Will price war hurt independent bookstores?

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The way Richard Goldman sees it, his independent Mystery Lovers Bookstore and the big retailers that happen to sell books aren't close to being on the same page.

"Our customers are not their customers," he said.

So if Wal-Mart, Amazon or Target want to undercut his business by slashing the price of Stephen King's newest novel this holiday season, well, he's not easily frightened.

"For some people, price is important, and I respect that, totally. For some, ambiance is an important thing, supporting your local businesses," said Mr. Goldman, who runs the cozy Oakmont shop with his wife, Mary Alice Gorman. The store celebrates its 19th anniversary on Halloween.

Still, independent booksellers are not happy with the price war developing between the big-box stores and Amazon.com, the world's largest online bookseller. In fact, the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent booksellers, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate what it termed "predatory pricing." It claims selling hardcover books such as Mr. King's "Under the Dome," for roughly nine bucks -- a savings of $26 off list price -- "is damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers."

In a game of silly one-upmanship, big stores have been dropping by a penny here, a penny there, from the pre-order price of Mr. King's coming book, as well as highly anticipated bestsellers such as "Going Rogue: An American Life," by Sarah Palin and "Ford County," a collection of short stories by John Grisham.

Late yesterday, pre-order prices of these books were $9 at Amazon, $8.99 at Target and $8.98 at Wal-Mart. Most roll out in November.

"Bestsellers aren't something I even stock a lot of," said John Towle, owner of the Aspinwall Book Store. "The Sarah Palin book will do well here because this is a pretty conservative area. The Grisham will generate some automatic sales, same with Stephen King.

"But we're not really affected. Ever since grocery stores began selling bestsellers, it's been a very small percentage of our business."

The ABA's contention that slashing prices is bad for independent sellers was echoed by Pam Jackson, a trade book buyer for the University of Pittsburgh's independently run store.

"It does hurt the customers in that it could eventually put small, independent stores out of business," Miss Jackson said. "People won't be able to just walk down the street and buy a book anymore."

Booksellers generally purchase stock from publishers at a discount of perhaps 40 percent off the list price. In the case of the big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, they're using the deep discounts on these anticipated bestsellers to lure shoppers into their stores to buy other things.

"We don't have the tube socks to make it up on," said Mr. Goldman of Mystery Lovers Bookstore. "When I sell you the King book for $9.99, I can't make it up on bathrobes or cargo shorts."

Yet it's possible that this David-vs.-Goliath scenario will become a thing of the past, and sooner than anyone expects.

An era is dawning where electronic readers are beginning to bookworm their way into the public consciousness, with Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader shaping up as market leaders.

There is the potential for having hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers, as well as Internet content, available on your small, portable reading device. This is sending developers and retailers alike scrambling to read the pulse of a buying public that probably isn't even aware it wants such devices, at least not until holiday marketing kicks in.

According to "Forrester's eReader Holiday Outlook 2009" report, projections are up 50 percent for expected sales of electronic readers. Thirty percent of this year's e-reader sales, it predicts, will take place in November and December.

Should the predicted sales for 2009 reach 3 million in the United States, they will be on track for a cumulative sale of 10 million e-readers by the end of 2010.

Behind those devices are companies and developers racing to provide content. Google has digitalized more than 1 million books, available through the company's Google Books and with partners such as Sony. Amazon set the pace for downloadable content, initially pricing most books at $9.99.

The Kindle 2 recently became the first e-reader available throughout the world, which prompted both horror and ecstasy among bibliophiles.

Reading without the tactile joy of turning the page? Blasphemy! Having 1,500 books contained in one little portable device? Heaven.

One thing almost everyone can agree on, however, is that the price of e-readers must drop drastically before they're viewed as the next coming of the iPod.

Amazon's original price for the Kindle 2 was $359; it has since dropped to $259. Barnes & Noble will soon release its e-reader, the Nook, for $259 and the Sony Reader costs around $200.

The ABA, an organization founded in 1900, has its eye on the future. In August it announced its members will be able to sell e-content for Sony Readers through its IndieCommerce program.

In the end, Mr. Goldman said, buying from local businesses gives back to communities, which is something to consider.

"I think we'll survive this little burst of activity. These titles are not, certainly, the bread and butter of our sales."


Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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