Stay Hungry

Surviving the book wars and outfoxing the wolves with the Hungry Mind's David Unowsky

The same thing happened across the nation. In Denver, Joyce Meskis's indie megastore, The Tattered Cover, was battered by what she calls "relentless" expansion--four superstores opened within a few miles of her business. Richard Howorth, who owns Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and currently serves as president of the ABA, offers somewhat more strident criticism of the chains: "They're a bunch of bastards. They offer this perception of bringing books and reading to the masses, but the number of books sold is actually going down. The superstores fill this vast inventory, then return their orders to the publishers, so the publishers' profits go down....It all leads to incredible disruptions that harm stable businesses in this important industry. We think it's predatory and illegal."

Unowsky concurs: "It's one of the big lies they tell. They say they create the market for books, when actually the market is past its saturation point. The only reason they maintain that kind of inventory is to drive smaller stores out."

Lyle Starkloff, an assistant manager of the Uptown Borders, contends that "the intent is not to drive anyone out of business. It's just supply and demand. I personally try to avoid the us-versus-them mentality."

Christopher Henderson

The problem, according to Howorth and Unowsky--booksellers who don't demur to the us-versus-them mentality--is that while chain stores give the impression of selection and diversity, the vast majority of books that make it into readers' hands are those from publishers willing to pay for extra promotion through "face-outs" and endcaps (prominent display in windows and on shelves and retail floors). Books from small publishers like the Hungry Mind Press might make it onto the shelves at Barnes and Noble, Unowsky says, but they are likely to be returned without being sold.

Sarah DiFrancesco, a regional community relations manager for Barnes and Noble, rebuts the claim that chains are either predatory in their business practices or antithetical to intellectual diversity. "Everybody tries to service the customer as best they can. We look for markets where there are unfilled opportunities. We've just opened our 13th local store, in the Mall of America, so we obviously think there's bigger pies to be grown."

Yet the pie, according to the Book Industry Study Group, is shrinking. Simply put, there are fewer people buying books and more people than ever selling them, including the newest addition to the fray: the online media merchant. Amazon.com, which was founded in 1995 by an exceptionally perceptive venture capitalist named Jeff Bezos, now boasts a list of around 1.7 million book titles and a roll of over 8 million customers. Although massive marketing expenditures have kept Amazon.com from turning a profit (the company reported a staggering loss of $61.7 million in the first quarter of 1999), online book retailing represents a new foe for all retail booksellers. "It's a complete economic absurdity," says Howorth. "It's a new way of selling books and a completely different beast, albeit one that looks more like a monopoly every day. Amazon's competitors are also showing their monopolistic tendencies by refusing to concede defeat even when they're losing tons of money. It's nuts. It also sort of makes sense."

When asked if Amazon.com discounts prices to unprofitable levels in order to undercut competitors, Lizzie Allen, public relations manager for the company's book division, responds: "We at Amazon have great affection for independent bookstores. We think they're an important part of the community. And we by no means wish to replace them. The experience of the virtual and the real world is different. They offer the physical experience of holding a book in your hands and cracking the spine. That's something we can't replace and wouldn't want to."

If Internet retailers don't necessarily want to replace real-world bookstores, however, they do seem intent on seizing their share of the sales. Barnes and Noble was quick to jump on the cyberbandwagon, and its Barnesandnoble.com, co-owned with German media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, now has around 1.7 million regular customers. Borders soon followed suit with its own Web site as well.

Though late to the game, the ABA is now working to establish a net presence for independents. The Book Sense Web site (Booksense.com), which is scheduled to be online by August, will allow customers to order from an Amazon.com-like database and will credit the nearest Book Sense indie store for the sale. While the Hungry Mind will be a part of this project, Unowsky, a self-described tech novice, is skeptical about the reaching implications of online bookselling. "I'm mystified by the popularity of Amazon.com....I personally don't visualize an America where everyone sits at home ordering stuff off their computer and never seeing anyone but the UPS man. That's a horrible vision of the future."

Even for a savant, the times are confusing. The indie-versus-chain war is a tired old song by now--so tired, in fact, that it has already been turned into a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film. The current conflict is like the one in You've Got Mail, except that in real life, Meg would have sued Tom, turned him in to the FTC, and set his hair on fire. And, according to Unowsky, there are more pernicious corporate forces at work than the expansion of superstores and Amazon.com. The publishing world--the business end of the supply chain for both the Hungry Mind and the superstores--has changed dramatically over the last decade and the changes are having an equally dramatic effect on the books that end up on the nation's shelves.

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