Traditional Booksellers and Publishers Roles Are Blurring

Close up of open book on counter
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Historically, it was simple: trade publishers published books and booksellers sold them.

That's not to say there was never any crossover. For example, the original Crown Publishers had their direct-to-consumer Publishers Central Bureau catalog, and Barnes & Noble has long sold their line of books. But in both of those cases, the books were reminders, inexpensive reprints or other types of bargain books--not the typical bread-and-butter for most bookstores.

Traditional Roles

Back in the day, a publisher who sold a book directly to the consumer was perceived as competing with their customers. And most booksellers didn't have the desire to print, bind and ship their titles, so becoming a "publisher" wasn't part of their business model.

But the traditional roles of publisher and bookseller have been changing more dramatically since Amazon began selling books in the mid-1990s and opened up the world of online retailing. As "shopping carts" became website staples for many manufacturers that previously hadn't sold product directly to their end-users, publishers, too, began offering books for sale on their sites.

Current Status

Publishers still tend not to compete with booksellers in any aggressive sense. Their back-end operations are set up more for bulk shipping to distribution centers and bookstores then for a large volume of single-copy consumer sales (at least with printed books), and they don't offer robust sales incentives, like discounts off the list price, or free shipping.

All of the major trade publishers sell some product direct to consumers, but are careful to post links to a roster of retailers, for customer convenience in purchasing from their favorite stores:

  • Hachette Book Group sells e-books on its site but not paper books (referred to here as "p-books" to differentiate them from e-books). The site provides an extensive list of links to booksellers for online purchase through them.
  • HarperCollins allows you to buy p-books or e-books directly from the site and offers links to a number of retailers.
  • Macmillan sells p-books on their site and links to several retailers.
  • Penguin Group offers print books as well as e-book downloads in several formats. They also slightly discount some hardcovers after the paperback versions have been published.
  • Random House does p-books and e-books through its site and has links to retailers. It also has a store finder feature for those who want to purchase a book in person from a local retailer.
  • Simon & Schuster offers both print books and e-books on its site, with links to online retailers, as well.

Future Roles

The roles of publisher and bookseller continue to blur. In 2003 Barnes & Noble purchased Sterling Publishers, which puts out a robust line of new books; allows authors to self-publish with their CreateSpace. As electronic publishing increasingly takes the printing, packing and shipping out of the book equation, it paves the way for publishers to increase their direct dealings with the consumer. There will no doubt be more convergence in the marketplace as technology advances, and publisher and bookseller roles evolve with it.

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