Perhaps by making a bookstore a social experience

Some Doubts About the Future of Independent Bookstores
[Via Age of Engagement | Big Think]

Last week I posted somewhat optimistically about media reports suggesting a rebirth for independent bookstores. In reply, below is a guest contribution from my colleague Paul D’Angelo, a professor of communication at the College of New Jersey.

–Matt Nisbet

I wish I could be as optimistic as you are about a “rebirth” in independent bookstores, Matt, but I think your second paragraph says it all. Marketshare of indies has been sliding over the past generation, and I see no reason why it won’t continue to do so. Sure, certain indies seem to be indomitably rooted in their respective urban nooks–the DC stores you mentioned, for example. On a recent trip to Denver, I desperately wanted to venture into The Tattered Cover Book Store, an esteemed indie in the city’s downtown. But having family in tow and sights to see prevented that. In general, I think the fate of indie book stores mirrors that of their brick-and-mortar brethren: the main culprit behind the decline of market share of all stores that sell printed books–chain and indie alike–is technology.

Consider, first, that Amazon.com is now the biggest retailer of printed books in the world, having recently nudged aside the Barnes&Noble/B. Dalton juggernaut. Revenue metrics vary among sources; some take into account the gamut of “media” these organizations sell (e.g., DVDs and CDs in addition to printed books) while others do not. But however you slice it, Amazon comes out on top in US and overseas sales of books. Information from the Foner Books website, which caters to self-published books and e-books, supports this claim. The two charts at the top of the page graphically depict Amazon’s ascendancy. In addition, the table just below them shows an interesting fact: the one area where B&N has showed positive growth is selling printed books online. Finally, even as Amazon’s sales peaked in 2007, the company still shows stunning positive revenue growth.

AmazonBookSales

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As with all things digital, the marginal cost goes to zero and it is impossible for brick-and-mortars anywhere to compete with digital. Bookstores can not sell books better than Amazon. So just do not try.

Just make books the excuse for people to get out and interact with one another. People will always need to do this and it provides opportunities that no online social network can.

People do like to be around other people.

Bookstores can not survive if all they do is sell books. They need to provide what the Internet can not. Some of the things I think they need to do are not quite possible yet but I think the pressure of the market will pushj them towards some of these things.

They need to really push the ideas of book clubs, providing a nice environment for people to host them instead of rotating around people’s homes. Nice meeting rooms with reasonable catering, perhaps.

Even just book/coffee shops would be useful. Add WiFi and a lot of people will congregate. People go to libraries now for online access. Make bookstores a better experience.

Here is a big one for me – provide access to online journals behind paywalls. It is impossible for me to pay the subscription prices for many scientific journals. Libraries do not often provide the access either. Only University libraries might but you have to be a student. Individual articles can cost $35 just to examine. Why can’t bookstores make a deal with these publishers, providing access at the stores for these articles for a nominal fee? I’d pay for such access and know a lot of small business owners who would also.

Amazon can make recommendations but a bookstore that had an expert who really knew me and could recommend new books, etc. would be a better experience. Many people get to be regular customers of restaurants because they really like a particular waiter.

Personalized service with a real person can not be replicated online. So, mine a few databases, with my permission, and let me know about some new books that I might be interested in when I get my coffee. I am sure Barnes & Noble knows that I love Criterion Collection DVDs. So why aren’t the people working there making it their business to tell me when a new one is coming out or simply to talk with me about my passion? I would love to have that opportunity and it would make me more likely to return than simply getting it through Amazon.

Actively working at something online does poorly – browsing – would be helpful. Especially making it much easier to get digital downloads right on the spot to your iPad, etc. Value-added for digital editions would be very useful, such as simply printing out paperbound versions of digital books. People will always want to read some books in areas without WiFi or electricity. They will also want the permanent aspect of actual books.

Being able to print out digital copies on really good acid-free paper with my choice of covers that I can walk away with would be something Amazon could not do as well or as immediately.

Actively working with authors to provide added benefits from owning a book is something else to be done. While people might not pay to hear a reading by an author, they might very well pay to sit down around a table with one, providing income for the store and the author. Autographed copies of books by an author you have stood in front of is something Amazon can not copy.

Authors in the 1800s did not make much of a living from the sales of their books. There was no international copyright to speak of, so American publishers simply published Dickens’ work without paying him anything. Same with Mark Twain in Europe.

So they traveled to the other countries and gave speaking tours, making more money than anything they made from books. The free books had created a market which paid quite well to see them in person.

The way a bookstore will thrive is to simply make books an excuse for people finding ways to socialize in person. While the internet makes some interactions easier, it can never replicate in person.