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Indie bookstores hold steady in tough retail market

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/30/2017 By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
FILE - In this May 28, 2015 file photo, signage for Hachette Book Group are displayed at BookExpo America in New York. Publishers, authors, librarians, and book retailers attend the annual publishing industry show. BookExpo 2017 runs Wednesday thru Friday in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this May 28, 2015 file photo, signage for Hachette Book Group are displayed at BookExpo America in New York. Publishers, authors, librarians, and book retailers attend the annual publishing industry show. BookExpo 2017 runs Wednesday thru Friday in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — With retail stores shutting down at the fastest pace since the crash of 2008, the head of the American Booksellers Association is grateful to see business holding steady.

After seven straight years of growth, core membership in the independent sellers' trade group has dropped slightly since May 2016, from 1,775 to 1,757. At the same time, the number of actual locations rose from 2,311 to 2,321, reflecting a trend of owners opening additional stores. The association's CEO, Oren Teicher, says sales from reporting outlets are up around 2 1/2 percent in the first four months of 2017 over the same time period last year. Sales increased 5 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"We're pleased that the sales and presence of independent stores continues to grow at a time when thousands of other stores are closing," he told The Associated Press during a recent interview.

Teicher said he was also encouraged by a bump in "provisional members," those intending to open a store, from 103 to 141. During the association's prolonged decline, when the rise of superstores and e-books helped cut membership from around 5,000 in the 1980s to just 1,401 in 2008, the market looked so dire that some profitable stores closed because the owner wanted to retire and no buyer could be found. In recent years, independent stores have been helped by a variety of factors, from the fall of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble to the leveling off of e-book sales.

Concerns do remain for independent sellers as they prepare to join thousands of publishers, authors, agents and librarians at the industry's annual national convention, BookExpo, which begins Wednesday at New York's Jacob Javits Center. Closed stores of any kind can reduce foot traffic in a shopping district and hurt booksellers among others. And one company expanding on the ground is the online giant Amazon.com, which has been cited as a factor in closings for everyone from J.C. Penney to American Apparel.

Amazon just opened its first bookstore in Manhattan and seventh overall. One outlet is within 1 1/2 miles of Third Place Books in Amazon's hometown Seattle, where Third Place managing partner Robert Sindelar says sales initially dropped after the Amazon store opened in November 2015, but had bounced back by the end of last year.

"So it feels that their larger impact on us was short-lived," says Sindelar, the booksellers association's new president. "However, any bookstore — Amazon, indie or chain store — that close is going to impact our sales to some degree."

BookExpo runs Wednesday to Friday and will be immediately followed by the fan-based BookCon, which ends Sunday. Profits have long been narrow or nonexistent in publishing and BookExpo/BookCon is one way to limit costs. For much of its century-plus history, the convention rotated locations, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., in the spirit of fairness and of spotlighting different parts of the country. But since 2008, New York publishers have preferred staying home. The 2016 show in Chicago, once a favorite setting for BookExpo, was notable for a drop in attendance and floor space and a lack of high-profile guests.

This year, the names have returned, although floor space continues to decline and side programs have been cut back. Hillary Clinton will speak at an hour-long event billed as "An Evening With Hillary Clinton" and is expected to promote a book of essays coming this September that will touch upon her loss to Donald Trump in 2016. Daughter Chelsea Clinton will be autographing her picture book "She Persisted" and Stephen King will make a joint appearance with son Owen King. Other featured speakers include Dan Brown, Kevin Hart and Sen. Al Franken, promoting his memoir "Al Franken, Giant of the Senate."

Events director Brien McDonald says that the convention will address issues within and beyond book publishing. A First Amendment "resistance" panel organized by PEN America, the literary and human rights organization, will include Scott Turow and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. A discussion sponsored by the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books is called "Real Talk About Real Apologies." The panel's moderator, Laura M. Jimenez, noted that Rick Riordan apologized for inappropriately using the term "spirit animal," a sacred creature for some American Indians, in his novel "The Sword of Summer." Little, Brown and Co., publisher of Lemony Snicket's (aka Daniel Handler's) picture book "The Bad Mood and the Stick," promised to remove images of blacks by illustrator Matt Forsythe that were criticized as racist.

Jimenez said she wanted the panel to emphasize how "the overwhelming whiteness of publishing makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible for them to see the problematic representations."

"It seems the insular world of children's literature publishing creates a space where white people are unaware of their own privilege and, historically, have been unwilling to hear us," says Jimenez, a lecturer at Boston University's School of Education. "That is changing with Twitter and other social media outlets and blogs. ... I think an all-out drive for diversity in publishing is needed."

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