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Bookstores matter

With the digital publishing revolution upon us, it seems like bookstores are going the way of the dodo. Borders is in bankruptcy and closing hundreds of stores (including some here in Southern California that I particularly liked), Barnes & Noble can’t seem to sell itself, and some amazing indies have decided to close their doors. Some e-vangelists don’t seem to mind this trend–the future (and some argue present) belongs to the e-book, and traditional bookstores won’t have a major role after the revolution. Books will be found through online marketing, author promotion, and word-of-mouth, they say.

Speaking at GigaOm’s Structure Big Data conference yesterday, Marc Parrish, Barnes and Noble’s VP of Retention and Loyalty Management, made some very interesting comments (as reported by Cyndy Aleo in this GigaOm article). First, he noted that as readers move to e-books, their buying patterns change, favoring a particular author or category, which means that consumers are focusing on a much narrower set of books. When you combine this with evidence that e-book consumers are on average buying more e-books than they did print books, it presents publishers with a challenge: they clearly have a market for established authors–maybe even an easier one to reach–but how do they sell new authors in this environment?

Which leads to the second point Parrish made: bookstores are still the best discovery tool around. All that table, endcap and shelf space is advertising (we all know that it’s bought through co-op), but it’s the best, most-focused, cheapest advertising around. Publishers pay for it because it works. By time someone is in a bookstore, they’re at least peripherally interested in purchasing books. And finding something new is easy with the choices that abound. Even if someone is looking for a particular author, so many other books are presented along the way. (I hate anecdotal evidence, but I will say that while I’ve found new authors in all sorts of bookstores, I’ve never bought a book in an e-bookstore that I wasn’t already looking for.)

Now, I take this with a grain of salt, as B&N clearly has a vested interest in keeping the brick-and-mortar stores alive. But they also have a big investment in digital, and in the book ecosystem generally. I think his conclusion is quite right: bookstores matter. Curious to hear what you think. Are bookstores a necessary and important part of book discovery?

13 Responses to Bookstores matter

  1. Suzi McGowen says:

    I hate to say this, but “Amazon Recommends” has been a far better judge of what I’ll enjoy then any endcap or table in a bookstore. I’ve discovered a number of authors through Amazon Recommends and through anthologies where I bought the book because of a favorite author, and discovered another author or two that I enjoy.

    Having said that, I think that bookstores are important. Still and always will be. Just as live performances for singers/bands or art showings for other types of artists are still important. I’ve never been to one of Seanan McGuire’s “Traveling Circus and Snake-Handling Show” book signings, http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/336554.html but I’ll bet the bookstore loves her!

    Bookstores, like everyone else, will have to find a new format to survive. (Our local bookstore has the high school kids come and do poetry readings, and has “story time”, etc.) It won’t be strictly books. I’m not sure what it will look like, but it won’t be just an expensive version of my local library.

    (Hmm.. I wonder why publishers aren’t paying libraries to promote books on endcaps and tables?)

    • Michael says:

      I wonder–do you read a particular genre more than any other? In that case, the anthologies and Amazon Recommends are perfect. But then you also fit into the mold of the e-book reader who sticks to one author or kind of book. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree that Amazon does a great job of, say, selling more mysteries to people who’ve bought mysteries. But Amazon isn’t going to recommend an impulse buy or a women’s memoir to you, and those are potential lost sales.

      I’m curious how bookstores will survive if they aren’t selling books–it’s great to have a performance/signing/meeting space, but those things don’t pay, unlike musical performances. Unless, of course, the author or publisher pays for the space. But what publisher or author has money for that?

  2. Brodi Ashton says:

    Bookstores totally matter, and I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting at one right now, writing. There’s no digital substitute for wandering the aisles and having a cool cover catch your eye. And like you pointed out, I only wander by genre on the computer. In a bookstore, I wander outside my genre.

  3. Bookstores definitely matter.

    Now, I’ve ordered a fair amount of books just based on reviews and word of mouth, and I think it’s a great way to find books. Still, I would be LOST without a bookstore. Online, I don’t wander — I go directly to what I’m looking for, and maaaybe check out the “Also Recommended” section.

    There are times when nothing I hear word-of-mouth about or reviews of appeals to me, no matter how much praise it gets. It’s during those times that I go out to the bookstore and browse the shelves, and it’s those days that I find authors I’ve never even heard of, and feel like I’ve found a hidden treasure.

    I wouldn’t trade those days for anything.

  4. One word: serendipity.

    Of course bookstores matter. Here’s to reading (and thinking) out of our ruts!

  5. May says:

    I completely agree with you on this and wonder if publishers will start doing more co-op type opportunities with reading sights like goodreads or even popular blogs. And speaking of blogs, will they become the hand-sellers of the future?

    • Michael says:

      Publishers are definitely spending more advertising money on Goodreads and co-op on Amazon.

      I think blogs are the handsellers of today! But they can’t replace the browsing opportunities that bookstores provide.

  6. Are bookstores a necessary and important part of book discovery?

    o yes, o yes, o yes, ad infinitum. Where do I head first when in a new town? The bookstore. The best indies feature local authors I’d never trip across on my own. The chains have gargantuan selections where I lose myself and learn. My tendencies may be Luddite, but I hope the bookstore dodo doesn’t die.

  7. Rachel Hansen says:

    I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have a bookstore. We used the library. Though sometimes the library is more of a hunt and peck type of place to find something new, we still found it.

  8. Ryan Field says:

    I read mostly e-books now, and find all the information I need about what books I’m going to buy online. And not from one particular source, and I don’t stick to one particular author or genre. I’m reading “Last Night in Twisted River” right now, before that I was reading a horror by a self-pubbed author…one of those .99 e-books that was nicely written. Before that, I read a non-fiction book about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Except for the John Irving book, which I’ve been wanting to read for a while, I found the other books online by shopping around to see what looked interesting. And, by checking out reviews I normally wouldn’t have seen in a bookstore.

    I love bookstores. I really do. I always wanted to own one. And I hope they figure out a way to do what video stores and record stores couldn’t do. But I also love buying and reading my e-books just as much.

  9. Karen Engelsen says:

    Yes, bookstores matter. But their format must change. In St. Paul, we have a B&N — probably the largest bookstore in the state. It has a coffeeshop smack in the middle, surrounded by tables. It’s the local gathering spot, hangout, & book events venue. The value proposition is the literary “experience.” This model would be enhanced by changing the book distribution model to only carrying one or two POD review hard-copies in store, thus allowing presentation of *more* titles, then using POD for on-the-spot download and print for purchase, or on-the-spot Nook dowloads. This model would resolve the issue of returns. It offers increased opportunities for more community-oriented activities centered around reading and the literary conversation.

    That’s where I see bookstores going, IMHO.

    • Michael says:

      This is a very interesting and compelling vision, and one that I know bookstores are also exploring. As the price of POD machines go down and the quality of the product goes up, this becomes more feasible. Definitely compelling stuff!

  10. Michael says:

    Those still following this thread, Mike Shatzkin posted something related today, talking about why bookstores matter for discovery. http://www.idealog.com/blog/do-ebook-consumers-love-bestsellers-or-does-it-just-look-that-way

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