with them to help their business.

  9. Fascinating post. Let's hear it for blog networking, for I might not have found you were it not for the blog hop. At any rate, you've certainly gained a follower here. And should you choose to return the favor, stop on by The Book Frog.

    I'll be checking in frequently to see what you're thinking about (and don't worry about your blog and my book shopping habits...I did my part for the downfall of indie booksellers more than fifteen years ago when I started working for Borders. In my defense, I've been pushing new authors and independent publishers on my customers for all these years, so I'm doing my best for that aspect of the biz.)

    Becky (The Book Frog)

  10. I'm going to agree with Autumn about the personal touch you get with a bookstore. My nearest indie - Laguna Beach Books ( is a great example of this. This is a SMALL store, but has an amazing, up-to-date collection and is staffed by people who know books and can discuss them intelligently.

    More important - and I believe this is something that neither bloggers nor huge chains can do - LBB maintains a deep tie with its local community. Not only do they run a monthly book club, but they have frequent author talks, book signings, and other in-store events to bring in the community.

    Most recently they have co-sponsored a "One City, One Book" event, encouraging residents to read Heidi Durrow's "The Girl Who Fell from the Sky." At the end of the month the author and readers will meet up at the co-sponsoring local church to discuss the book.

    We bloggers can do a lot to promote and to share reading experiences, but it's pretty rare to see our work go beyond the blogosphere. We sit alone at our computers and try to connect to a larger community. A pro-active independent bookstore can actually build the community.

  11. I agree with 2manybooks about the community aspect of independent bookstores: I'm very fortunate to live near Longfellow Books, in Portland, Maine, which offers events and author readings. Maine is home to lots of writers whose initials aren't SK: Ron Currie, Jr., and Lily King read recently, and Elizabeth Strout and Brock Clarke are on the schedule for next week. Longfellow Books knows its customers, displays the store's bestsellers on a special shelf, has a generous loyalty program, and sells new and used books. Employees love to read and recommend books. I can't see how bloggers could be a threat to the store's customer base.

    As a blogger, reader, and book enthusiast, I am involved in my community: I occasionally offer workshops about Russian literature and am a member of my local library's friends organization.

  12. My husband, Daniel Jennewein, is an children's book illustrator and he just had signings at several independent bookstores for his book IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? I was really impressed by how together the store personnel was and how they went out of their way to make sure they had enough books and enough people to buy them. When I looked at their event schedules, I was amazed! They put a lot of effort into engaging the local community - with readings, book clubs, kid's events, etc.

    As a book blogger, I can certainly offer many aspects of the indie experience, including recommendations, spotlights on gems, community feeling, etc - but I can't offer the tangible pleasure of holding a book in your hands and hanging out face to face with other book lovers on a regular basis. Hooray for indies!

  13. Really interesting post and I agree I don't necessarily get the connection between indies and social change in the community. If you have a specialist book shop in a particular area (say a shop that specialises in books with content GLBT) I could see the connection, but in general I'm not sure I understand how they stimulate social change. I'd also say that at least one of the big online players is working on social change - Amazon has launched Amazon Encore publishing imprint which has an extremly diverse list of authors and novels. So the online retailers have the potential to effect social change too.

  14. FYI, The next Blog Jog Day is November 21. It went so well for us last year that I thought I would let you know. Sign-ups are at

  15. Interesting and enlightening! I will say that book bloggers and indie bookstores have to work together. posted a neat article months ago called "Get in Bed with a Book Blogger" promoting the relationship between a local indie bookstore owner and a local book blogger.