The Current Bookselling Environment

The book publishing market is tough right now. Earlier this week, Publishers Weekly reported that:

Rough Seas

Bookstore sales continued their perfect record in 2007 in May, falling for the fifth consecutive month. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sales in May were down 4.3%, to $1.10 billion, and were off by the same percentage for the first five months of the year. Bookstore sales totaled $6.20 billion in the January through May period. For the entire retail segment, sales were up 5.6% in May and were ahead 4.1% for the first five months of 2007.

In the last few months, I have spoken with most of our largest bookstore customers. A few have reported being up. Most have reported being down. Regardless, everyone acknowledges that the bookselling environment is not what they had hoped it would be when the year began.

The real question is, “why?” What is driving this decline in book sales? I think there are at least four factors:

  1. High gasoline prices. Gas prices are up 6.8 percent for the quarter ending in June compared to the same period last year. This is not much, but I believe it has a psychological impact on consumers’ willingness to spend money on discretionary items. To be sure, they are continuing to spend money, as the U.S. Census Bureau numbers prove. However, more of their money is going to other items. This is the one variable that publishers and booksellers can’t really fix. As they say, “it is what it is.”
  2. Competition from alternative media. This is a factor that, frankly, I have been reluctant to acknowledge. But consider how many different alternatives people have today for entertainment: television, movies, music, computer games, live events, and, of course, the Internet. Reading habits are changing—and not for the better. This is particularly worrisome when you observe how teenagers spend their time. I don’t see many reading books. Somehow we have to create more compelling products that capture their imagination.
  3. Growth of online bookselling. Last year, the major bookstore chains reported that there sales were basically flat to slightly down. Meanwhile, grew 26 percent. This includes all product categories. However, media sales alone grew 21 percent domestically. The brick-and-mortar stores are having to scramble. It’s increasingly difficult to compete against Amazon on selection, price, or convenience. About the only thing booksellers have left—and this is significant if they exploit it—is the experience consumers have inside their stores.
  4. The lack of blockbuster titles. As everyone in the book publishing business knows, big titles drive traffic. When you have a major release like the current Harry Potter book, consumers have a reason to make a trip to the bookstore. And, while they are buying that big book, they often pick up other books on their way to the cash register. Of course, if you are a publisher, you hope to publish the big books. But even if you don’t, you still benefit from the traffic, particularly if traffic is coming to your category. Unfortunately, as a predominantly religious publisher, we haven’t seen any big blockbusters since The Purpose Driven Life or Your Best Life Now.

Am I discouraged by the current environment? No. But I am challenged. For the first quarter of our fiscal year (April through June), our sales are up against last year by low double digits. In a market segment that is down by 4.3 percent for the calendar year, this is huge.

But, still, we are not where I had hoped we would be. We still have a lot of work to do to hit our numbers for the year. Thankfully, we will start shipping our biggest titles for the year in this current quarter. These include Max Lucado’s 3:16 and the Word of Promise: New Testatment Audio Bible. Hopefully, with these titles—and a few big titles from our competitors—we will drive some store traffic and everyone will benefit.

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  • Cara Putman

    I think the visual media are a challenge, but content drives some people away from that. I’m down to one or two TV shows a season that I set my schedule by. And my husband and I can go months without seeing a movie; this summer’s been an anomaly for us, and that’s because of all the third in a series that have come out. Other than Transformers, we haven’t gone to see anything that stands on its own.

    I think the real challenge is for the brick-and-mortar stores to differentiate themselves. They have to have knowledgable sales staff who can hand sell books. Otherwise, Amazon or CBD often can be a cheaper choice. Some of our stores are hosting movie nights once a month or opening back areas for other meetings, and I think that can be a great way to keep people in the store who otherwise might drive by without ever stopping.

    Those are my thoughts from Indiana.

  • rick womack

    I especially agree with #’s 2 & 4…as for gas prices, curious how Starbucks has been by discretionary spendiong. Every time I ride by and see it packed out I can’t help but think their discretionary spending isn’t affected that much…

    My other two cents, I think retailers need to look at creating atmosphere’s that draw people in – while I enjoy my local Christian book, I love the atmosphere of my local Barnes & Noble! My local Christian bookstore does nothing to make me WANT to be there…”WANT” in my opinion is the beginning of bringing to ‘your local store’

    Enjoy your posts…have a great weekend.

  • Linda

    One thing that isn’t mentioned that might be an issue is the high cost of books. Romantic Times did a survey of readers a few years ago, and one of the biggest things the readers commented on was that they didn’t buy as many books as they used to because the prices had gotten so high. I know that I stopped buying hardcovers completely because I ended up with far too many books that didn’t live up to the cost. I’ve recently started getting books at the library instead of buying them because even the paperbacks are expensive and not always worth the money. I love to read, but the high cost of books is starting to factor into whether I buy or not.

  • Dave Anthold

    I confess that buy quite a bit of my book titles on because of the good price; however, I also find my way into Barnes & Noble and Borders and usually walk away with a book or two. It does require self-restraint sometimes.

    Also, I have already pre-ordered Max Lucado’s book 3:16. In response to teenagers not reading, I totally understand that. I was leading the youth at my church and they said they don’t read the Bible, but then they don’t even read books. It’s a sad thing and I hope it changes. I personally read and/or listen to books now. I have a nice commute to work, so it is easier to get through books on audio then sitting down and reading them. If they are good, I will go back and purchase them.

  • Paul K. Smith


    Mike, in your quest as publisher for, quote, “a compelling product that captures the imagination” of the reader, perhaps you would benefit from a strategic alliance.

    When RCA could not sell the first color TVs, NBC obligingly created a TV show in color called BONANZA — aired it for the family on Sunday nights — and the demand to see in color became a sales bonanza for NBC.

    And as for fighting the competition in a way that captures the imagination — when there wasn’t sufficient demand for his utility company’s AC-electric power, Tom Edison created the DC-electric chair — as a warning of the dangers of his competition, DC power. Judging from what comes out of the wall socket, I’d say Edison won.

    In your competition with alternate media like computer games — a competition worthy of becoming a crusade — any prospective book buyer could perceive a book publisher like Thomas Nelson to engaged in a battle with the satanic.

  • Philip

    Some of you might have read or heard about the recent Kids and Family Reading Report. The press release opens with: The time kids spend reading for fun declines sharply
    after age 8 and continues to drop off through the teen years, according to a new national
    study released today by Yankelovich, a leader in consumer trends tracking, and
    Scholastic, the global children’s publishing and media company. While 40% of kids
    between the ages of 5-8 years old are high frequency readers (reading for fun every day),
    only 29% of kids ages 9-11 years old are high frequency readers and the percentage
    continues to decline through age 17. The Kids and Family Reading Report™, a
    national survey of children ages 5-17 and their parents, also found that parents can have a
    direct impact on their kids’ reading attitudes and behaviors, especially by reading more
    frequently themselves and by helping kids find books they like. Find the report here.

    Another helpful post Mike, sorry Jennifer and I missed you at ICRS.

  • M.L. Eqatin

    Thank you, Mike, for keeping us updated on what is happening in the publishing world.
    I went from a never-bought-online customer to a 90% online purchaser in four years. Here’s what drove me:
    1. Availability of the titles I wanted.
    2. Being able to find out-of-print books.
    3. Becoming familiar with the online purchasing experience.
    4. Being able to look inside the book online.
    Here’s what I hate about online buying:
    1. I don’t like to see bookstores go out of business.
    2. Paying for the shipping.
    3. Waiting for the product.
    Until recently, I was resigned to the demise of the local bookstore. But now, I think salvation is on the way. It will take the form of the Espresso book machine you reported on recently, paired with internet services at the booksellers for browsing books.
    At some point in the near future, most bookstores will have one of these instant bookmakers on-site. Publishers will digitally archive their titles for transmission to the machines over an internet connection, making the whole idea of ‘out of print’ obsolete. So when a customer wants a book, they go to the store and buy it, and the book is produced for them on the spot.
    See how this brings all the requirements together? Unlimited inventory, no shipping cost, and instant availability. Plus you get the atmosphere and the experience.
    And for me, the best thing about this scenario is the reduction in waste. It makes me sad to walk around a bookstore and think that over half the stock is going to end up in the dumpster unsold. Which should also reduce the risk of loss on any given title just as POD does.

  • Lynn Hopkins


    Why don’t you factor in your books that are sold on They may be competing with the stores but shouldn’t their growth be shared by the publishers?

  • Kelvin

    Great article for discussion. Two things need to be modified to adapt to a changing environment: books and bookstores. Books need to be shorter (see Prayer of Jabez) to adapt to shorter attention spans (and reduce the fluff, quite frankly–get to the point, already!) Books need to become more visually compelling and interesting if you’re going to hit the younger market. (Why are picture books just for kids?)

    Bookstores have to become a rewarding experience for shoppers to make them want to come, and need to link up with other consumer categories (bakery, travel agency, internet cafe, etc) that I never see anywhere. They can’t compete on price or convenience, so they have to become a place that people look forward to spending time in–and then somehow reward them financially for coming.

    I don’t buy the gas prices point. People prioritize. If they really want a book, they’ll buy it. But I do agree with another post…stop producing hardcover books that are so expensive. It doesn’t make any sense, except in extreme cases like Harry Potter.

  • Sherrie

    I work with teen girls. The market has picked up for this age group in the form of “teen girl world” topics such as dealing with mean girls, beauty and self-esteem issues, and chick lit is popular with preteens and teens.

    While schedules pick-up for teen girls due to increased activities at school and increased driving freedom, I think that if these kids are not reading as much it is b/c the reading is not as directed and book sellers are not targeting this age group enough. If you look at all of the ads targeted towards teen girls–clothing, make-up, food–they are aware that girls are coming into money and being trained to be consumers, all of these markets are after teens. Booksellers and publishers should consider doing the same.

    In reference to Phillip’s comment above, kids in the younger ages usually have fairly directed reading programs through school. As kids age into the teen years, teens are bringing home textbooks to read, but are not given reading lists or reinforced with award programs for reading as young kids are.

    This is a pretty discerning age group (despite what many believe)–the literature must be where they are at in life.

  • John

    Content is king and I take no pleasure in noting a large number of books that don’t deliver their hard back retail money’s worth. I’ve done focus group research with buyers who just don’t feel “led” to buy as many books as before. With older customers there is a sense of redundancy: ie Many Max Lucado John Maxwell books don’t feel all that different than the previous title. Left Behind wore out it’s welcome about 3 titles before it ended. With younger audience they think like USA Today and live in a world of blogs and quick thoughts not a long book. Their music is the same way. They don’t get into artists but songs and will download 1 or 2 of an artist but never jump on a bandwagon like maybe some of us did with Fleetwood Mac, or The Eagles.
    The younger audience is hard to figure. They love magazine articles and websites and I’ve seen too many books this year that feel like long magazine articles.
    We need better writing. Better editing. Not more books.
    The record breaking numbers on Harry Potter prove people will respond if we give them great product.

  • Michael

    Declining book sales is a complex issue around content offerings, new types of preferred consumption of content, etc.

    I would to posit another possible contributor – re-positioned impulse market.
    I am not sure the public taste for books is as diminished as things appear.

    So many sales are impulse purchase decisions. People browse, their interest is aroused, and they buy a book they had not planned to purchase.

    Since people are obviously not frequenting bookstores as much these days, the impulse purchases are what is taking the hit. People still buy the books they know they want, they just do it online where the impulse opportunities are diminished.

    People are not faced with as many opportunities to buy on impulse, because books are not where they are now frequenting.

    The public is becoming more eclectic in their taste and behavior and are less likely to frequent a bookstore. Information is so readily available, people are less likely to be motivated to go to a bookstore these days.

    It seems to me this is why Walmart and Costco are selling so many books. People see the books and buy on impulse because they are visible where they are. This is why Starbucks may also become a factor in books sales.

    Publishers need to revisit how the public is behaving and what methods are best for delivering books to the market. Especially that would capitalize on the impulse buy.