... Scott Perkins on bookselling and a changing market

Scott Perkins... Scott Perkins ...
... on bookselling and a changing market

To describe Scott Perkins is a challenge. He is incredibly versatile (builts masks from leather, is emerging at Renaissance markets as a fool, two weeks later at a Con in steampunk style), and works as a writer and seminar leader at the "TCC Writing & Tutoring Center," a Community Center.

He describes himself as "Optimist. Realist. Cynical idealist." - And all he is. In his "triple qualification" as author, seminar leader and bookseller, we have questioned him on the subject in the face of the collapse of one of the largest U.S. bookstore chains.

Scott PerkinsZauberspiegel: Scott, you are an author, a bookseller, blogger, artist ... I especially like your humour and you as the person I got to know so far ... Who is Scott Perkins and what does reading and writing mean to you?
Scott Perkins: I was raised in a home that was full of books -- they were on shelves, but also stacked in the garage, the attic, the basement, spare rooms... they surrounded me growing up. Both of my parents are readers, but my dad was just amazingly well-read and made it clear that it was the Only Way For A Man To Be.
It helped that we didn't have video game systems and rarely watched television at home, so books were where I went when I wanted to dream.
Before long, I started dealing with the world around me by writing. It's how I filter the world, how I organize it and cope with it. I think in stories.
You mentioned my sense of humor. That comes from my dad too. He had a very dry wit. He also sat me down in front of a radio and had me listen to these great old American radio shows from the 1930's and 1940's. I was the only kid in my school who actually understood all the jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons. I memorize things I hear very easily and at age fourteen, I could recite entire monologues by Groucho and Jack Benny -- comedians my peers had never heard of.
That kind of humor translates very well into writing because it's all about wordplay and meter. It's also very clean, but there's a deep undercurrent of the silly and even subversive, because it relies on you accepting this reality I'm creating with nothing but words.

Zauberspiegel: During our contact you often commented on the situation of the American book market. As a book seller and a writer you know a lot about the business of publishing and selling books. The latest news on the downgoing of bookshops is the closing of Borders. To those or our readers who are not so familiar with the book market in the US: Would you please describe the situation as you see it?
Scott Perkins: I worked for Borders for nine years or so, and hearing about the company finally giving up was heartbreaking. It was like being told that your old school burned down. Sure, it was institutional, and not everything that happened there was fun, but the friendships and contacts I made there, the lessons I learned about writing and business, will stick with me forever.
I think the business of physical bookstores only looks doomed because it's all viewed through the prism of the big barns like Borders and B&N. And yes, they are a huge percentage of the exposure writers and publishers have always relied upon and that will have to change, no doubt about it. But I think a hybrid model is emerging in the independent stores -- with a little help from Google and their eBookstores -- that is small, sustainable, and community-minded.
That's where Borders first started to go wrong, treating books like groceries. I was there when it started, when the CEO came to visit and told us books were "just like gum". Book buyers demand more. They demand value, yes, and when you are already losing that fight with your online rival, you cannot neglect the rest. Bookselling is a strange game, and you have to play it like a bookstore, because if you play it like a grocer, you're going to lose.
But on the whole, bookselling and publishing are changing, but they're not doomed. Something new will emerge and everyone will find ways to be more efficient and more diversified, and most of the onus of marketing the book will be (and already is) on the shoulders of the writer. And that's fine.
In my opinion, writers have been spoiled and it's time for us to join the rest of the artists of the world and be the loudest advocates of our work.

Zauberspiegel: Hm ... you mentioned several facts I would like to comment on and have further questions to it.
According to what you wrote it seems to me that you think the big bookstores will rather go down the drain, while small bookstores have a fair chance to survive. Am I right?
I rather had the feeling the small stores were the first ones to go and still die ... it only doesn't make that much noise when the small ones die.

Scott Perkins: I think that any bookseller who is fighting to keep open and stocked a bookstore the size of an airplane hanger, much less 300 of them, needs to reassess. There are a thousand sad stories about beloved independent bookstores that have been lost in the battle. Before thius is over, I'm afraid that some of every level of bookseller will shutter their stores.
Setting aside the big guys, there's a hierarchy of independent booksellers that can only be ranked by the business savvy of the owners. The so-called "Blue-chip" independents like Powell's in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver, The Strand in New York City, Elliot Bay here in Seattle and a few others are the models for finding ways to survive in the face of aggressive competition. They survived the invasion of Barnes & Noble and Borders into their cities by being smarter, more agile, faster to react to trends, more deeply connected to their communities.

Zauberspiegel: For better understanding: What is "blue-chip independent"?
Scott Perkins: Sorry. "Blue chip" is an expression taken from the stock market. A blue chip stock is one that is highly desirable, a consistent performer. So a blue chip independent bookstore is an independent bookstore that has the same qualities.

Zauberspiegel: Ah, ok. I see ... what - to your opinon - is a bookstore that is able to survive? What is it that Powell's, Elliott Bay and so on are doing right?
Scott Perkins: Well, speaking entirely as a customer since I've never worked for any of them... One of the things the large chains never quite got right was catering to local tastes. What sells well in Maine will often sit on the shelf and collect cobwebs in Oregon. Local stores like Powells and The Strand can tailor their offerings to fit those buying habits. Also, the independent bookstores have been the taste-makers for so long that it's hard to imagine a thriving book scene without them. Local book lovers depend heavily upon the recommendation of the booksellers at their local independent. I was introduced to authors like Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Stieg Larsson, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and Eoin Colfer largely because books their were thrust into my hand by a local bookseller.
That's hard to replace. Even with a thriving community of book bloggers out there, reviewing and recommending, it's hard to replace that personal recommendation by someone whose taste and erudition you've come to rely on over the course of many years.
It also helps when a recommendation is paired with someone actually putting the book in your hand. There's something magical about that.

Zauberspiegel: Does that mean: Now with Borders closing, is this the next chapter of a complete cataclysm of the bookmarket? First the small ones died under the pressure of the big chaines, now the big chaines die under the pressure of the internetmarket?
Scott Perkins: I think it's a cataclysm for that retail model and if the other big chains don't learn the right lessons from Border's demise, then I fear they're going to follow them down.
In a way, I think the internet markets are freeing the independent stores to compete with the big boys. I never thought that would happen, but Google created their eBook platform and now any bookstore that wants to sell eBooks can create their own online bookstore.
Only time will tell if the playing field has been leveled enough for the smaller sellers to survive, but for the first time in awhile, I am optimistic about their chances.
It's all a bit Darwinian isn't it? There's always a bigger fish out there and sooner or later, they'll get hungry...

Zauberspiegel: You don't seem to be all too sad about this development, or do you see this more or less unemotional?
Scott Perkins: There's an example I sometimes cite when I'm talking about this. Seattle is the home of a retail giant called REI. REI sells hiking, camping, and mountain climbing gear and they do it better than just about anyone else. No one can beat their buying power and they have the ability to deliver lower prices than anyone else around. Their flagship store is enormous, a cathedral to the great outdoors.
Across the street from REI is a small camping equipment store called Feathered Friends. Thier big thing is handmade down coats and sleeping bags, but they also sell backpacks and other equipment, all of a quality and significantly higher prices than the big guys across the street. For every one of their 38 years in business, they have been across the street from the biggest outdoor retailer in the country.
When REI packed up and moved their store to a new location, Feathered Friends did the same. And they thrive in the shadow of the giant.

Zauberspiegel: So the secret is what ... to mingle with the big fish? To go with him and - if one can say so - live on the "sidesales" of the giant?
Scott Perkins: I think the future of independent bookselling is like that. Finding ways to thrive in the shadows of the giants. It's not a perfect metaphor by any means. The book business isn't like other retailing. Feathered Friends can sell different product, while your copy of the latest Stephen King is the same as the one on the shelf across the street. But by being different enough, by creating an environment that is conducive to book lovers and inviting to the community, the thriving independents can still do what Feathered Friends has done to a surprising degree.

Zauberspiegel: Thus to say: offer a plus in customer care, personality, selection, perhaps "crossover concepts" e.g.
Scott Perkins: The trouble with this is that the US is one country with at least fifty different cultures. I think every bookstore in every city will find some slightly different way to make it through.

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