Interview with Kathy Doyle Thomas: Executive Vice President, Half Price Books
Front Porch: How’s business?
Kathy Doyle Thomas: Our business is great. We ended the fiscal year up seven percent.
FP: What is the most enjoyable thing about being in the bookselling business?
KDT: I’m a big reader. I love working in a business that challenges and enriches peoples’ lives. I’m in the information business, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in an e-book or in a paper book; it conveys information. I work with smart, intelligent people from all walks of life. Books attract all sorts of people, from artists to historians to romance readers, and they all have one thing in common, which is that they all like to read.
FP: What is the hardest part about being in the bookselling business?
KDT: We have a changing book business. After Amazon launched, a lot of great independent bookstores ended up closing their doors. These were mom and pop, family run operations. The industry has gone from independent bookstores, to places like Borders and Barnes and Noble, to Amazon, to e-Books, in a very short period of time. I’ve heard predictions that in five years, fifty percent of people reading will be reading e-Books. It keeps us continually challenged to figure out how we can be better at our jobs.
FP: How have reading tastes changed over the course of your time? Are people reading more or less? Has what they are reading changed? Do people buy different kinds of books? Why are they buying books? Entertainment, utility, knowledge, some combination?
KDT: Studies show there are fewer readers. But more than one million books were published last year. Self-publishing has expanded, and that has changed the publishing industry. More books are available by more people. It used to be that a small amount of publishing houses controlled what was published, but now there are more books from more sources. And that changes the readership. Fiction is big—romance novels and kids’ books, especially. Young adult fiction has blossomed, which I think is great, because now my kids have something to read. It used to be an ABC book or Stephen King.
People do say there’s less time for reading. Kids watch TV, they go to the Internet, and they have less time for reading. Older people are the ones reading. So the face of reading is definitely aging.
FP: Another way of asking that same question: How central is reading to people’s lives?
KDT: Reading is central in everyone’s life. With e-mail and texting, if they are not reading an actual book, people are reading and writing more than ever before.
What’s unfortunate is that we’re making it easier. In food service, say at a McDonald’s, at the register, there are now pictures on the buttons instead of words. There’s a dumbing down of America. That’s due to having lots of people from different cultures and languages, and I think there’s an attempt to make things universal, but it’s hurting the public’s literacy.
When there are no books in the house, there are poor literacy skills in the home. Half Price Books gives away millions of books in an effort to get books into people’s homes. Studies show that if parents don’t read, there are low literacy skills in the family. That is one reason we support adult education programs.
FP: As a used bookstore, have you had an opportunity to observe a change in what people are selling back?
KDT: More people than ever are selling back. We have new sellers every day-we can tell, because they’re not familiar with the process. So we definitely know we have new sellers all the time.
One of the reasons is the economy. People are downsizing, they’re selling their homes, moving to smaller homes, and they’re selling their libraries. People also need extra money. We started noticing the increase when gas prices started to go up. And with environmental concerns, people are realizing that it’s okay to buy a used copy of To Kill A Mockingbird for their kid to read for class. People are checking us first, to see if they can find a used copy of a book, and because of our price point.
Where we get hurt is in the average transaction. More people are walking in the stores, but they’re spending less. This is all since the economy crashed two years ago.
FP: We are in the midst of what I call the zombie-vampire phase of books. How have you observed fads in the history of books? Are there fads that have stayed that surprised you?
KDT: What’s grown is self-publishing. There used to be vanity presses for self-publishing, but now, with the Internet, everybody can publish. Barnes and Nobles and Borders encourage self-publishing on their websites.
And then there are e-books. Amazon recently announced they sold more e-books last year than, I guess ‘real’ books-[laughs]-hardback books. Our biggest fear is that publishers will print fewer books and that will hurt our business, but we also give away millions of books to schools, to churches; we help build libraries in Africa. We won’t be able to do that without excess books.
And kids might save for an iPod, for an iPad, but they may not save for e-books, and that will change how the industry works. e-books may be more efficient, but there may not be as many of them out there.
FP: Is there a particular writer who has surprised you, either in the longevity of their career or in their quick decline?
KDT: Twilight, I guess. Stephanie Meyer-those books are old. It wasn’t like Harry Potter, where the books were published and immediately had a following. So it’s been interesting to watch that.
What’s still amazing to me is how authors, mystery and romance authors especially, how many books they can knock out in such a short period of time. There are some people that take years to write a book, and others have it down to a formula and can produce sixty. I’ve never even attempted one Great American Novel, let alone sixty.
FP: James Patterson just cinched a deal to release twelve new titles in the next two years.
KDT: That’s amazing. And I like James Patterson’s writing, but my gosh! I guess there are a million different story ideas out there, but you still have to develop characters. Maybe the quality will go down. Time doesn’t always equal quality. To be honest, some authors could have taken longer to make their stories better.
But consumers have gotten more critical, which is a good thing. We have so many choices, we should be critical of what’s offered. This is one of the tricks I use to get my kids reading. You know, if you pick a book and don’t like it you do not have to read it-we have no trouble walking away from a TV show or turning off a movie if it’s bad, and I tell people to do the same thing with books. If you aren’t enjoying reading something, you’ll read less. I tell the same thing to my kids. They come to me and say, ‘I hate it, I can’t stand the first few chapters,” and I say, “Let’s go find another one.” I don’t want them associating reading with that kind of drudgery.
FP: How do you see the role of the bookstore within the literary community? Do bookstores have certain responsibilities to the communities they serve? Have the changes in the publishing industry affected your ability to fulfill those responsibilities?
KDT: It’s harder for us. We were founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson, and their philosophy was, “If we can’t sell it, we’ll give it away.” All district managers are challenged with finding places—libraries and non-profits—to give books to. We say, “Books should fill our lives, not our land.” To throw a book away—it’s horrendous.
But that’s getting harder. Publishers produce less because of e-books, and we will have fewer printed copies to give away. There won’t be as many books in people’s homes, and reading and literacy will be affected. You know, illiteracy breeds illiteracy. For our self-preservation, we need future readers, so the more people we can educate, the more future readers we’ll have.
We support adult reading programs. But just because a kid learns how to read doesn’t mean they’re immediately going to want to go to a bookstore, and adults are the same way. You can educate them, but most of them aren’t going to turn around and immediately become readers. So we encourage our customers and employees to teach people to read through various literacy initiatives we promote at our stores. We love it so much, we think we’re the best teachers for it. We encourage teaching, and we encourage our employees and our customers to give books away.
FP: Given the proliferation of Amazon, self-publishing, and so on, how do you see the role of bookstores for writers?
KDT: We’re buying more books than ever before and from different sources. So we are supporting a lot more writers than ever before, and we’re introducing more people to more writers. We may introduce somebody to Stephen King, and then they go out and find more of his books.
Barnes and Noble and Borders don’t carry as many titles as we do. We’re small, but we have single copies of more books, whereas they have multiple copies. We really are exposing more authors to more potential readers.
FP: You mentioned Barnes and Noble and Borders. At a time when Barnes and Noble is contracting and Borders is disappearing, how are you guys expanding?
KDT: One reason is the economy. Real estate rates for shopping centers have gone down. We’re opening a site in California. When we looked at the site two years ago, it was thirty percent more. In Phoenix, we walked away from a deal two years ago. We came back to it now, and it is twenty five percent less. We are taking advantage of real estate rates.
Barnes and Noble is up for sale. It will be interesting to see who buys them and how they will change. But we’re a different store from them. We have a slightly different merchandise mix, and we have better price points. Studies I’ve seen, people are used to price comparisons. They’re shopping around, comparing price points on the Internet. That habit, that skill point, is something that will continue even after the economy improves. That is something people will take with them from this time. It’s like the depression—my mother’s still concerned about the price of milk. I think people are becoming a lot more cautious and will continue to be a lot more cautious.
FP: When people defend books, as opposed to digital literature, they almost always invoke the book’s solid form: something they can hold, annotate, curl up in bed with. These very things strike me as the arguments against books as well: that they’re heavy, cumbersome, environmentally unfriendly, and, in the case of printing books and then destroying the unsold copies, extremely wasteful. What’s the compromise between these two positions?
KDT: I own a Kindle. I take it with me when I travel, and I travel all the time. Recently, it was midnight in Phoenix, I was reading one of my mysteries, and it died on me. I’ve had quite a time getting Amazon to fix it. I’ve never had a paper book die on me.
I’m okay with electronic books, but there are certain types of books I think should never go away from print. Kids’ books especially. I don’t know how the big, wondrous illustrations will work on a flat screen.
And I have a lot of different hobbies, and I get inspired by the covers of books. I’ve wanted to take up Indian cooking. I walked by a book the other day that had all kinds of beautiful pictures of dishes on the cover, and I picked it up and flipped through it to see what the recipes were like. That is a different kind of experience. I may walk into a bookstore for one of my mysteries and walk out with a book on Indian cooking, or mosaic tiles, or whatever I’m into that week. And I’m worried people won’t be inspired by not going into a bookstore.
I do like the idea of electronic readers. But Kindles are not backlit. It is easy to read them on airplanes. I love the adjustable type. I don’t have to put my glasses on; I can just adjust the type size. I like to flip through a book to see how much more I have to go, but on a Kindle you can’t tell where you are.
I think there are some good uses for them. I know colleges are experimenting with them for reading materials, and I think that’s great.
But when I read with my children, it’s not all about the book, but it’s also about the whole experience. That’s part of the attraction of a book: it’s big, it’s in the shape of a cow! It’s the experience of the whole book.
I do worry e-books will put us out of business. But I hope publishers won’t stop printing books. If it’s all electronic, the potential is that if it’s not all in one place, people won’t find it. It’s like the music industry. The bookselling industry doesn’t want to end up like Tower Records, and one day be out of business. So they’re changing their merchandise mix and making stores more community focused.