Just Managing: Survival of the Bookish

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - For a small business, competing against Amazon.com Inc. on its own terms today is as much a lost cause as fighting Microsoft Corp. was a decade ago. The bookseller-cum-retail ecology has deftly leveraged its size, speed and "first mover" position into a runaway lead.

Amazon has brilliantly established the rules for big bookselling sites: an inventory of three million-or-so titles, reliable shipping and delivery, comments from other customers and excellent service. It also mines its vast customer base's input to offer suggestions about what individuals might like to buy - a cruel parry at independent booksellers who offer such advice on a more intimate and human level. Amazon so dominates the game it has devised that no one else should even try. Consider Borders.com, whose "distant third"-ness gives it the air of a huge player that might as well be invisible ... like U.S.

News & World Report (with apologies to Mr. Fallows), or Canada.

So what's an independent bookseller to do? Smaller booksellers are already reeling from the waves of evolution that have rippled through this industry.

Once a cozy niche for passionate mom-and-pop shop-owners whose love of books made them only incidental businesspeople, the field has been winnowed out.

Several decades ago, the first wave of chain bookstores knocked out the weaker players.

The past ten years have seen a fiercer shakeout at the hands of superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Today, the independents that endure have distinctive strengths and unique assets. The trick today is for independent booksellers to use the Web to sell those strengths and assets. One winner in that regard is the Portland, Ore.-based Powell's Books, which offers the largest inventory of used books anywhere. "We don't compete with Amazon on new books - they beat us at that game," says owner Michael Powell. "You won't win on price or convenience - so develop a strategy, a niche, or a regionalism that differentiates you from Amazon."

The Powell's site offers the same tremendous selection of used books that one can find in the company's seven Portland-area stores. It has expanded the community of passionate devotees to Powell's (there are stories about folks who make periodic pilgrimages to the store) into the electronic world. And yet, for smaller booksellers, Powells still represents the exception to the rule, the AOL to Microsoft.

Few others in this widely populated industry have the resources or unique core competence to launch such a successful site. The trade organization for this community of small players, the American Booksellers Association, plans to unveil Booksense, an e-commerce initiative that will enable its members to share a storefront with an inventory of more than 1.5 million titles, and the ability to drop ship books quickly. Such a move would give them parity on one level with Amazon. In the meantime, the wisest booksellers are using Web sites to ratify assets like place, identity and intimacy. Consider the Web site for R.J. Julia Books, a Madison, Conn., store that was named "Bookseller of the Year" by Publishers Weekly last year.

Owner Roxanne Coady is a smart, passionate bookseller who was a national partner at a Big Six accounting firm before launching her store about five years ago. She recently went through the long process of thinking through the company's purpose and values, under the assumption that she and her staff needed to learn what made the store distinctive.

Her solution: "opinion with integrity." "One of the things we have to do with the Web is pick the areas we are good at, and not try at the rest," says Coady.

Rjjulia.com deliberately attempts to share the attitude and atmosphere of the store. The site offers quirky lists such as "Kids' 3 Feet of Books," a "best-of" list of children's books that takes up that much space on the shelf (you can order the books - plus the case - for $950). It draws from the store's expertise in business books (Coady produces a lively business book newsletter with picks and reviews) to offer recommendations. And it runs a thorough guide to many local events that happen at the store.

Even so, Coady admits she still hasn't cracked the code. She's spent more than $40,000 developing the site and pours $1,000 per month into it, but has yet to realize a spike in volume as a result. Nonetheless, her site is a good example of how the table stakes for competing in an industry get raised ever higher when a new player changes the rules of the game. I believe that independents like her will survive, but only when they use new technology to become ever better at what they already offer.

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