The Future of Bookstores

25 May

With Borders closing more than 200 stores nationwide (after filing chapter 11 bankruptcy), the publishing industry has been buzzing about the future of bookstores.

Will bookstores eventually disappear completely? Will Amazon someday become our only means of purchasing books? Will we never again be able to browse aimlessly through physical aisles of books until a flashy cover catches our attention?

The loss of bookstores could mean the loss of book discovery, laments one blogger.

“When it comes to a physical store, I go there because I want a certain level of interaction. I want human contact. I want tactile. I want readings. Events. Original content. Something unique that I can’t get anywhere else. I want to be seduced by a cover with a striking image, and, honestly, I think booksellers have a better idea of what attracts readers than publishers (especially those publishers who don’t leave New York very often).”

Sure, we can browse for our favorite titles in the Apple ibookstore or on Amazon, or search for new finds suggested by Oprah or The New York Times, but how will we find those titles that we didn’t know we’d love because no one told us to love them? (Does that even make sense?)

Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, says that the survival of the physical bookstore is her number one concern:

“‘We need that physical environment, because it’s still the place of discovery. People need to see books that they didn’t know they wanted.” [From Booksquare]

Bookstores are taking a bit hit because, well, for one…you just can’t purchase an e-book in a physical bookstore. And e-books are selling like crazy. In fact, Amazon is now selling more e-books than printed books. According to the Sydney Morning Herald,

“Since April 1, Amazon sold 105 books for its Kindle e-reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback books, including books without Kindle versions and excluding free e-books.”

Both print and digital books saw increases in revenue in the past year, which suggests that it is possible for the two formats to coexist.  However, print books aren’t out of the woods yet. In the past year, e-book sales have increased remarkably by more than 145%.

*Category March 2011 March 2010 Percent change
Adult Hardcover $96.6M $91.2M +6.0%
Adult Paperback $115.9M $125.6M -7.7%
Adult Mass Market $55.2M $54.5M +1.2%
E-Books $69.0M $28.1M +145.7%
Religious Books $63.5M $49.8M +27.4%
University Press Hardcover $4.4M $4.5M -1.9%
University Press Paperback $2.6M $2.5M +7.1%

[stats from The Association of American Publishers]

So, how can physical bookstores survive if they can’t provide the best selling products? What makes shopping in an actual store better than shopping online?

I’ve compiled a list of bookstore vs. online bookstore experiences for your–well, okay, mostly my–enjoyment. Feel free to comment and dispute my claims or add your own!


Online store

Speak with an actual person if you need help finding something. Avoid speaking with an angsty teen who doesn’t believe the $8/hr they’re getting paid is worth treating you like a human being.
Ask the employees for recommendations. Instantly access reviews from countless other customers.
A sense of intimacy and community. No need to change out of your pajamas.
Long lines at the checkout. Busy servers and other computer/internet errors.
Look at and touch the product and know exactly what you’re purchasing. Easily compare the product with others like it or compare the price of the same product at several stores.
Stores close at night. Shop any time, anywhere.
Instant gratification. Walk out of the store with your purchase and start reading immediately! Pay extra for shipping. Wait around several days for the book to arrive.
Browse the aisles or the “recommended”/ ”best-sellers” tables for something that catches your eye. Receive suggestions based on what “other customers who bought this product also bought…”
Grab one of the comfy chairs in the store and start reading to see if you’re really interested. Get through most of the book until the manager kicks you out because the store is closing. View the first few pages of the book (if that) on your computer screen. Wait impatiently to get your hands on the rest of it.
Pay with cash. Dig those nickels and dimes out of the bottom of your change purse. (Usually) Pay with credit card or PayPal only. Risk entering your personal information on the internet. Receive spam emails for the rest of your life.
Try to purchase a book while there are screaming children running around. Order books in peace and quiet. Or while watching TV.
If you have a problem, speak to an employee or (if necessary) a manager. If you have a problem, call an 800 number. Listen to a list of 10 “press 1 for…” options. Finally press 0 for customer service. Get put on hold for 20 minutes. Have your call transferred to 3 different departments.
Only have access to the books the store stocks. Access endless books; if one online store doesn’t have it, another probably does.
Have an employee tell you when a book will be back in stock if it is out of stock. Sometimes don’t be informed that an item is out of stock (or “backordered”) until after you purchase it. Receive no estimate of  when it will be back in stock.

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