This blog post is one I wrote for the South Carolina Writers Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website April 28, 2019.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about bookstores. As a child, I believed they were magical spaces. I could spend hours walking up and down the aisles, running my hand reverently across the spines of beloved books. It never occurred to me that one day I would doubt bookstores are relevant.
Over the past year, reports have enthusiastically proclaimed headlines like “Independent Bookstores Are Thriving” or “Independent Bookstores Grow for the Second Year After a 20-Year Decline.” After reading many of these articles and hoping they are right, I’m not convinced. While many of the independent bookstores have survived, and even grown, they have drastically changed their business models. Many are in smaller towns, and they host a wide variety ofevents, not just the typical author signings. These stores have rebranded themselves as entertainment and social hangouts. I applaud their vision. However, it’s likely many of the other, less visionary, indie bookstores won’t fare as well. And, the future of big book stores, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, is definitely not good.
What does this all mean for writers? Where do we sell our work? As one author recently said to me, “You can’t think out of the box, because there is no box.” She’s right. I suspect if you looked at all the places, physical and online, where writers have an opportunity to sell their work, you’d see that there are more places than ever. Short fiction is on the rise again, and people are reading on their phones, listening to audio books or to serialized books on podcasts. Despite the current decline, I think ebooks will rebound, because it’s just too darn convenient to carry hundreds of books in the palm of your hand. The bulk of today’s readers are middle-aged, and as they grow older, many of them may turn to e-readers, like Kindle and Nook, because they can enlarge the print. Young people today use digital textbooks, so it’s highly likely that if they read a book, it will be an ebook. Having said all this, my point is not to make a pitch for digital or audio books. In fact, I sell far more print copies of my books that I do ebooks. Iwant bookstores and print books to go on forever. But I’m also a realist.
The point I am trying to make is that writers should not assume the decline of physical bookstores necessarily signals a further decline in reading. As my statistics professor pounded into me, “correlation is not causation.” These two issues are related but separate. As writers, we must seek out alternative venues for book signings, explore audio and digital options, develop online sales opportunities, and keep the faith. I believe humans crave stories and will continue to seek them out in some form. But I also believe that bookstores will become irrelevant.
Just know that I hope I’m wrong.