Powells: selling to traditional and online book markets

As part of MaudNewton.com’s ongoing quest to assess the future prospects of independent bookstores, I asked Dave Weich, the director of marketing and development for Oregon’s Powell’s Books, to participate in a brief interview.

Powell’s has been around for more than thirty years. And, unlike many independent booksellers, it successfully straddles the brick-and-mortar and Internet book markets.

(The online division has gotten some flak from authors for focusing heavily on used books, but if used book sales are a crime against literature — and I don’t believe they are; everybody’s entitled to read a good yarn, whether or not she has $25 to plunk down for a hardback — I should be incarcerated by now. Approximately 70% of the books I buy were owned by somebody else first. But if I pick up a used book and rave about it to two friends, and they tell two friends, why, it’s real-life proof of the axiom at the root of that awful old shampoo commercial.)

Weich fielded my questions via email.

MN: Does Powell’s sell more books in the stores or through the website?

DW: 30% of Powell’s sales are transacted online.

MN: Do you know what percentage of your online orders originate outside of Oregon?

DW: 82% of powells.com orders are placed by customers outside of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

MN: There will always be some demand for brick-and-mortar bookstores — people enjoy pulling books from shelves, feeling the heft of the physical objects, turning to random pages — but is that demand dwindling?

DW: They will survive — in the form of one or two large national chains, many small used shops, and some feisty independents undeterred by lackluster profits. One fascinating lesson it’s hard not to glean from independent bookseller conventions is that very few store owners start off as businesspeople. They love books; and business is the necessary evil that running a bookstore entails. This explains to some degree why many don’t survive. It’s not so different from the restaurant/bar industry — a dream life to many, based on lifestyle rather than ambition or fiscal reality. But that dream isn’t likely to die any time soon. The question for the next twenty years doesn’t seem so much “Will brick-and-mortars survive?” as “Who will own them?” “What services will they provide?” and “What range of inventory will they carry?”

MN: I worry about lower-income readers who may lack the resources to buy books online, especially since the going rate for new hardcovers at the chains is upwards of $20, while neighborhood bookstores outside of urban centers are folding left and right. Is this a problem?

DW: I don’t follow the logic of the Internet hurting lower-income readers. Almost all public libraries provide Internet access. Indisputably, the Internet has driven down the price of books, both new (via Amazon and other discounters) and used (via nationwide access to sites like Powell’s, Marketplace, Abe, Alibris, and Ebay). Not the list price, granted, but the market price. Yes, you need a credit card to order online, but last time I checked you needed a credit card to breathe in America. Absolutely, some people will be left out, but relative to the price of a movie, to cite one example, the book industry holds up quite well.

MN: As an avid reader on the front lines, do you think there’s something to this “fiction is dead” business? If so, what draws in the next generation? Manga? E-books? And if not, why the enduring appeal of this story?

DW: People who claim that fiction is dead have too much time on their hands. Investigate, and I bet you’ll discover that most of them spent lots of that time in a graduate program of some kind. I don’t even know where to start with this one, but how about: Harry Potter, Oprah, Dan Brown, Zadie Smith, litblogs, Ann Patchett, Ian McEwan, writing programs, Neal Stephenson, Alice Munro… Oh, wait: Dan Brown = the death of fiction. (Sometimes I lose focus and forget to be so judgmental of people’s taste.) I suspect that the voices making this claim are the same ones you hear bemoaning the state of popular music. Everyone wants to believe things aren’t as good as they once were — and it’s true that all art experiences stronger and weaker periods — but mostly I find a severe lack of perspective in these declarations, as if eighty years ago Americans opened their lunch pails and argued about the impact of those strange, single-page interstitials in the new Hemingway collection.

(In conclusion, Dave wants you to know that he went to graduate school, himself. “And enjoyed it. Sort of.”)


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