Thursday, February 24, 2011

High Tech to the Rescue of Independent Bookstores?

Keith here
Of the 200 Borders stores across the company that are closing, I’ve done signings in half a dozen. That makes the chain's bankruptcy just a little more personal. I recently spoke to the proprietor of a large independent bookstore near where I live in Palo Alto. I suggested that there was some consolation -- at least Borders’ problems would be good for his store. He disabused me of that notion, saying that after getting stiffed for tens of millions of dollars by Borders, publishers are tightening up on credit with his store and other independents. He doesn’t need another problem given the threat posed by e-books to his book-and-mortar store.

So is there any future at all for the independent bookstore? Today, the independents, along with Borders and Barnes & Noble, are becoming less booksellers and more book showrooms. People wander through these brick-and-mortar stores, look around, and then go home to buy print-and-ink copies of their choices from Amazon or, alternatively, they buy downloads from Amazon or another e-book retailer. This is no secret. Booksellers at brick-and-mortar stores tell me looky-loos in their store shamelessly admit they are looking to find a good book so they can go home and purchase it over the Web. But here’s the critical point: these looky-loos prefer seeing books on shelves and talking to booksellers who know their stuff as compared to trolling through websites to look for a book to read. The problem with their preference, of course, is that there will be no book-and-mortar stores to shop at if people just come to bookstore to look without buying.


Google is making a first effort at addressing this problem. Google eBooks permits independent bookstores to offer their e-books on their websites today. (See here for example.) The store then gets a cut of the sale. Of course, buyers can also download books directly from Google’s own site. The portent may be promising, but even here in Silicon Valley not too many people are bothering to go through the bookstore sites. Still, here’s what I suspect is coming and, if it’s not, it should be. People who are checking out the shelves in an independent store will just point their iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android phone, e-book reading device at the book they want and have it instantly downloaded. The device will interpret the new generation barcode with the squiggly lines that’s already being used on billboards and magazines to send potential customers to websites, maps, videos, and such. (It's just to the left of the bottom of the Mountain Dew bottle in the ad to the right.) The e-book will be downloaded right then and there.

And guess what? Most of those devices have GPS software built in. That means Google eBooks or other e-book suppliers will know exactly what bookstore the purchaser is standing in and can pay a commission to the store. This way the store is compensated for acting as a showroom staffed with bibliophiles. By the way, with this approach, a user of Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader can just point it at a book on the shelf at a B&N and have the book ready to read, too. The model doesn’t work for the leading e-reader, Amazon’s Kindle, because Amazon doesn’t want you buying a book or e-book from anybody but them. On the other hand, a model where readers can download an e-book instantly while holding the print-and-ink version in their hands will begin to give Amazon a run for its money.

So, here’s the future. You'll go to your independent bookstore and point and click. Poof. An e-book is on your reading device even before you leave the store. Instant gratification. Rumor has it that the American Booksellers Association is working to make this all a reality. I can’t wait.



Above that's my #3 trying to download Marcus Sakey's latest.


17 comments:

Charmaine Clancy said...

What a great idea for bookstores to adapt to the progressing market.

Mike Dennis said...

It's a promising pathway into the future for independent booksellers. Let's hope it happens.

Alan Orloff said...

Let's hope this arrives sooner, rather than later. Of course, I might have to go out and buy a smarter phone.

G.M. Malliet said...

Jeez. This just makes my head spin.

I'm for anything that gives me a bookstore to browse in. A bookstore as showroom? Fine with me. Let's hope they figure out a way to immediately satisfy those who want to own the physical book as well. Some kind of hybrid solution.

Lois Winston said...

This sounds wonderful for bookstores, but it will all come down to dollars and cents. Will they make enough on these commissions to cover their overhead and make a profit?

As for people becoming looky-loos in bookstores, then buying over the Internet, you can hardly blame them, given the economy. At least they're still buying books. We'd all be in a lot more trouble if they weren't.

B&N would have more in store sales if their books sold for the same discounted price in the brick and mortars as they do at BN.com. For many trade pb's and hardcover books, the price difference is huge. And you can't even factor in the cost of shipping. If you spend a minimum of $25, shipping is free.

Judy Bobalik said...

Indie Bound is selling Google ebooks. I'm sure Kindle and Nook can't be far behind.

Jocelyn said...

The issue is the pricing. If the indie bookstore prices the ebook download much higher than Amazon, they'll be pricing themselves out of this market as well.

Darrell James said...

I'm with Gin on this one. The whole thing is happening at the speed of light. I just hope publishers can keep pace with the changing selling conditions.

Nice post, Keith! Very insightful!

Beth Groundwater said...

Very interesting post, Keith! Funny thing, though. When I set up a recent signing with a Barnes & Noble store and asked if a reader with a Nook could download my book while in the store, he said, "We'd much prefer they buy the paperback." Maybe that's because he'd be ordering copies of the paperback for the signing, but I thought it was an interesting response.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Anything that keeps bookstores going is worth a look. I am definitely one of those who prefers to browse among real books. (And buy there, too!)

Julia Buckley said...

Well thank you, Google! It's a great idea to follow the change but still allow the little fellows to thrive.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for the insightful comments, everyone. I think this is a case where technology should make things easier. Just point your device at the book you want and it's yours!

G.M. Malliet said...

But these downloads feel like stardust to me, Keith. I want the real, physical book that won't vanish when I screw up the settings on my reader or something.

I want BOTH, actually. I like the searchability of the e-Book.

Maybe they can bundle my physical book with the stardust download as an incentive. I think I'd go for that. Maybe others would buy into that, too.

Alice Loweecey said...

This sounds like a great idea.

Deborah Sharp said...

great post, Keith ... it seems counter-intuitive that the cutting edge tech could be bundled with the oldest model we have for bookstores: indies, where bibliophiles go to get their senses stimulated with the smell of books, the feel of books, the talk about books. Interesting times, indeed.

Capricorn said...

I'm not an e-book fan, I prefer a real book and I think print books will always remain. However, excellent article/post. I didn't know about these new barcodes that the devices can scan. Technology can be intriguing.

Joanna Aislinn said...

Hmm. Wonder what my friend, a B & N employee, writer and naysayer to how EASY it is to purchase ebooks with one's device would say to this concept. (I was asked to please NOT forward any more articles on this topic--why might that be?)

Yes, even Amazon can keep its edge on the competition in your model.

Thanks, Keith.

@GM's second comment: all my Nook purchases are backed up in the B & N virtual library and can be downloaded as many times as I need to my device. I can't lose them! And as much as I do love the physical qualities of a print book, I love not wondering where I'll store my copy once I'm done with it! :)