At the market close on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the market cap (total stock value) of the Borders Bookstore chain was less than 65 million dollars. No, I don't have 65 million dollars I can spare, but self publishers do. I'm not thinking about self publishers like myself who have started their own publishing companies, but those authors who have paid fees to get their books printed. Nobody has an exact count on how many authors have published books outside of the traditional system since the triple zeros came up on the calendar eight years ago, but it's on the order of a million individuals in America alone.
The biggest complaint I hear from those authors is that their books never got a fair chance to compete with the big trade books on bookstore shelves. If those authors could organize and pony up a hundred dollar each, they could make an offer for the entire Borders chain. I suspect that Borders main stockholder wouldn't be too happy with the offer, and it wouldn't be the ideal match in any case. For one thing, Borders is losing money at a rapid pace, and while returning all of the current inventory may offer a bit of revenge for authors who were never stocked on the shelves, the returns may only be good for credit towards new titles from the same trades. And I don't think the superstore format would work very well for the title mix that the newly empowered shareholders would chose to stock. Imagine walking into a warehouse sized bookstore split into three equal sections: memoir, fiction, poetry and sundries.
Kidding aside, it seems to me that all of the author services companies, or self publishing companies as some style themselves, have large and active communities of authors who are interested in gaining wider readership for their books. Many authors have already put their money where their hearts are, paying thousands of dollars for promotional campaigns which primarily benefit the bottom line of the company they've paid to get published. If just one percent of those authors clubbed together to form a bookstore cooperative ten thousand members strong, at just $100 each, they'd have a million dollars in seed capital to open a mini-chain of small bookstores to exclusively stock their books. I'll even volunteer a loaded name for the chain, "Imagined Memories."
It's not a business model for an outsider. But given tens of thousands of authors who are willing to spend money to see their books on shelves, I can't think of a more efficient way of doing it. While authors could invest the same pool of money in buying shelf space at the existing bookstores through cooperative advertising (the same way the major publishers purchase premium shelf space), the number of titles that could be displayed at any given time would be small, and the atmosphere, competing with classics and name brand bestsellers, would be wrong. If there's any potential in working with the existing chains, it might be leasing space for a store within a store, but I doubt a new cooperative would come away with the long end of the stick.
Starting a small bookstore chain may sound crazy, but I think it has more upside than downside. For starters, it would help give the most active advocates of the fee based self publishing approach something concrete to invest their efforts in, rather than remaining trapped in an endless circle of discussion list postings. Handled properly, the new venture would get plenty of free publicity in the media, a value that might even exceed the cost of setting up the cooperative. Perhaps most importantly, it would give a large number of human beings a reason to work together on a positive project - setting up some small bookstores at a time when they're a vanishing breed. Stores might even be partially staffed with volunteers, and could go the coffee shop route to provide a nice public space and help pay the rent. Even the downside, losing the small amount of money invested, has a potential upside. It could be an investment loss rather than a hobby loss on taxes (I think:-)
Just watch out for scam artists and cooperatives that are set up to provide a living to the executives.