What will happen to bookstores?

Of the Blogs I read regularly, an interesting one that I’ve learned from is Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020–dedicated to the future of books and publishing. I found a recent exchange on it about what will happen to bookstores. You can see it for yourself at:

http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2007/08/scott-karp-give.html#comment-81262741

The discussion is about what will happen to brick-and-mortar bookstores in the future. This is certainly an important question—there were many suggestions and comments, but what was most troubling about it all was the lack of any real sense of urgency in virtually all of the comments.

People, the number of bookstores is declining! It’s already pretty low and it’s getting lower by the day. The published statistics are misleading, insofar as they count many establishments as bookstores that we wouldn’t. (Any establishment that orders books through a wholesaler can qualify for bookseller status, even if most of what they sell is, say, Irish imports–a case I know about personally. The two big chains account for about 1800 stores across the country between them, and that number is going down in two ways: the number of stores is declining as marginal, small stores are closed; and the floor space in the chains devoted to books (as opposed to stationary, toys, CD/DVDs, electronics, fluff, coffee and biscotti) is declining as well. Right now about a third of Borders floorspace (by its own reports) is devoted to non-book merchandise, and that number is expected to rise in the years ahead. Borders display strategy places more books per square footage than Barnes and Noble (the stacks in Borders are usually a foot or more higher), so Barnes & Noble has a slightly smaller percentage of floor space devoted to non-book product, but still about the same one-third of the store (figured as dollar revenue per square foot) is dedicated to non-book merchandise. (And we are not considering the subtle change that has taken place in the change in which prime floor space near the entrance of the store is devoted to non-book product and the books have been pushed upstairs or to the rear.)

What all that means is that a third of those 1800 outlets might as well not be considered bookstores at all! The figures are better for the independents, but their number is smaller to begin with—depending on how you read the statistics, there are from 700 to 900 independents left in the United States. That means fewer that 3000 bookstores, total! And the number is going down. By 2010, we’ll be lucky if we have 2500 bookstores in the entire country. There are entire counties of the U.S. in which there is no bookstore whatever. Compare this with England or France—countries every bit as cultured as us, I dare say—and we would have three times as many bookstores in the U.S. if we had the same density as those countries.

In the past, local public libraries were able to pick up the slack. But have you been to a local branch of a public library recently? The dedicated librarians have their hands full simply maintaining the basic reference services that students and researchers need. Most of the librarians I’ve talked to have given up trying to serve adults altogether and focus their attention (not unwisely, I think) on children and young adults. Adult fiction and non fiction acquired by many libraries is highly selective—geared mainly to best-sellers and provocative titles that will attract local “patrons.” A librarian once complained to me that she resented having to purchase ten copies of The DaVinci Code just to quiet complaining users—and then had to unload eight of them—at a loss—after the demand quieted down in a few weeks.

So what do Joe and his readers suggest? They think stores should focus on print-on-demand kiosks; bookstores of the future should make internet access routine and turn significant space over to terminals. (Borders, sensing the competition to its coffee-shop operation from Starbucks and the wireless-Wifi access it provides in many of its stores, has already announced its intention to do just this.) Some of Joe’s respondents talked about the “joy of browsing through the shelves of a bookstore that simply cannot be captured by an online purveyor,” but the question remains, for how long and for haw many people will that experience (enjoyable as it is to me and might be to others) continue driving people to bookstores?

So here’s a stab at an answer: I think book dealers are going to have to bring people to their stores so that they can…meet the authors! Not physically—only the major markets can get authors to show up. I mean electronically. Picture this. An author “appears” at a local store through an internet connection that allows the author to be seen by people in the store and (this could be more difficult) that allows the author to see whom he or she is addressing. A large flat screen TV in the store “broadcasts” the author’s talk and the author responds to questions afterwards—he or she can even talk to people directly and sign books (with personalize inscriptions), which will then be mailed to the store or directly to the customer, and the revenue credited to the store. A store I know in New York routinely takes orders for signed and inscribed copies of books two weeks before the author appears live—and customers come in the week following the appearance to pick up their (pre-paid) purchase.

Here the power of the network comes into play. A group of bookstores working cooperatively can plan a schedule in which authors appear live at one store, and are simultaneously netcast to many others. The authors rotate among those stores, but each one is available to others and the event is shared electronically everywhere. Will people show up to see an electronic broadcast of an author—even a live broadcast. The experience of BookTV may give one pause. As a book-lover I am often astounded by how boring and poorly done BookTV is–and I have no choice. Here, people will come to see, hear and interact with authors that interest them.

If bookstores are going to “go electronic,” they should do so whole-heartedly, and to me that means using the internet to communicate with their local customers (who else is there?) via e-mail, e-newsletters, and podcasts that are conducted from the store or through the store. And the archive of these appearances should be used in the stores during the week to promote titles of interest. Bookstores have to become what they have, in fact always been:centers of culture and literature; a place to have a certain kind of experience that people find satisfying. Some of Joe’s commenters talked about how brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive just a movie theaters have. I wouldn’t hang a lot on that analogy—we still have to see what home theater technology and movies-on-demand will do to the theater business. (And you don’t see anyone moving in to fill the void left by the closing of Tower Records, do you?)

Now, all this costs money, and if there’s one thing independent bookstores don’t have a lot of, its money. So some of this is going to have to be provided by the deeper pockets that can afford it—and who have a vested interest in promoting and maintaining independent bookstores and books in general. That is not such a long list: it includes the publishers, the non-profits, the schools, government—and even the printers, who seem to be the only people making a buck in the book business.

So far, we’ve been talking about the stores and their design. Next time, let’s talk about a huge area of publishing that is being virtually ignored in the U.S., but which accounts for as much as 30% of the book trade in other countries.

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