Independent Bookstores’ Decline: The Price of Biblio-elitism

Independent bookstores are a rare and dying breed. They are often small, local bookstores. And one thing they all have in common, it seems, is the belief that superstores, chain bookstores and the internet are the reasons it is difficult to survive.

After all, those discounts are hard to beat when you deal in low volume. Amazon.com doesn’t collect sales tax. That’s a disadvantage, right? And don’t even get them started on the new ebook phenomenon that excludes them from the sales loop.

But, at least for me, the reason I don’t shop at most independent bookstores has nothing whatsoever to do with price. It’s because the majority of independent bookstores ignore genre fiction and its readers. And this, more than anything, has cost them business. BIG business.  Genre fiction readers: mystery, science fiction and romance comprise the largest group of book buyers. They spend more per person, buy more frequently, and are often far more loyal than buyers of other types of books. [This is not to say genre fiction readers are not also literary fiction readers. They can be.]

By contrast, independent bookstores seem to focus almost exclusively on literary fiction and non-fiction. And while literary fiction may be published at a happier price point--most lit fic is published in hardcover or trade paperback format--its readership is only a fraction of mystery, romance or science fiction. It has been argued that without those three genres, literary fiction would not be published because the publishers use the cash from genre sales to finance the publication of literary fiction. Because, quite frankly, there’s not a lot of money in it. In 2008, romance fiction alone generated $1.37 billion in revenue. Literary fiction brought in $446 million. (source: rwanational.org)

I spend quite a lot of money on books. It’s my primary method of entertainment. And I do not read literary fiction. Ever.  I read fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, and non-fiction.  [I blame Oprah’s first book club and my dozens of lit classes in college for my lit fic aversion.] So, the question for me is why do independent bookstores have such a love affair with literary fiction? And why do they ignore genre readers when they clearly are the ones who buy  most of the books?

A local bookstore owner will argue that they can always “order in” a book for a customer if they don’t have it in stock. My argument is this: if your stock clearly shows that you do not support the types of books I read--if you don’t even have a spot to shelve those books--why should I give you my business? I want to support a bookstore that offers me  more than an ordering service. I can order books myself. I want a bookstore that appreciates what book buyers like myself bring to the door. Namely, money. And I am sick to death of having literary fiction thrown in my face as ‘acceptable reading’ through recommendations by bookstore staff, while not a single genre title ever appears there. I want to be given a reason to browse through the shelves and discover a new to me author--without having to feel like my favorite authors and genres are not welcome on the refined shelves of an elite indie bookstore.

There are a few, rare independent bookstores that are surviving (maybe even thriving). And, almost without exception, they offer either selection (like Powells) or cater to genre readers. Turn the Page bookstore in Maryland is owned and operated by the husband of New York Times Bestselling author Nora Roberts. The Seattle Mystery Bookshop focuses on mysteries, but also hosts signings with romantic suspense authors. Both are clearly welcoming to genre fiction and genre authors--which give genre readers a reason to patronize those stores and spend their money. And, not coincidentally, both have survived, despite the challenges of competing against larger bookstores and superstores.

I do not deny that it is challenging for a small, indie bookstore to survive in today’s publishing industry climate. But the reasons for that are not entirely the fault of outside forces. I think a large part of the decline of the indies is their systematic culture of literary snobbishness. And if an independent bookstore wishes to thrive in the future, a culture change is needed--one that harnesses the power and financial clout of genre fiction.


  1. This is a great post and brings up a lot of things I hadn't thought about. I read some genre fiction (mostly romance) but I also read literary fiction and creative nonfiction. There is an independent bookstore I frequent and they do sell some genre fiction, but you have to look for it. When I go there I never think to buy genre fiction because I normally buy it at chainstores. I never really thought about why this was but now that I've read your post I realize they create that stigma themselves.

  2. Preach on, sister. If I can't browse genre fiction in a bookstore, that bookstore holds no allure for me at all. So I stick to the two big chains in my area (Borders and BN) and online sites. I read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm not making a special trip to an indie bookstore for it. (Besides, I'm an Heartless Capitalist Libertarian - I shop where the prices are lowest and I know I can get what I want.)

    Re: Oprah, college and lit fiction - although I'm well read, I can talk like I'm even better read than I really am - that's what you get for being an English lit major and a librarian. And I have a special rant that I save just for people who give me the "I can't read romance it's just too silly blah blah blah blah blah." If you think you read Serious Fiction because you follow Oprah's Book Club, don't talk to me. If you think you read Serious Fiction because nothing you read ever has a happy ending, don't talk to me. If you think you read Serious Fiction but you've never read at least 1 book by Rushdie or Barnes or Amis or McEwan, don't talk to me.

    And if you sneer at genre fiction but you're not much of a reader, you're just an asshole.

  3. @Ash,

    I buy most of my romance and mystery at chain bookstores on my trips out of town or online. Our local indie has two shelves of romance--which it shares with 'sexuality.' I think that reveals a bit about the genre's rep with that store.


    It didn't take me long to realize that Oprah's book club selections were just as formulaic as people claim romances are. And I really don't get people who only like depressing books. I mean, what's the point?

  4. "It’s because the majority of independent bookstores ignore genre fiction and its readers."

    Yes! This is why I can't deal with them, either. Although I do have to point out that there are several magnificent used book stores that I visit on a weekly (at least!) basis. It helps assuage the guilt of having an e-reader. :)