Borders and the digital future

I’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the emerging digital future of books on this blog, as it’s a topic I’m passionate about as both a reader and an author. But I’ve also spoken before about how bookstores don’t need to die alongside the decline of printed books, they can evolve and remain relevant, useful, and even profitable. And I also mentioned how Barnes & Noble seems to “get it,” and is doing a good job focusing on e-books and e-book readers (like their Nook), and is even offering a number of generous promotions for free e-books, coffee, and cookies — and they just lowered the price of the Nook to $199 and the Nook Wi-Fi to just $149.

There’s also evidence that Borders, America’s #2 bookstore behind B&N, “gets” e-books and is serious about embracing the digital future. Borders partnered with Kobo, which makes a nice entry-level e-book reader for $149, and which offers a nice selection of e-book titles in its online store. Borders is also coming out with its own e-book reader and e-book store. Today, I read this article in Fortune magazine by Michael Edwards, CEO of Borders. He talks about how he sees the direction the market is heading and the growth of e-books — it’s good to see someone who doesn’t just stick their head in the sand — but argues that bookstores can remain relevant in the digital age. He claims that “There will always be plenty of people who welcome the opportunity to read words on paper rather than staring into yet another glowing screen.” (Of course, that’s what I like about my Kindle compared to an iPad — the e-Ink screen mimics paper and doesn’t glow.) He talks about how bookstores are still a place for social interaction, discussing books, sipping coffee, browsing magazines, going to author signings, and more. He ends with a surprisingly forward-thinking paragraph:

“Ultimately, there’s no reason traditional bookstores and digital booksellers can’t co-exist; for all their common ground, each offers a substantially different value proposition. Of course, the onus is on booksellers to prove their continued relevance in the digital age. If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer and the ways they engage the community, consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives. If they fail to adapt to changing market conditions and consumer needs, they’ll deserve the empty aisles — and cash registers — that result. The next chapter is up to them.”

While I’ve heard that Borders is in financial trouble, I’d like to see a company with such a forward-thinking attitude pull through the tough times and stick around. Contrast the realistic, modern, and customer-friendly words and actions of B&N and Borders with the “Big 6” book publishers — who seek to “protect physical books as long as we can” by raising e-book prices, blocking lending and text-to-speech, delaying releases, and other anti-customer tactics.

Although I’ve gone over almost exclusively to reading e-books, I still enjoy bookstores and would like for them to continue to exist as places devoted to readers. It’s through forward-thinking and innovative ideas like developing their own e-book readers and e-book stores, and offering free e-books and other incentives to get people into bookstores, that bookstores can remain relevant long into the digital age.

Apr 022010

So, we’ve already established that e-books are taking over the world (yes, I use the term “established” somewhat loosely). What does this mean for bookstores?

Well, first of all, the smart bookstores are hedging their bets. Barnes & Noble (the largest physical bookstore chain) produces the Nook e-book reader, and Borders (the #2 chain) partners with Sony and the Sony e-book reader. Barnes & Noble already sells books and e-books on their website. So, these companies are at least attempting to embrace the digital future and sell electronic content.

But e-books are still a relatively small percentage of print book sales, and bookstores are in dire financial straits as it is. People are reading less in general (with the notable exception of e-book readers, who are voraciously purchasing and devouring more content faster than ever) with the distractions of TV and iPhones and Twitter. What will happen to them?

While I have fully embraced the e-book revolution, I do enjoy visiting bookstores (and libraries) and browsing the stacks of books, checking out magazines, and generally spending some time there. (I much prefer spending time in a bookstore to a mall, for example.) It would be a shame to see them disappear.

I don’t think bookstores will go away, but I do think they will adapt — for the better. Gone will be huge shops with three floors full of shelves carrying thousands of titles, one or two copies of each, spine-out on the shelves. Instead, what I think we’ll find in your typical bookstore in 5 or 10 years is:

  • A display table with stacks of the latest big blockbuster release (hopefully not Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate).
  • More and more book-related accessories: mugs, notepads, gifts, journals, calendars, greeting cards, bookmarks, e-book cases, etc. (these constitute more and more of bookstores’ current profits).
  • Coffee shops and cafes will continue to expand; perhaps we’ll see wine bars and such as well.
  • The bookstore will be smaller, and will lack the upper floors of lesser-selling titles. Instead, there will be kiosks where shoppers can browse a virtually unlimited catalogue of books, order one, sit and sip a cappuccino, and their newly-printed book will be delivered to them in 15 minutes.

This last part is the real quantum shift (the other parts are just accelerations of current trends). Instead of devoting lots of space (which is expensive) to slow-selling titles, the bookstore will have a print-on-demand (POD) machine or two in back. Not only will it save space and help with inventory, shipping, and returns issues, but it will expand the bookstore’s available stock exponentially. No more worrying if a store carries a particular title or if it’s in stock. Just about any book ever written — from the latest release to Shakespeare — will be available.

(Note that, while I think e-books will become more and more popular, I don’t think physical books will ever completely disappear — some small percentage will still be useful as collector’s editions, children’s books, gifts, home decorations, etc.)

The bookstore will become more about browsing and hanging out and chatting and sipping coffee — a place where book lovers can still go and shop and mingle and sample books (and grab that special edition hardcover they want for their shelf). They’ll probably even browse the store catalogue and submit POD orders from their Nook 3 or Kindle 5 in addition to the kiosks. And the bookstore will save money with smaller stores, a wider selection of titles, and more focus on high-profit hardcovers, gifts, and food sales.

It’s a win-win, and it’s coming soon to a bookstore near you.

© 2010 David Derrico