Not too long ago, my day job collided with the CEO of Copperfield's Books.
That is, I bumped into Tom Montan, who oversees the eight used and new bookstores in Sonoma and Napa counties, at a conference in New York put on by the folks I work for, Sebastopol's O'Reilly Media.
I've known (and admired) Montan for more than 20 years, and it's always a pleasure to see him. As a bookseller, Tom has pushed Copperfield's forward during especially tough economic times in the book business. I thought it was appropriate to talk to him about the business we've spent our lives in, and why he attended the conference:
Q. What made you decide to attend O'Reilly's Tools of Change Conference?
A. TOC focuses on how the publishing industry can utilize and adapt to new technologies. I had to practically beg, borrow and steal to get there, but I am very glad I did.
Q. Did you learn anything at the conference that you were able to apply immediately as Copperfield's CEO?
A. Absolutely, and if only a perspective or attitude shift for me personally. What was apparent to me is how the industry has shifted, both because of the rapid economic depression that has happened in our world, but also because of the evolution of the book format and the inherent changes in distribution channels. The place of a bookseller as a needed component to a supply chain is rapidly diminishing.
Q. What new directions are you taking Copperfield's in?
A. We have been looking at and expanding many parts of our business, while shrinking others. New books, for example, are a slowly decreasing part of our business, while non-book items, sale books, and magazines continue to grow. We are in the middle of a process that will integrate much of our new, used and sale inventories on our shelves. So we'll have the same book but at different price points, on the same shelf. This has been driven by the consumer experience online. We all have begun to expect a choice of what format we want our books to be in.
Q. I'm asking you questions the day before the arrival of the iPad. How have you and the stores dealt with the rising popularity of ebooks and ebook readers? Will you stock ereaders?
A. You had to remind me of THIS! Ebooks today represent roughly two percent of the book retail market. Most experts say this year could very well be a tipping point year for this technology. This form of media has in my opinion a very long way to go. In the world of ebooks, I believe there is no place for a brick-and-mortar bookseller like Copperfield's. This medium becomes a direct connection between publisher and customer and writer and customer. There may even be a day in the not too distant future where the connection is content to customer -- the self-writing book, if you will. I think it's na?e that some booksellers think the virtual format has any place in the brick-and-mortar store.
Q. How dependent are you on bestsellers? Who are the authors that tip the balance sheets into the black?
A. Good question. We apply the 80/20 rule in most cases in our stores -- 80 percent of our business is in 20 percent of our stores. It is no secret and it is actually very reassuring that the young adult market has taken the industry by storm. I am doubtful that any bookseller would be in the same place today if it were not for books like "Harry Potter" and the plethora of Vampire genre books that seem to be cropping up by Stephanie Meyers. To be so reliant on this type of mega hit is also kind of strange and unsettling. But if you think about it, it is all about fresh and new entertainment.