The COVID-19 effect on independent bookstores

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Type Books in Toronto. Image: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr

When the world went into lockdown three months ago, bookstores across the country were forced to close alongside everything else. But the coronavirus-related closures threatened to have a particularly wrenching effect on Canada's independent booksellers, who have seen their share of challenges over the years.

The average book reader doesn't necessarily imagine what is best for the book industry when buying a book on a whim. And this type of consumer isn't likely to dwell on the quarter century-long struggle the independent bookstores have faced since the invention of Amazon, brick-and-mortar bookstore chains, rising shipping costs, higher rents and other factors that affect the book industry. For decades now, generations of booklovers and have been trained to buy their books from larger, less personal outlets.

Many book enthusiasts (those who buy between five and 25 new books a year) have a limited understanding of how authors earn money. Hint: it's often not from book sales. While royalties do play a huge factor into the income for authors with household names, the average Canadian author earns far more money on advances, festival appearances, awards and fees for conference or academic appearances.

The average reader, by no fault of her own, might simply be unaware that buying books from Amazon doesn't have the same effect as buying from an independent bookstore. After all, the next time you shop at Amazon, no one is coming up to you and asking how you are enjoying Daughters of Silence by Rebecca Fisseha, which might have been recommended to you because that indie bookseller worked the book launch where they heard the author read. Another customer in the store overhears this conversation and picks up Fisseha's debut novel, and so on.

That's why I'm hoping to treat this essay as an olive branch to book readers across the country. Think of buying books from an independent store as an investment in a writer's entire career. Handselling is one of the most successful means of selling books (I know from personal experience as a former bookseller that a lot of consumers love book recommendations).

Festival curators often talk to booksellers on the regular. So, your enthusiasm on any level at the indie bookstore level can help an author's chances to make more money directly from an elongated period of hype. And guess who comes to festivals to sell books all day and night? An independent bookstore.

Things begin to build. Other stores may ask the author to come in to do signings. While a book signing doesn't pay anything to the author (save for those eventual royalties), it does increase the author's profile. A magazine like Geist may hear the buzz about a new author from a bookseller. Then Geist contacts the book's publisher, asks to run an excerpt and is willing to pay a fee. That's more money for the author. The book's success will determine how much money the author will make on their next book as well, so that when their agent negotiates a new book contract, the publisher can look back and see how the sales were for their last book and negotiate a larger paid advance.  

While independently owned bookstores have survived these changing times, now, more than ever, during COVID-19, consumers can make their book purchase mean something more than a blip on an Amazon rating. They can discover new stores in their hometowns that want to compete directly with these giants. And they can support Canadian publishing.

Bookstores across the country, such as Fredericton's Westminster Books, Ottawa's Perfect Books, Montreal's Argo Bookshop and Vancouver's The Paper Hound have been filling demands for special orders, regular requests by appointment and delivering books within the city.

Mark Laliberte, publisher of Carousel magazine, says the owner of Biblioasis Bookshop in Windsor personally dropped off his order free of charge within a day or so, while Toronto author Maggie MacDonald didn't have to think twice when it came to her favourite store. "Type on Queen West offers curbside pickup. You call in an order and then walk over and get it. I love it because I have friendships with the booksellers in my neighbourhood and I can still ask them for personal recommendations. A brick-and-mortar book store is about culture and relationships and the curbside model sustains that while we wait for the reopening."

"My experience buying books from my local bookstores during COVID-19 has been a positive one. It has been easy enough to order via phone and conduct curbside pick-ups with Ottawa's Perfect Books," says Ottawa poet Ben Ladouceur. "But I miss going into both of these places and others, and browsing around. And I can't imagine how bookstores will work exactly in the near future, when touching and handling and opening books is such a big part of the shopping experience. I have noticed myself reading book reviews like lithub more, which I think is my way of making up for long, luxurious, quiet visits to bookstores -- a form of stress relief I miss dearly. But it's a pale imitation."

Patrcia Massy, owner of Massy Books in Vancouver, says that before COVID hit, the store was scheduled to participate and host over 40 events in the months following, which were all cancelled. Each year, the popular store participates in over a hundred events, including festivals and book launches. These events translate to brand awareness, extra revenue in a shorter burst of time (the average book event is a two-hour affair, with sales usually at the beginning and tail end). "Events are a vital part of our business model and make up a large portion of our revenue. In one day, when the closure of non-essential businesses were asked to shut down, we immediately lost an estimated $10,000 in revenue," Massy told me. The forced closure affected other revenue streams, including monies from Growing Room Festival that the store was supposed to be part of. "Thankfully, Room Magazine and Massy did a social media promotion, offering to donate 50 per cent of all sales from Growing Room titles back to Growing Room and managed to donate over $600 back to the host magazine."

Now that events are not really an option for the foreseeable future, Massy is focusing on online orders and delivery, and online promotion. "We are selling an enormous amount of new books which is getting us through this time! Lots of community support and excitement over reading, which is a beautiful thing to see."

While the uncertainty has been devastating for these businesses, it has provided these stores with insight into sales they would have never otherwise had. "It has certainly been a difficult period," says Jessica Paul of Munro's Books in Victoria, but she has been happily surprised with the overall adaptation. "We already had an online store, and our customers were quick to adapt to purchasing online while we were closed to the public for two months. We are now back open with a limited capacity, and it has been wonderful to see the enthusiasm that customers express from being able to browse the shelves again." 

Nathaniel G. Moore is a small press activist and award-winning author of Savage 1986-2011. His new book Honorarium: essays 2001-2021, is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2021. All his books are available for order at local independent bookstores. He lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and runs moorehype.

Image: Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr

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