The pressure on independent booksellers tells just part of the story of uncertainty and change in the book business.
The big chains themselves face competition from supermarkets, drugstores, discount stores, and warehouse clubs. Publishers face bottom-line pressure to raise the volume on book sales, and the Internet is a marketing mystery demanding to be solved.
Total book sales in the US continue to rise, up 142 percent since 1986, but bookseller profits are shrinking.
That, plus a record number of books returned to publishers unsold, has spawned an industrywide debate about whether the system needs an overhaul.
"There was a lot of distribution of books into inefficient channels," says Steve Riggio, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest chain, with more than 550 stores plus 450 superstores. "They weren't booksellers and tended to only cream the top end of the business. I think some publishers paid the price [in returns] for their eager distribution of books into those channels. "
Jean Srnezc of Baker & Taylor, a book wholesaler in Somerville, N.J., says the record returns may be a one-time correction, but are keyed to fundamental challenges. "Part of the problem is the pressure on publishers to pay huge advances for a book because of competition," she says, "and if you do that, you have to print a lot to justify the advance. And if you don't market and promote the books, you can't expect to get shelf space.... It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
All this comes amid a "short-term focus" on profits by media conglomerates.
"The change I've seen is from thinking the overall book list will make money to expecting every book to make money," says Bill Strachan, director of Columbia University Press in New York. "It puts pressure all the way down the line."
The life cycle of a book is highly compressed these days. Computers track everything, and books that don't sell can be pulled in days.
Publisher HarperCollins - part of the Rupert Murdoch empire - recently canceled publication of about 100 mid-list books, those expected to bring moderate sales. Alarmed by returns and dwindling mid-list sales, HarperCollins needed to face "reality," explains company president Anthea Disney.
That's the kind of decision that, if repeated, could reduce diversity in the marketplace, say independent store owners.
The Internet deals a wild card into the mix. Booming book sales at Internet sites - notably Amazon.com with its 2.5 million discounted titles - hint at the potential for both profits and diversity. Barnes & Noble has jumped in with a site of its own (www.barnesandnoble.com). But the profitability of book sales on the Net remains unproved.