A rejoinder from Dave Weich of Powell’s Books

Earlier this week, I briefly interviewed Dave Weich of Powell’s Books about the store’s dual focus on traditional and Internet customers.

In the exchange, I mentioned that I worry, particularly as neighborhood bookstores (traditional outlets for used books) fall by the wayside, and the cost of new books at the chains continues to skyrocket, about lower-income readers who lack the resources to buy the books for sale online. In response, Mr. Weich noted that most public libraries offer free Internet access and that online book sales have driven down the price of books. He acknowledged that purchasing books online requires a credit card, but said that while “some people will be left out,” “relative to the price of a movie, to cite one example, the book industry holds up quite well.”

When the interview appeared, the proprietor of the Literary Saloon took strong exception to Weich’s perspective. Since I ran the original piece, and remain concerned about the inaccessibility of Internet book sales to low-income readers, Mr. Weich has followed up in email, offering some further thoughts. I’m posting them here without comment and plan to examine some of these issues further in a mammoth, future post, already in progress, about bookstores.

Dave Weich’s response:

In a blog entry dated October 27, 2005, the proprietor of the Literary Saloon, Michael Orthofer, suggests that Powells.com is hypocritical for publishing an essay decrying contemporary fiction’s reluctance to grapple with very real issues of poverty when its director of content (that would be me) fails to acknowledge those same problems. To support the claim, he refers to an email exchange posted on MaudNewton.com.

Maud asked whether the Internet deprives lower-income readers of access to books. She cited the disappearance of neighborhood bookstores and the high price of new hardcovers to support the hypothesis.

Mr. Orthofer took a line from my response so thoroughly out of context (and subsequently made such damning indictments on my character) that it hardly seemed worth my energy to respond. On the other hand, he’s given me an opportunity to engage smart readers in a fact-based dialogue about the book industry. So here goes.

My reply to Maud stated, first, that free Internet access is widely available at public libraries around the country. Next, that the Internet has driven down the market price of books. (Not the list price, granted, but the market price: the amount a customer pays.) With those factors in mind, I expressed some confusion about the question’s premise. (Orthofer chose not to reprint those elements of my answer.)

In dark, pre-Internet times, you bought a book from your local bookstore or you didn’t buy the book. With or without a credit card, a reader in a mid-sized American city had access to books stocked on the shelves of its local stores, and only those books. Today, that same reader has access, over the Internet or through her local stores’ supply chain, to ten or a hundred or even a thousand times as many titles. Internet technology has greatly enhanced the ability of brick-and-mortar bookstores to special-order titles for their local customers — who can then pay with cash, if they choose. Meanwhile, vendors operating online (not just Powells.com and Amazon and BN.com, but smaller shops on ABE, Alibris, Marketplace, and eBay), subject to the unprecedented consumer leverage comparison search engines afford (see Bookfinder.com, Bestbookbuys.com, among others), have saturated the market for most titles; with only a few clicks — and yes, a credit card — customers can often find recent bestsellers for under a dollar. And the same web-based tools that serve booksellers have impacted the library industry, as well. Suddenly a small branch, networked with partner facilities, can deliver exponentially more volumes to its neighborhood. For free.

That leaves the disappearance of neighborhood booksellers — not one of the happier developments in my lifetime, it’s true — but Barnes and Noble superstores (and Borders, etc.) did their worst damage in the eighties and nineties. Now Costco sells books, too; this spring, Target pre-sold copies of Harry Potter VI by stocking co-branded gift cards at their registers. To blame the Internet for the demise of independent bookselling is to disregard trends that have been reshaping the industry for the last twenty years. Yet despite all the competition, despite the tough market, independents are making strides. After controlling nearly 40% of the market in the eighties, indies bottomed out at between 14-15% (measured in units sold) as this decade began. In the last few years, however, market share has rebounded so that it’s now close to 17% — not exactly the glory days, I will grant you, but a resurgence that gives great hope to the American Booksellers Association.

Reality: The web has made available more books to more people through the most diverse and readily available channels that publishing has ever seen. It has provided local bookstores and libraries with vastly improved systems to deliver a deeper inventory, faster, to walk-in customers. It has driven down the market price of books. Additionally, it allows the average Joe to recoup some of the money spent on books by reselling them used through platforms like Marketplace and eBay.

The study Orthofer cites notes, “Credit cards have become common in most Americans’ lives. In 1980, 56 percent of American adults had at least one credit card. Now, that number has grown to 76 percent. Accessing credit has gotten easier for everyone.”

Credit is not readily available to America’s poorest citizens, it’s a fact. (I’m inclined to point out that credit creates many of America’s poor, but never mind that for now.) 13% of Americans don’t even have checking accounts, he notes — and that’s indeed a frightening thought. But here’s a newsflash for Orthofer: People that poor aren’t buying books in the first place, not from retail stores, anyway. At yard sales, possibly, or church fund-raisers, perhaps, but not malls, not indies. Which leaves maybe 10% of America’s potential book-buying public without access to credit (given the likely increase in credit card ownership since your study, which you acknowledge). Consider that plenty of adults make a conscious decision to stay off the credit grid (working for an eCommerce business, I hear from these folks first-hand). That leaves approximately 5% of the book buying public that’s incapable of ordering books online. And all the while brick-and-mortar stores persist. Where is the net loss? I’m still trying to see how poor Americans are disenfranchised by this technology.

I would like to thank Orthofer for linking to Laila Lalami’s essay. It’s a great piece that I’m proud to have published at Powells.com.

One final note: Early this summer, Powells.com decided to support the LitBlog Co-op by discounting and promoting its “Read This!” selections. As a member of the co-op, Orthofer was given the opportunity to identify a local bookseller of choice, to which we would link from our site. Fifteen of Orthofer’s colleagues took us up on this offer. Orthofer declined. Meanwhile, his web site links exclusively to Amazon.com. I’d love to hear his rationale for those decisions.


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