Read Between the Lines
Book superstores threaten the American literary future

by David Kornhaber

I’ve always found it a little ironic that tourists from all over the country, even all over the world,
often come in droves to see the famous Harvard Coop Bookstore. Seen as one of the world’s
great bastions of learning, Harvard University is undoubtedly expected by these tourists to
have one of the finest university bookstores around. How disappointed they must be to learn
that they can find almost all of the same books that are sold at the Coop at their neighborhood
Barnes & Noble. And why not? As we all know, the Coop is owned by Barnes & Noble. If these
tourists are looking for some interesting, hard-to-find books to bring home, they’d probably be
better off at the independently-owned Harvard Book Store just down the street, or for that matter
any of the other independent bookstores in Cambridge.

While the Coop’s book selection may not prove that Harvard is a unique center of knowledge,
the presence of so many independent bookstores certainly does. In so many communities, no
bookstores can survive except the superstores like Barnes & Noble. Independent bookstores,
with their unique selections of books both new and old, are more and more coming to be
replaced by superstores that offer increasingly homogeneous selections of bestsellers and
established favorites. The question this leads us to ask, of course, is "What exactly is
happening to literature today?"

This question is certainly not a new one. All the way back in 1888, Matthew Arnold addressed it
in his essay "The Study of Poetry," commenting that "an era is opening in which we are to see
multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such
readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide
it is becoming a vast and profitable industry." But Arnold took solace in the fact that great
literature "never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by
the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper--by the instinct of
self-preservation in humanity." Amazingly, Arnold’s century-old descriptions still holds true for
the modern literary world on at least one account. A brief perusal of the books most prominently
on display in almost any major bookstore --from the latest Danielle Steele bestseller to the
most recent celebrity "confession"--can erase any doubt that we currently are, like Arnold was,
living in an era with "masses of a common sort of literature." Unfortunately, a close look at
current trends in the publishing and book selling industries indicates that Arnold’s second
contention, that great literature will never lose supremacy, is less certain. Although market
concerns certainly played a strong role in the publishing industry of the late 1800s, Arnold could
never have imagined the extent to which such concerns would some day come to dominate the
book publishing and book selling worlds. A day when the sale of books would be dominated
by only three corporations would have been unfathomable to him. Nor could he have imagined
an age during which some of the most respected publishers and booksellers in existence
would close within years of one another. But this is the world in which we live: a world in which
the economic ascendancy of book superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders has
produced a crisis in the literary world.

Literature Today: an Overview
The nature of this crisis is actually fairly simple. Writers can only publish what book publishers
are willing to buy from them. And book publishers, in turn, can only publish what bookstores are
willing to buy. In the past, there were literally thousands of independent bookstores across the
country, each deciding for itself which books to buy from publishers. A large number of these
stores, in fact, were dedicated to selling the works of emerging writers, to taking a chance on an
unknown name. Thus, there was a market for a great variety of literature.

Today, however, the landscape has changed. Three bookstore chains control three-fourths of
all book sales. Each of these chains has only one or two people in charge of buying books
from publishers. Instead of thousands of independent buyers looking for books, there are now
only five book purchasers who determine which books are sold in the vast majority of the
nation’s bookstores. Publishers who cannot sell to these five buyers are now more than ever
finding themselves in financial dire straits. And thus, writers who are trying to express a vision
that doesn’t appeal to these buyers are finding themselves without publishers. The rise of
book superstores, in short, has threatened the literary life of our country. In a world where
publishers are being forced to determine the worth of a book by the number of copies it can sell
instead of its inherent merit, the outlets for authors of serious literature are dwindling. As the type
of books being bought by bookstores (and thus the type of books that get published) become
more and more based on mass-market appeal, literary innovation will inevitably decline.

Sure, people will keep reading "the classics"--there are probably more people interested in
classic literature today than ever before. But this doesn’t help new writers trying to create new
classics. Whenever a writer tries something new in literature, there is always a high chance it
won’t sell very well. And that is a chance corporate book buyers aren’t willing to take. Thus,
everyone stands to lose if book superstores continue to dominate the book market because
everyone loses if there is no literary diversity in our culture. As writer Lance Olsen mused not
long ago, "I can’t help wondering what the ethics are in giving up interesting fiction for fiction that
sells, or fiction that Oprah sells, or mainstream Wonder Bread fiction that doesn’t offend or
challenge our preconceived notions of language and experience but rather simply reinforces
what we already know about the world, ourselves, and words. In such a socio-historical context,
… Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Gertrude Stein, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia
Marquez, TS Eliot, Peter Handke, Samuel Beckett, William Gass, and Carlos Fuentes would
remain verbal ciphers to us all." It is the general public, not just writers and publishers, who are
being affected by the crisis in American literature.

The Signs of Crisis
How can we be sure, though, that the rise of book superstores is causing a crisis in American
literature? The signs are not hard to detect. Independent bookstores are closing at an
unprecedented rate. Publishers Weekly reports that "hardly a week goes by without a sales
report of a store going out of business or about to do so," and a recent survey of industry
experts concluded that "the situation is on the verge of crisis with remaining independent stores
holding on in a survival mode." And it’s not just the minor independents that are disappearing.
In 1995, Shakespeare & Co., one of New York City’s most famous bookstores, closed only a
few years after a Barnes & Noble was built across the street. Even Denver’s Tattered Cover
Bookstore, called "one of the greatest bookstores in the world" by the American Bookseller’s
Association, is on the verge of ending its 20 year existence owing to the insurmountable
competition posed by book superstores. What this means is that there are now far less
bookstores for publishers to sell to, and thus less diversity of what can be sold by publishers.
The independent bookstores that are closing are the major buyers of literary genres--genres
that chain bookstores have proven largely uninterested in. Without their business both
independent publishers specializing in those genres and big publishers committed to printing
literary fiction are suffering.

Sam Hammill, editor of the Copper Canyon Press, has gone so far as to predict that because
of independent bookstore closings "within the next five years more than half of the independent
publishers in business now will have ceased operation." Even large publishing houses are
feeling serious repercussions. In 1997, HarperCollins lost $270 million on books they couldn’t
sell to bookstores. Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin Putnam have suffered
similar losses. In addition, HarperCollins recently closed Basic Books, its esteemed academic
label, and Addison Wesley has announced a decision to decrease the amount of literary
fiction it publishes in favor of more lucrative genres.

Of course, if publishers can no longer sell literary genres at the same rate that they used to, the
avenues open to new writers in these genres are severely limited. Vivian Gornick, a noted
memoirist who has published a total of eight books with prominent publishers like Simon &
Schuster, exemplifies the obstacles faced by literary authors. In 1996, when she tried to get her
two latest collections of essays published, seven different publishing houses told her: "We love
them, but we don’t think they can sell. We cannot publish books that we know in advance will
sell under 10,000 copies." Gornick is far from alone when it comes to publishing problems. In
1997, HarperCollins canceled the contracts of 106 of its authors, and Addison Wesley closed
the trade-publishing operation that had broken out authors like Robert Bly, author of Iron John.
With more frequency than ever before, those writers who cannot guarantee high sales are
being rejected regardless of the quality of their work because the buyers for chain bookstores
are simply uninterested in them.

The Problem’s Root
Ironically, in the midst of this crisis, book sales have been increasing by 4 percent per year for
the past four years. The problem is not that the public is less interested in buying books these
days, but that book superstores like those built by Barnes & Noble and Borders have come to
dominate the book industry. Since 1990, America’s major book chains--Barnes & Noble,
Borders, and Books-A-Million--have opened about 700 new stores. As of September, 1997,
Books-A-Million had 93 stores nationwide, Borders had 180, and Barnes & Noble (whose
public relations department proudly states that "a new Barnes & Noble superstore opens
every 4 1/2 days") had 440 stores.

The sheer number of superstores in operation today has given these three corporations an
inordinate share of the book retail market. While in 1972 independent bookstores controlled 84
percent of the market, by 1983, shortly after chain bookstores first began expanding, that share
had dropped to 71 percent. By 1994, the market share of independent bookstores had fallen to
41 percent. Today, independent market share stands at 25 percent, leaving only a few
corporations in control of 75 percent of the book retail market. Market studies indicate that this
trend will continue in the future. In 1996 alone, as the independents’ market share continued to
plummet, sales at book superstores rose 36 percent, to $3.27 billion. It is not hard to foresee a
day when independent bookstores have only a negligible presence in the book retail market.

What this means for writers and publishers is simple. As late as 1983, publishers could get
away with selling most of their books to independent stores and still turn a high profit. In other
words, they could get away with publishing new and innovative fiction by relatively unknown
authors because there were stores willing to buy it. Today, though, it is impossible to survive as
a publisher without selling most of your books to chain bookstores. If those chain bookstores
aren’t interested in buying new, experimental authors, then publishers can’t afford to publish
their books. The reasons for the ascendancy of book superstores are manifold. One of the
main factors involves the prices at which these superstores can afford to sell their products.
Run by corporations worth billions of dollars, stores like Barnes & Noble can offer discounts
that independent stores, with their limited budgets and assets, could never hope to match.

Of course, the main advantage of the book superstores reaches far beyond economies of
scale; in fact, the main advantage of book superstores is downright illegal--they have been
getting better deals from publishers. In 1994, the American Booksellers Association (ABA)
sued five publishers--Houghton Mifflin, Penguin USA, St. Martin’s, Rutledge Hill, and Hugh
Lauter Levi--for violating federal anti-trust laws by paying chain bookstores for prime display
space without offering the same payments to independent booksellers. A federal court ruled
that independent stores had to be offered the same options as chain bookstores in such
promotions. In 1997, the ABA sued another three publishers--Penguin, Viking, and Random
House--for violating the Robinson Patman Act, which prohibits unfair business deals between
suppliers and sellers. In direct violation of the 1994 court ruling, these publishers were asking
for only 80 to 90 percent payment on invoices to book superstores, while they required full
payment from independent stores. The lawsuit resulted in a $25 million settlement, the largest
anti-trust settlement in United States history. As large as this sum is, however, it cannot change
reality. Book superstores, who for many years were aided by deals with major publishers, now
dominate the book retail market, and independent bookstores, publishers, and writers must
deal with the consequences.

The End of Literature?
What exactly is the problem with chain bookstores, though? They’ve probably increased the
total number of bookstores in the US, and they seem to offer a wide variety of books. What is
important to publishers, though, is not the number of bookstores in the country, but the number
of book buyers. Every independent bookstore in America has a person or group of people in
charge of deciding which books to order from publishing companies. Thus, if there are 500
independent bookstores, there are 500 autonomous buyers placing orders, and publishers
can sell them a wide variety of books because they all have different tastes. Corporate
bookstores, however, only have one or two book buyers for the entire chain. So although there
are 400+ Barnes & Noble stores in the country, there are only one or two people deciding what
is being sold in all of them. In fact, the chain bookstores that control 75 percent of the book
market have a total of only five buyers deciding which books are being sold. So while the total
number of bookstores may have increased, the number of potential customers for publishers
has decreased. To make matters worse, Barnes & Noble recently announced plans to
purchase Ingram Book Company, the largest supplier of books to independent bookstores.
Thus, not only will a few corporate representatives be deciding which books most Americans
will be able to buy in their own stores, but they will also control what Americans can buy in
independent stores.

Clearly, if the decline of independent bookstores continues and America is left with only five
wholesale buyers in the future, those buyers will have an enormous say as to what types of
books get published. The threat to new authors--especially those in respected but non-
lucrative genres like literary fiction--is obvious. If they wish to get published in the future, writers
will have to tailor their work to the demands of corporate buyers. While the cry of "censorship"
may be too extreme for this situation, it is not as far from the truth as it sounds. As Susan
MacDonald, co-owner of Printers, Inc., asks, "What is going to happen when there are only a
few major chains left, and they can say, ‘We don’t want that book in our stores. It’s too
controversial,’ or ‘We can’t sell a million copies of that book, so we don’t want to carry it’?"

Such a scenario is not too far-fetched. For example, when a fatwa was placed on Salman
Rushdie for Satanic Verses, American chain bookstores refused to sell it. Independent
bookstores continued selling the novel, helping to solidify Rushdie’s status as one of the major
writers of our time by making his work accessible to a variety of interested readers. Even
recent bestsellers like The Joy Luck Club, Angela’s Ashes, and Cold Mountain were sold at
independent bookstores long before they reached the chains. Only after independent stores
put these books on the New York Times’ bestseller list did chains begin to carry them. What
will happen when there aren’t independent stores to put these books on the bestseller lists in
the first place?

A Silent Crisis
Clearly, independent bookstores play an important role in the spread of American literature,
and yet their current plight has gone largely unnoticed by the general public. The decline of
independent bookstores and publishers has received very little national coverage apart from
articles in trade publications like Poets & Writers and Publishers Weekly and at a number of
independent websites. Most of the country’s major sources of news have close ties with the
major chain bookstores and thus have little interest in portraying them in an unfavorable light.
For example, The New York Times Corporation has allied itself with Barnes & Noble, granting it
special favors like a feature on The New York Times’ website that allows readers to order
books reviewed in the Times directly from Barnes & Noble’s website. Borders is one of the
largest contributors to National Public Radio. Thus, the American media has been silent on this
crisis in American literature.

Hope for a solution comes from two distinct areas. The first lies in spreading information about
what is happening. Independent bookstores, publishers, and especially writers must inform the
public of the crisis that is occurring. The clout carried by the Toni Morrisons, John Updikes, and
Norman Mailers of this country could be a powerful force against chain bookstores. Even if that
is not enough, there are ways to sidestep the obstacles presented by the ties between chain
bookstores and the media. Presentations can be made on local radio and TV stations, at
universities, or even on an individual community level. The public must be informed, and we
must be encouraged to support independent bookstores on a large-scale, national level.

The second hope for the American literary community lies in the National Endowment for the
Arts. Funding for the NEA, which in the past has helped keep independent publishers and
writers solvent, is only 0.01 percent of our national budget, or less than 32 cents per person per
year. The NEA has seen its budget go from $170 million to $100 million in the last four years,
dropping 40 percent in 1996 alone. For the price of one stealth bomber, the government could
fund six NEAs. A fraction of that amount would be enough to help keep independent publishers
and bookstores financially afloat for years to come. The public must pressure the government
to increase the NEA’s budget enough to assist struggling publishers and bookstores.
American literature is in crisis, and some action must be taken.

It is fair to assume that Matthew Arnold would not be pleased with the state of literature in
America today. But how could he, living in the late 1800s, even imagine the contemporary
literary crisis? We live in a country where three quarters of the book-selling market is controlled
by only three corporations. We live in a world where only five wholesale buyers are making the
majority of choices as to what books should and shouldn’t be sold in America. We live in a
world where the very stores that established some of the most successful authors of our time
are closing. We live in a world where in the midst of this turmoil, the government is drastically
cutting funding to the NEA and the public is largely unaware of any crisis. We can only hope
that Matthew Arnold’s 19th century assessments will still hold true in the contemporary US.
Maybe great literature will never lose supremacy to "common literature," even amidst
bookstore monopolies. Maybe "the instinct of self-preservation in humanity," the drive to write
and record in new and meaningful ways, really will ensure literature’s continued existence,
despite the dismal present. But we can only maintain such hope if great new literature continues
to be sold to the general public in the US. Under current conditions, this does not seem certain
to happen.


Back to the Welcome Page