Monday, May 24, 2010

Where will all the bookstores go?

by Jane

Last week, I was chatting with a client who was visiting from out of town and who I hadn’t seen for a while. We talked about all of the changes in publishing, especially in the area of electronic publishing, that had occurred since we had last seen each other.

One of the things he asked, and which I thought was a very interesting question, was what will happen to the brick and mortar bookstores now that electronic books are gaining such a foothold, to say nothing about the increased market share that Amazon and the other on-line booksellers have. What will this mean for the large chains – Barnes & Noble and, especially, Borders.

Then on Friday, the 21st, there was a piece on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, “E-Books Rewrite Bookselling,” discussing just this topic.

And Mike Shatzkin, industry pundit, estimates that by the end of 2012, digital books will be 20%-25% of unit sales with another 25% of books sold online. That’s 50% of all books sold and it would seem to me that losing that volume of business will cause the large chains, at least, to shutter a significant number of stores.

The only way I can imagine they could survive is by carrying an even greater variety of products other than books than they already do. And, because these changes are happening so quickly, they would have to begin carrying this additional merchandise immediately so as to build up customers before their book business deteriorates any further.

I think the independent stores that are left—after the chains took over a huge part of the market and put many of them out of business years ago—will be less affected and, in fact, could thrive. For them, selling more varied merchandise will be less of a “leap” than their much larger, more corporate cousins and their customers are truly the most loyal of book lovers. How ironic, considering what happened to the bulk of the independent booksellers when the chains descended over a decade ago.

I am still convinced that electronic book publishing will increase readership as opposed to destroying it. It is up to the big retailers to figure out how to keep up with this new world in order to stay in business.

What do you think? Will the chain bookstores survive and if so, how?


  1. I honestly think brick and mortar stores are going the way of Blockbuster, unless they completely retool themselves.
    Blockbuster is dying right now not only because of Netflix's superior business model, but because movies will eventually supersede the need for a hard media and will become digital delivery. Books will eventually become the same. It will take a while. I bet the bookstores have another 10 years in them. Books are different from movies (obviously) because they require more than just two hours of your time. Not sure if that's relevant, but it's at least true.

  2. I can see a couple chains surviving. Borders will likely go, as they eliminated so many Waldenbooks this past year - and most were profitable. I hope the independents can hold out long enough to survive this upheaval. I think if they offer more than books - many have gifts and a coffee shop - they will survive.

    Consider the music industry - how many 'record' stores remain now that everyone downloads their music? Not many...

  3. Maybe bookstores will go the same way as the pharmacies (you have to search the store to find where they sell the prescription medications) or Amazon, they both have become "dry goods and notions."
    But are they too going the way of the superstores which used to sell everything and are gradually being replaced by the specialist shops for goods of quality.

  4. I recently went to Southern California to visit family and was astonished at how hard it was to find a reasonably distanced bookstore. The area where I was visiting just doesn't support them. It was a shock and I truly felt panicked that my only options were stores that aren't traditional bookstores. This glimpse into life without bookstores was a little frightening for me. There's something to be said for perusing the shelves, flipping through the pages, and getting into that realm of literacy. While I don't know what's going to happen with bookstores in the future, this was a sad preview.


  5. I wonder if Barnes and Noble could stay afloat longer if they worked out a model with publishers where customers who purchased a book in their stores were entitled to a free or one dollar Nook version of the same book. I know a lot of readers who haven't converted to ebooks are the ones reluctant to give up owning an actual copy, and that might help hook some more of them/steal some physical copy sales back from Amazon. Though if B&N did that, I can't imagine Amazon would be far behind and B&N may just lost the edge again.

  6. Don't be surprised if Barnes & Noble increases the size of space in their bookstores to feature the Nook. I see them, and Borders with the Kobo, using the Apple stores as a model. Bookstores have always encouraged interaction between their customers and the product.

    Shopping itself has changed. So much of going shopping was social, getting together with friends, talking to store employees that were experts and loved what they were selling. The few music stores to survive were the ones that continue to be such a place. It is that feature that is the last hope for the independent bookstore.

    As a former employee of Tower Records who worked in the video and book side, I understand what the loss of the bookstore means.

    As a reader and unsuccessful writer, I realize the future is bright for the book. Books I never would have found to read are available again thanks to the e-book. No writer will ever be out of print again. How will we find our future favorites interest me more than what will happen to all those bookstores and their limited focus on bestsellers.

  7. Dave Sosnowski26/5/10 7:19 AM

    It seems to me that if brick-n-mortar bookstores are to survive they need to become not merely places to buy books but places to buy an experience that can’t be replicated online. They need to become destinations unto themselves and service providers. Specifically, I think they need to become places where people socialize around the subject of books – book clubs that are always open to newcomers, where people can meet others with similar interests, something to replace the singles’ bar. Think of it as a thinking person’s place to hook up – a book bar, minus the alcohol. Publish a calendar of “what we’re reading on...” and the date and time, provide a reader facilitator to get things started but who steps back if discussions start naturally pairing off. Charge a cover or have a two espresso minimum. Something like this might help, plus more public readings.

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