During the 2008 holiday season, the bleak economy cast a pall over the bookselling business. Publishers were laying off workers, and shoppers were proceeding with caution — even for supposedly recession-proof purchases such as books.
Now, one year later, the 2009 holiday outlook is a little more merry and bright, says Steve Bercu, co-owner of the BookPeople bookstore in Austin, Texas.
"The books are better, the mood is better and the year is actually going better," Bercu says.
He says new books from big-name authors are partially to thank for better sales this year (Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol leads the pack). Books by familiar authors bring customers into the stores, and then they stick around to browse and buy others.
But highly hyped bestsellers weren't a bonanza for all bookstores. Sue Boucher, owner of the Lake Forest Book Store in Illinois, says she keeps waiting for sales to take off, but so far they haven't.
"People are doing more buying online, and I hear people talking all the time about electronic books," Boucher says.
She says she isn't surprised by the way electronic books are taking off, but it's a disturbing trend — and she's concerned about how it will affect her as a bookseller.
The dominance of Amazon in book sales has long been the independent booksellers' lament, but this holiday season, Amazon's books are taking a back seat to its electronic reader, the Kindle.
"It's the No. 1 best-selling product across Amazon, in both units and revenue," says Amazon's Russ Grandinetti.
He says the company is so happy with the sales of its digital reader, it doesn't really care what kind of book its customers buy — e-books or traditional books. Either way, it works for Amazon.
And as excited as Kindle readers are to buy e-books, Grandinetti says many devoted Kindle readers are still buying physical books as well.
Barnes & Noble — another major player — has gotten into the e-book business with its own digital reader, the Nook. The only problem is at this point, if you want one for a Christmas present, it won't arrive until January.
"This is definitely a win for Amazon, but it's not necessarily a huge black mark in consumers' minds for Barnes & Noble," says Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Epps says Barnes & Noble didn't want to miss out on the chance to publicize this new product during the biggest sales season of the year — and in the end, it was probably a good move.
"Barnes & Noble has done a good job of notifying consumers that have pre-ordered Nooks to let them know when to expect the Nook will actually ship," Epps says, "and has offered them a gift certificate for a free e-book in compensation for not having something to open under the tree."
As far as not having something to open under the tree, you can't put a pretty bow on an e-book — and that's where traditional booksellers still have an advantage.