Where I spent my money

I buy and read a lot of books. I buy books because they look like they’ll contain interesting historical biographical information, or will tell me about society or technology in historical times. I buy books because I think they’ll help me with research. I buy a lot of memoirs because it helps put me in someone else’s head, which helps me when I build characters. I buy romance in several subgenres, both to examine craft and to examine the market. I buy fantasy and science fiction to examine world-building (which is important for historicals, too). I buy thrillers to see how best-selling authors pace action scenes. I buy a ton of young adult to see what the zeitgeist is for the next generation. (I also, of course, have a lot of fun reading all of this, too.)

But my point is that if you are a bookseller, you should love me. I spend money on books like it’s going out of style. I buy electronically. I buy in print. I buy online. I buy in person. If you sell books, I buy them. I spend more on books in a month as I spend on my dog. And because I’m doing taxes–and because many of my book purchases are tax-deductible–I know how much I spent on books in 2010. I’ll tell you this much: it’s easily four figures, and it’s a lot closer to $5000 than it is to $1,000.

I think the breakdown of where I spent that money is interesting.

35%: electronic
65%: paper

The numbers skew paper because (1) if I do giveaways, I want a paper book; and (2) many research books I prefer to have in paper copy so I can spread them out on the desk as I work, or mark passages or write on the edges. I mix up my e-book purchases so the e-book purchases are spread across Amazon, All Romance eBooks, Books on Board, Powell’s, and eHarlequin.

55%: purchased online
45%: in a retail store

Again, the number skews to online purchases because, for instance, if I want to track down “The Municipal Government of Bristol: 1820-1851” I usually am going to find it online. The 20% difference between electronic and online purchases is pretty much that: purchases of research books that I’m getting for a specific purchase. But just to give you some idea of how much I spent in retail stores, we’re still talking four figures, and by a good margin.

Here’s the last set of numbers I’m going to give you:

At what retail outlets did I spend my money in 2010? (This is a further breakdown of the 45% figure above.)

Barnes & Noble: 48% (there’s a B&N convenient to the place where I work)
Borders: 34% (I try to spread the love around anyway)
Target: 11% (I end up getting books every time I buy toilet paper, too)

That’s 93% of my purchases. The other 7% are made up by airport bookstores, the occasional purchase of books at conferences, and…

Independent Bookstores: 3.5%

Yeah, that’s kind of surprising to me, too. I like all bookstores. There’s a reason I wrote a webscript that generates automatic links to indiebound and two prominent independents along with the major chains–I believe that a vibrant book marketplace depends upon the health of all bookstores–large chains, discounters, and independent bookstores. I don’t want any piece of that to go away.

But you know what? Even though I spend thousands of dollars on books–in the young adult section, in science fiction and fantasy, in biography and history and memoir–I generally don’t go into indie bookstores because I also buy a metric ton of romances, and there is no indie bookstore near where I live that carries romance. It’s not that I’m boycotting indies, or even that I’m trying to send a message. It’s just that when I feel like browsing for books, I want to do it somewhere that has all the sections I like to browse in. If you don’t carry the primary genre that I read, I’m naturally going to spend my time–and therefore money–elsewhere. I want to love you, indies, but you just don’t have what I need.

When I break that 3.5% down even further, another interesting statistic: 3.3% was spent in person at Powell’s, while 0.2% was spent at other indies.

This is interesting because I don’t live anywhere near Powell’s. But Powell’s has excellent romance curation, and so when I go in I know I can spend three hours and browse every kind of book in the entire world and buy a massive armload of books from all sections. If I lived near Powell’s I would just have my paycheck direct-deposited into their coffers to save time. It’s a giant magnet for me: it has so many books, and I want to walk out with all of them.

I know this might not change any minds. But if you run an indie bookstore and you don’t carry romance, be advised that you’re losing out on more than the dollars you’d make on the romances. You’re losing browsers.

Disclaimer: These numbers are rough. I’m still gathering receipts. They also *ahem* underestimate my spending, because there are some receipts I ended up not scanning at all because the books had no business purpose: cookbooks, for instance.

Courtney Milan writes historical romances, which might lead people to think that she could be cool. In reality, she's about four different kinds of geeky. At present, this blog is where Courtney applies semi-dormant geek skills to publishing.

9 thoughts on “Where I spent my money

  1. I have been pretty consistently disappointed by most indie bookstores’ refusal to stock romance. They might sell Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thrillers, Mysteries, even Westerns, but they pointedly ignore the most profitable and popular genre: Romance. I would love to support smaller bookstores, particularly lately as the larger chains dwindle their brick-and-mortar presence, yet I’m prevented from doing so by the indie stores, themselves.

  2. It would be really interesting to know why this is. I mean, I think I know why — I think they look down on romance books — but maybe that’s not really the reason? Can they really all (or mostly) be that prejudiced?

  3. This further corroborates what my personal experience tells me.

    See, there was this awesome, totally amazing, used bookstore near me, that opened something like two years ago. They had incredibly well supplied sections on everything from art to crafts to science to history. Coffee table books or academic treatises, they literally had everything. Except for a romance section. In fact, their fiction section was tiny–probably less than a 5% of their entire stock. It was also sort of hidden away, as if browsing fiction were something only the few shameless did.

    It didn’t last two years.

    While less than half a mile down the road there’s another used book store that stocks romances in all subgenres along with all other fiction–with romance easily taking up 50% of the space. While smaller than the other store in both space and scope, they’ve been going strong for more than a decade.

  4. This makes me so sad. I wish I had that many bookstore choices! I have to drive 45 min for the closest BN and Borders. Yes, I could order online but I like to buy in person. I want to browse the covers, read back cover copy, read the first line, etc.

    There are some indies that specialize in romance. Wendy down in St. Louis, I think, is incredible. She holds author events and really works the social networking for her store.

    One thing that I think can help introduce indies to romance is authors sending them book news. Last year I did a mailing for a NYT well-known author. Within a couple weeks she’d received an email from a bookseller at a mainly mystery stocking indie store. The bookseller was able to use the author reaching out as a way to convince the owner to finally buy and stock romance. And they had my author up on their recommends wall. Hopefully, their romance section will just grow from there!

  5. The romance genre accounts for such a big percentage of book sales, it seems so strange that many indies avoid it. You’d think they’d care more about profit than…what, girl cooties?

    I hardly ever shop at indies these days, because where I live now I have to drive an hour and a half to get to one. :/ Thankfully one of the chains has a presence in my town, so I don’t have to do *all* of my book purchasing online. (I probably do 80% of it online anyway, because half the books I want aren’t in stock. The chain store does have a reasonably sized romance section, though, and it’s nice to have the option of browsing. I would be sad to lose them – I hope the rise of ebooks and online ordering doesn’t lead to them closing their doors here. They do seem fairly busy when I go in there, so presumably they’re doing okay right now.)

  6. Thanks for publishing your numbers, Courtney! You’re a publishing industry hero. Books are my crack, too. I buy all the fiction I can, and I hit the library for most other things (like right now I am loving Hungry Planet and Around the World in 80 Diets–pictorial NF showing what people around the world eat on a daily or weekly basis. Thank goodness they didn’t ask me or they’d see mainly coffee and jelly beans.)

    I recently read an article (which I now can’t find, natch) about the economic reasons most indies don’t stock romance. It was more an issue of volume and markup and the fact that mass markets can’t be remaindered. (I think my local indie doesn’t stock ANY mass market…which is why I don’t often shop there.) But if you’ve run across indies that are stocking some mass market, but not romance, they’ve obviously got some different reasoning. And I agree, I think they are missing out on sales as a result.

    WORD in Brooklyn recently bucked the trend and added a romance section, and it’s going gangbusters. They’ve hosted panels and had signings, and they’re doing a launch party for Eloisa James’s new historical romance at the end of this month. Good on ’em. If I didn’t live half a country away, I’d be there all the time!

  7. Sing it, sister! This bears out my experience as well. I would prefer to spend my money locally, but..There is a well established, respected indie bookstore (Aunties) in my town, and their Romance section is both small and not well curated. There is a B&N @ 1 mile from my house, with a large romance section. I could order books at Aunties that they don’t stock; at B&N, I don’t have to–I can just browse.

    My family (4 voracious readers on a modest income–we also use the library and used bookstores) spends @ $40-$50/month on new books, almost all of that at B&N.

    And Powells is both wonderful and dangerous.

  8. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in clinging to print when it comes to reference books. I’ve only bought a couple of non-fiction titles in digital format. Although my ereader (BeBook Neo) has a note-taking function, it’s not comparable to highlighting passages with a regular highlighter pen.

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