Brian Tibbetts

May 21, 2015

Publishing & Technology: FBP and the Potential Resurrection of the Independent Book Seller


brt-headshotBrian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS

This week in Publishing & Technology we’ll be examining the plight of the independent bookseller, reminiscing about indie bookstores long since gone, and trying to find some hope for the future. For an in-depth examination of the global history, contemporary iterations, and theory and practice of fixed book pricing check out For What It’s Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets by Moe Nakayama on the Publishing Trends website.

If you knew me better, you’d know that I make no secret of my love for independent bookstores. I live in Portland, Oregon, home to Powell’s Books, Reading Frenzy, Mother Foucault’s, and a great many other excellent neighborhood and specialty bookstores. I make pilgrimages to bookstores of note whenever I’m in the cities that support them. And. . .I also, somewhat frequently, buy books online from Amazon. I’d prefer not to, but there are times when my schedule can’t argue with convenience and times when my wallet can’t argue with 50% off (and sometimes a great deal more – I’m a bit of a cookbook junkie). But I never feel good about choosing to buy discounted books over the internet because I know that if you can’t get people like me (people who claim to love independent bookstores) to support them, then they are doomed to extinction.

This is not news: in the years since the dawning of the Information Age the only conventional retail model to suffer greater financial losses than the independent bookstore is the video rental store (record stores may be in a dead heat for second-worst-off with independent booksellers, but for the sake of this post let’s set the widely reported suffering of the music industry aside – if for no other reason than the fact that live performance revenues and the hipster return to vinyl have at least done something to staunch a bit of bleeding). While I was still with Ooligan Press, I wrote a rather pithy blog post about the fate of independent bookstores and what they needed to do to pull themselves out of the fire and back into the frying pan. If you enjoy sarcasm, feel free to click here. It was my assertion in that post that the booksellers themselves were their own worst enemy and that the best thing they could do to insure their survival was to concentrate on the experiential aspects of their retail model, driving customer satisfaction in a hands-on way that digital retailers could not hope to match.

The first independent bookstore I ever patronized, Twenty-Third Avenue Books here in Portland, despite the rising affluence of its neighborhood location, permanently closed its doors in 2009 (for an article devoted to the occasion of its demise and its owner’s subsequent homelessness, click here. In years past, I would’ve blamed its failure on the confluence of market forces and lack of willingness/ability to change. Now, thanks to articles like the one I mention at the top of this post, I have a more nuanced understanding of the plight of traditional booksellers. I am no economist. I do not have the level of understanding required to know that something like legally mandated or agreed upon fixed book pricing would do much to save the independent bookstores that I love. I do know that it would give me a additional reasons to force myself out of the house and into area family-owned businesses to purchase all of my reading material.

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