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New Reports Reveal that 2013 was a Dickensian Time for Indie Booksellers

The109330496_eb9acd96b2_m[1] American Bookseller Association and its UK counterpart have each released new details this week on their membership rolls, and they have revealed that this is both the best of times and the worst of times for booksellers.

The ABA reported last week that nearly four dozen new bookstores opened in the US, while the UK-based Bookseller’s Association reported that almost the exact opposite happened in the UK.

According to Bookselling this Week:

The American Booksellers Association welcomed 44 indie bookstores that opened for business in 2013 in 20 states. Among them were six branches of existing businesses. California was home to 10 new stores; Michigan and New York, four; Pennsylvania and North Carolina, three; and Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington State, two.

In another sign of the vitality of independent bookselling, last year 14 established ABA member stores were bought by new owners.

This is great news, especially when you consider the long running lament that Amazon is slaying bookstores left and right.

Unfortunately, the good news doesn’t extend across the pond. According to my source, the Bookseller’s Association has reported that the number of independent bookstores in the UK dropped below 1,000 last year. A total of 67 indie bookstores in the UK closed in 2013, while 26 opened. This leaves a deficit of 41 empty, dust-collecting ex-bookstores.

There are now only 987 indie bookstores in the UK, down from 1,028 in February 2013. In fact, the number of bookstores in the UK is down from its peak of 1,535 in 2005, meaning that a third of the UK’s indie bookstores closed in the last 9 years.

That’s a marked difference from here in the US, where the ABA reports that their membership bottomed out in 2005 and started increasing again, with new records being set each year as indie bookstores saw a resurgence.


It’s not clear why indies are doing so much better in the US, but if I had to guess I would blame the decline of Borders and the other big box bookstore chains. Each shuttered big box bookstore is another hole in the book market for indies to to go after.

On the other hand, that is a terribly simplistic explanation which doesn’t account for Borders closing hundreds and hundreds of stores in 2011 without causing a similar spike in the number of indie bookstores launched.

Why do you think indie bookstores are doing so well in one English speaking country but not the other?

ABA, The Bookseller

images by phooky, juhansonin

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Fbone February 21, 2014 um 3:48 pm

I checked online the two that opened in my state. One sells exclusively children’s books (replaces one that closed in 2008) and the other is a second branch of a NY store to be used for events, art supplies and a cafe. Both are located in wealthy neighborhoods.

David Gaughran February 21, 2014 um 3:59 pm

One possible factor: it’s illegal in the US for publishers to give better terms to box stores and chains, but perfectly legal in the UK – where publishers give massive discounts to supermarkets like Tescos. Indies are in a real pinch when a big book like Harry Potter comes out. Do they match the supermarket price and sell the book at a loss, or risk losing that customer to Tescos for good? Neither works out particularly well for them.

Nate Hoffelder February 22, 2014 um 9:30 pm

That’s not illegal in the US, either.

David Gaughran February 23, 2014 um 4:58 am

In 1994, the American Booksellers Association sued Random House, St. Martins Press, Houghton Mifflin, and others for offering different prices and promotional terms to indies and chains (mainly B&N). The legal breaches in question related to, interestingly enough, antitrust law.

The law in question is the Robinson-Patman Act – – which outlaws price-discrimination, and was specifically brought in to combat the practice of chain stores being allowed to purchase goods at lower prices than other retailers.

Now, publishers and chains may get around this in practice by issuing a Walmart edition (or whatever) of a specific book, but giving, say, Barnes & Noble a 45% discount on a given title and giving an indie only a 40% discount on that same title is illegal.

This is not illegal in the UK, and publishers give sweetheart deals in much greater numbers to the chains and supermarkets. Which makes it a much more challenging environment for indies.

The history of the ABA’s cases against publishers and B&N makes for some interesting reading if you’re bored.

P.S. We don’t actually know if the number of indie bookstores is increasing in the US. All we know is that membership in the ABA is increasing. It could be that more stores are joining the ABA for the first time because of the threat of Amazon/e-books/online selling.

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2014 um 6:47 am

That happened in 1998, and the ABA didn’t have a clean win the case went to trial in 2001:

David Gaughran February 23, 2014 um 7:04 am

Hey Nate – that was actually a subsequent case filed against B&N in the California courts.

What I’m referring to was the original case against the publishers from 1994, which ended in consent decrees and monitoring of the publishers. After the ABA discovered that Penguin breached the terms of the settlement, they sued them again, getting a further $25m in settlement.

Some states also have (around 50% of them I think) their own laws against price discrimination on the books, and the B&N case was filed in the California courts. But the above case, the one I’m referring to, was a federal action (and a pretty clear win).

Penguin admitted liability and all the publishers signed a consent decree agreeing to ban sweetheart deals.

Penguin tried to pin the blame on a rogue employee. "According to Penguin, discounts were offered to large retailers as a reward to speed the payment of bills and were later concealed within Penguin’s accounts. Penguin later dismissed a company credit director, Christine Galatro, and sued her in June, accusing her of conspiring with her husband, Stanley, and with an independent collections agency owner, Jerome Bedell, in a $1.4 million embezzlement plot.

The trade association became involved in the investigation of the accounting scandal because Penguin, along with other publishers, had earlier settled an association antitrust lawsuit by signing a consent decree in 1995, agreeing not to favor large retailers with special discounts unavailable to smaller retailers."

Peter Turner February 22, 2014 um 10:52 pm

The focus on the relative health or lack thereof of indie bookstores can be misleading. The overall physical bookselling environment includes bookstore chains and other retailers who devote space to physical books. I don’t think there’s any real dispute about the shrinking of over all shelf space for books in retail outlets. The question is whether there is a business model for selling physical books in bricks & mortor outlets; if there is, then indies have a future, if not, not.

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