21st Century Bookselling

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The whole paradigm for selling and promoting books has been shifting over the past few years. To a certain degree, Nashville was insulated from those changes by Davis-Kidd Booksellers, which was not just a huge store, but also a gathering place for book clubs and the city’s main venue for author events.

That all changed when the store closed last fall. And in the months since, Nashville’s book community has begun to fall more in line with the national trends.

Erik Larson poses for a photo while signing copies of "In the Garden of Beasts." His stop at Nashville Public Library was the first event of his national book tour.

Erik Larson poses for a photo while signing copies of “In the Garden of Beasts.” His stop at Nashville Public Library was the first event of his national book tour.

A New Place to Meet Authors

 

Steve Baughman is lucky. The high school teacher only had to wait fifteen minutes to meet author Erik Larson. Once he gets his turn, Baughman makes a special request for the two students he brought along. He says they’re too poor to buy books, and asks if Larson would sign post-it notes.

The author looks at them for a beat before delivering his response in a clear voice: “I’ll sign anything.”

The line of people still waiting snakes the length of the downtown library’s art gallery and spills out into the hall. This spring, the library became a stop on book tours, so that Nashville would still have a place for the kind of interactions with authors that Baughman says are important.

“Especially with my students, being able to bring them out and let them see that this is real, real people are writing these books, that this was somebody’s passion for a real long time.”

The conventional wisdom used to be that most author events should happen at bookstores, surrounded by shelf after shelf of books for sale. But these days, if an author is sent on tour at all, many publishers prefer venues much bigger than a store.

Bigger is Better

 

Harper Collins publicist Jane Beirn says they’re attractive for a simple reason. “Oh, more people! And much better to have it crowded than to have it half full, if you know what I mean.”

The library event pulled in about 200 people. Not everyone stopped at the sales table, but Beirn says that kind of crowd still gives a publisher plenty of bang for its buck—especially since now there are less visible options for impulse buys.

To illustrate that point, Beirn tells of one of her authors’ recent events. “Someone came up to him afterward and said ‘While you were reading, or speaking, I downloaded your book onto my kindle.’ The ebooks are very important, they’ve kind of revived the whole industry.”

According to Publishers Weekly, e-book sales shot up 159% in the first quarter of this year. Sales of traditional, printed books dropped 23%. Given figures like that, it may be tempting to write the obituary for bricks and mortar bookstores in Nashville–and everywhere else. But after years of declines, the American Booksellers Association has now reported growth in its membership rolls for two years running. That’s possible because the stores are evolving, too.

It’s All In the Blend

 

It’s not surprising if Bookman/Bookwoman in Hillsboro Village doesn’t come to mind as a player in the new books game. After all, most of the store’s tall shelves are stacked two-layers deep with used copies. But about a quarter of its sales come from new titles.

Saralee Wood opened Bookman/Bookwoman 15 years ago to sell off her husband's substantial collection of books. These days new books are prominently featured in the store's window displays.

Saralee Wood opened Bookman/Bookwoman 15 years ago to sell off her husband’s substantial collection of books. These days new books are prominently featured in the store’s window displays.

The shop carries bestsellers like the Hunger Games and the latest titles from local authors, and in the last few months, owner Saralee Wood has stepped up efforts to let customers know. She’s also started reporting their sales to the New York Times bestseller list, a task she used to leave to the big chains and Davis-Kidd. “It was really us thinking what do we need to do for our local and regional authors,” says Wood. “We wanted to make sure they were getting the positive feedback they needed to get.”

Still, no matter how much she ramps up the focus on new books, Wood says the used ones lend a certain stability. “We’re doing what more and more people are going to be doing. We just got back from a buying trip and I was in a new bookstore that is spending Wednesday through Saturday buying books back from their customers. They’re not a used bookstore at all but now they’re going to take back books.”

That idea of finding strong footing by offering a different kind of mix is taking another form about a mile away on West End Avenue. The space that used to house a Borders is set to become a cross between the Vanderbilt University campus bookstore and a Barnes and Noble.

Others are betting that traditional stores can still work-if they’re small. Nashville author Ann Patchett expects to have a shop open by the holidays that she says will be on “human scale:” 2- to 4-thousand square feet, not the 36-thousand that Davis-Kidd once occupied.

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