Monday, December 10, 2007

The Holiday Doldrums

Sunday was a glorious day away from the book business. My wife and I spent the afternoon baking batches of oatmeal raisin and sugar cookies for a book group we attended in the evening. It was an idyllic scene -- until my wife tried to rope me into decorating the Christmas cookies. Isn't it enough that we baked sugar cookies shaped as angels and gingerbread men? Do I have to meticulously coat them with red and green powdered sugar frosting? In protest, I lay on the couch reading the Sunday New York Times, while my wife put the finishing touches on the gingerbread men. By the way, what in the world do gingerbread men have to do with Jesus or Santa Claus?

Baking was a great respite from the doom and gloom of the holiday season at the bookstore. The momentum that the store had built up at the end of November with its strong post-Thanksgiving sales quickly dissipated last weekend under a blanket of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. I spent most of Saturday on the selling floor searching for customers to help. There were some shoppers, and they were very grateful for the assistance and guidance I was able to provide, but I really shouldn't have to look for the customers. We should be so busy on the afternoon of December 8th that people should be accosting me at every turn. On a really rocking day, they trail behind me like a line of baby ducks, with shopping lists clutched in their mitten-covered hands and looks of desperation on their faces.

I couldn't help but think, as I watched all those flakes fall outside of the store's front door and accumulate on the bricks of the walking mall, that I should be up in the mountains cross-country skiing. It must be beautiful up there in the stately pine trees, I fantasized, as yet another version of "The Little Drummer Boy" played over the store's sound system. It must be peaceful among the silent drifts of snow.

Even more disheartening than missing a fine day of skiing was doing the ordering this morning. We aren't out of any important books. We aren't even close to sold out of anything. This makes my job easier, and I don't have the anxiety about missing potential sales because of sold-out titles, but the truth is that I crave the excitement of having to restock the store after a busy Christmas weekend. I get in by 7:30 a.m. and start calling the various warehouses and publishers seeking books. I'll second-day air titles, perhaps I'll even over-night a particularly hot title. Shipping fees be damned, our customers need their books. Not this morning. Instead, I looked across the desk to our recommended buyer and asked her if anything was really taking off in her sections. She mentioned all the overstock we had.

It's now December 10th, and there still isn't a hot hardback title this season. We have a few paperbacks moving, but no new book has captured the imagination of our independent and literary-minded readers. Sometimes, I wonder if we are at the beginning of a sea change in this industry. In Christopher Anderson's book The Long Tail, he discusses how selling a few copies of many different items will be the way of the future. I'm a believer in the long tail, I just didn't think the head and neck would get chopped off in the process.

Are books going the way of music and television? I don't mean the digitization (even though it's hard to make it through a party these days without being asked about Amazon's wireless book reader, The Kindle), but the market fragmentation. Music is just a series of niche genres, with hardly any acts drawing a mass audience. Television is divided into so many channels that no single show can achieve the ratings that the networks used to rack up on a regular basis up until the 1980s. In 1964, the Ed Sullivan show drew an audience of 73 million for the Beatles first appearance. Is there any music group or television show that could even come close to that number now? No way -- even though there are 100 million more people in America now.

Is it possible that the same market forces are tearing at books? Harry Potter and Eat, Pray, Love would seem to argue against it, but everything else seems to point towards a more fragmented market. Is this just the natural result of cultural diversity? Or maybe there simply isn't a general reading public for literary books anymore. Perhaps individual authors and books, like musicians, are appealing to an ever narrower and narrower subset of people.

I don't have the answers to these questions, but it sure makes me uncomfortable that so few literary books seem to strike a chord with a mass audience. It may be that the only titles that work on that level nowadays are James Patterson novels and celebrity biographies. The chains, along with the discounters, have those markets cornered. If mindless formulaic titles are the only books that can really break through the cacophony of sights and sounds in our culture, it could be that mega-bestselling hardbacks will be few and far between for independent book stores. All we will have left is a few popular paperbacks -- and "the tail." You know, it's never a good idea to let the tail wag the beast.

Maybe this weekend I'll bake a pineapple upside down cake. It seems only fitting given the mood that the holidays have put me in.

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