Buying Books at the Supermarket, Good or Bad?

Phil and I have been having a conversation in the comments section of a post below and I thought it would be good to bring that into a separate post. I had made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how buying Harry Potter at the grocery store would be a sign of the end of literature to some people. Phil in turn wondered why this might be. I tried to lay out some of the economic arguments in my comments but I am not sure I am the best person to make the case.

So let me throw that out to the peanut gallery. Would it be bad for literary/serious fiction if supermarkets and stores like Wal-Mart, Mejier, etc. develop a much bigger market share in the book business? If so, how and why?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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9 Comments

  • Kevin, let me repost your last comment from the previous thread.
    —————————-
    You wrote:
    The basic idea is that publishing is a zero sum game in some sense. Publishers only have so much money. If the more profitable way to go is toward mass sales at supermarkets then more of the budget is going to go toward producing and selling those type of books. This means less money toward literary fiction. If you can invest in an intelligent novel or a Princess Dianna tell-all the profit margin already leans toward Princess Di, but if the supermarket option further pushes that margin further you begin to wonder if less literary fiction will get published.

    The other issue is market share. Places like Wal-Mart have a lot of leverage and buying power. Sometimes this is good, less smut and sometimes this is bad, a tendency toward lowbrow. Bookstores make money by having a wide variety of books in one place. In this scenario they can make money from fluff and still sell, or at least stock, serious works. If supermarkets and other non-traditional stores undercut bookstores on this section of the business it means less profit to put toward literary fiction, etc.

    It is part of the general dumbing down of the market. If fluff floods the market it makes it harder to have the good stuff. I am not saying this is a verifiable economic theory or anything, I am just saying that given the dumbing down of our culture as a whole that it is worrisome that books might become like magazines and television – dominated by trashy fluff.
    ———–

    That’s good, but I’m not sure I buy it yet. Hold on a minute.

  • Kevin, let me repost your last comment from the previous thread.
    —————————-
    You wrote:
    The basic idea is that publishing is a zero sum game in some sense. Publishers only have so much money. If the more profitable way to go is toward mass sales at supermarkets then more of the budget is going to go toward producing and selling those type of books. This means less money toward literary fiction. If you can invest in an intelligent novel or a Princess Dianna tell-all the profit margin already leans toward Princess Di, but if the supermarket option further pushes that margin further you begin to wonder if less literary fiction will get published.

    The other issue is market share. Places like Wal-Mart have a lot of leverage and buying power. Sometimes this is good, less smut and sometimes this is bad, a tendency toward lowbrow. Bookstores make money by having a wide variety of books in one place. In this scenario they can make money from fluff and still sell, or at least stock, serious works. If supermarkets and other non-traditional stores undercut bookstores on this section of the business it means less profit to put toward literary fiction, etc.

    It is part of the general dumbing down of the market. If fluff floods the market it makes it harder to have the good stuff. I am not saying this is a verifiable economic theory or anything, I am just saying that given the dumbing down of our culture as a whole that it is worrisome that books might become like magazines and television – dominated by trashy fluff.
    ———–

    That’s good, but I’m not sure I buy it yet. Hold on a minute.

  • Is it really a zero-sum game? Is there a limit to the number of books which can be sold? I don’t think there is. More people can buy more books and vice versa. More publishing companies can emerge to publish more, and they can die off. What you have written makes sense to me if I think that all books are coming from one company, but it seems to be if what you describe occurs in one or a few publishing houses, other publishing houses will reject the supermarket bid to specialize in literary works.

    And I don’t think B&N, Books-a-Million, Borders, WaldenBooks, or Powells are going to be overrun by supermarkets. I also don’t believe one-stop shopping is the way of the future. That belongs to the Internet, home delivery, and a million specialty stores. Maybe.

  • Is it really a zero-sum game? Is there a limit to the number of books which can be sold? I don’t think there is. More people can buy more books and vice versa. More publishing companies can emerge to publish more, and they can die off. What you have written makes sense to me if I think that all books are coming from one company, but it seems to be if what you describe occurs in one or a few publishing houses, other publishing houses will reject the supermarket bid to specialize in literary works.

    And I don’t think B&N, Books-a-Million, Borders, WaldenBooks, or Powells are going to be overrun by supermarkets. I also don’t believe one-stop shopping is the way of the future. That belongs to the Internet, home delivery, and a million specialty stores. Maybe.

  • It’s possible that the Walmartization of bookselling will have a short-term impact that is unfavorable, followed by a long-term impact that is favorable. I know that in some circles comparing the music and lit’ry industries is some sort of blasphemy, but I think that watching WalMart’s effect on music is interesting.

    On the one hand, WalMart seems to have had a large impact on censorship (or artistic decisions?) in the music industry — but the emerging internet continues to hold out hope for niche marketing. Could the same be true for books?

    I agree that B&N, et al, are not going to be overrun by supermarkets in the near future, but I think that the WalMart model and influence can be seen in how the product is placed (at least in the brick & mortars) (does anyone say “brick & mortars” any more?)

  • I don’t have a strong stance either way, but I will throw out two sort of “data points” we ought to factor in:

    1. Target superstores have a decent selection of literary fiction. Ever browsed their book sections? They have a whole area devoted to contemporary lit-novels, etc. I take that as a good sign.

    2. The Oprah Cult
    There’s a lot this cult has done to just flat-out mess up American women, but one good thing Miss Winfrey has done that deserves accolades is getting those women to read literature. Her Book Club picks have been excellent over the last several years.
    Millions of women are reading Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jonathan Franzen, et. al. instead of the typically tawdry bodice-rippers and widely available “Sex in the City”-esque chick-lit — All because Oprah said so.

    Target and Oprah. Those are two huge influences, at least “players” in the field of future literary economics along with Wal-Mart and supermarkets.

  • I don’t have a strong stance either way, but I will throw out two sort of “data points” we ought to factor in:

    1. Target superstores have a decent selection of literary fiction. Ever browsed their book sections? They have a whole area devoted to contemporary lit-novels, etc. I take that as a good sign.

    2. The Oprah Cult
    There’s a lot this cult has done to just flat-out mess up American women, but one good thing Miss Winfrey has done that deserves accolades is getting those women to read literature. Her Book Club picks have been excellent over the last several years.
    Millions of women are reading Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jonathan Franzen, et. al. instead of the typically tawdry bodice-rippers and widely available “Sex in the City”-esque chick-lit — All because Oprah said so.

    Target and Oprah. Those are two huge influences, at least “players” in the field of future literary economics along with Wal-Mart and supermarkets.

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