Book Wars: Superstores Shrink The Ranks of Independents

Booksellers convention also stirred by a clash over values

AT a convention this week, the American Booksellers Association flaunted such a brash, hanger-size sprawl of glitz - jazz bands, free massages, and text splashed in a harlequin smattering of CD-ROM - that books sometimes seemed just a humble afterthought.

But behind the occasionally obscured role of books at the annual publishing fair were two major conflicts: the "Culture Wars" over ethics and political values and the "Bookstore Wars," or the expansion of large corporate booksellers.

Speakers in several seminars at the fair warned that booksellers must face down stiff competitive pressures arising from the trend of consolidation sweeping the book trade as well as other industries.

Moreover, the speakers said bookstore owners must embrace technology, upgrade their wares, and streamline their businesses.

Several speakers warned that if booksellers do not combat "superstores" head on and seize new technology, their businesses will perish. "Last year was the toughest year ever for independently run bookstores in the United States," consultant Stephen Cogil told a seminar at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center.

Facing competition from the aggressive expansion of Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown, and other corporate chains, some 400 of the more than 5,000 US booksellers in 1994 either closed stores or decided not to renew their leases, Mr. Cogil said.

Until the superstores overexpand and prompt a shakeout late this decade, independent sellers must emphasize their greater affection for books and intimate customer service, he added. But even the most solicitous seller will probably not be able to stay in business without matching the high-tech efficiency of the big players.

In a seminar entitled "EDI or Die," panelists urged booksellers to adopt Electronic Data Interchange - a way for businesses to directly exchange data between computers.

Booksellers and buyers use EDI for many time-consuming transactions, from order processing and accounts receivable to purchasing and accounts payable. Users can yield cost savings of up to 5 percent, says Fred Hoffman, owner of WordsWorth Books in Cambridge, Mass. "The issue is not whether to get involved in EDI but [when]."

Still, independent booksellers who survive competition from large corporations might not beat back a future rival.

Desktop computer entrepreneurs can save readers a trip to the bookstore by either ordering regular books, net books, or booklike text via computer modem.

INDEED, entrepreneurs have only begun to exploit the Internet for a unique, targeted market. The Internet offers "an incredible opportunity for targeted marketing of information," said Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly & Associates, a publisher of books on the Internet based in Sebastopol, Calif.

As if the uncertainties of pawning books are not stimulating enough, many booksellers threw themselves into the controversies over values and political ethics jarring publishing and other pillars of US culture.

At a "power breakfast" and "power lunch," convention-goers joined media and political glitterati flogging new publications: Hillary Rodham Clinton; House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Gen. Colin Powell; and Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post.

Referring to recent calls for limits on free speech, Mr. Bradlee said Sunday, "The republic is not nearly as threatened by [Rush] Limbaugh and Time-Warner as it would be if we tried to shut [them] up."

The next day, protesters blindsided Mr. Gingrich as he addressed many convention participants. Speaking over shouts of activists opposed to the "Contract With America," Gingrich said: "I cannot give you a better example of why I wanted to write a book than the kind of nonsense yelling and screaming that all too often substitutes for political debate in America." Guards hustled the protesters from the hall.

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