The Future of Bookstores

 Posted by at 1:20 AM  Tagged with: ,
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.

  10 Responses to “The Future of Bookstores”

Comments (10)
  1. “Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate.” lol.

    These are indeed exciting times and it would be interesting to witness how the future of books and bookstores will unfold. Regarding your statement that “People are reading less in general”, I’ve heard contrary claims based on the fact that there are more literate people with access to more written information (interweb) than ever before. Although most people are perhaps reading* more Twitter feeds, one-liners, advertising, txt msgs, pictures, and instructions to cooking instant noodles, rather than composition or literature with any depth of substance. I will be watching closely for these signs of win-win that you’ve foretold.

    *if we can call it that

    • I’d hardly call any of those things “reading.” And I’d hardly say that practicing “OMG cya l8r txt me kk bye” makes people “literate.” *shudder* I meant that people are reading fewer novels and serious articles, but may be reading more gossip about Paris Hilton or what happened on last week’s episode of Keeping Up With the Real Housewife Survivors in the O.C.

  2. The eBooks will definitely force the bookstores to evolve. I still like to wander around a book store, buy and espresso, pick up books, look at the cover art, read the back cover, thumb through it and maybe read a random page or two before deciding to buy it. The last time I was in Borders, I did that but instead of taking the book to the counter to purchase it, I just made a mental note of the book and its author then downloaded the electronic version (at about 50 percent of the cost) to my Kindle.

    I really think the electronic books are the way to go. Our house has far too many of the regular kind I don’t have room on the bookshelves for any more and they tend to go into boxes in the closet.

    • I agree completely — I love books, but for 95% of them, I read them once and move on to devour the next one. I started getting most of my books at the library, partially due to cost but partially because any time we move, I have boxes full of books that I don’t want to transport but aren’t worth hardly anything to sell. E-books solve that problem for me nicely, not to mention my Kindle is much easier to bring on a trip.

      Yes, I still have a few nice hardcovers of my favorite books propped up on my bookshelf, and I suspect there will always be a market for that. But I think the vast majority of reading will be done on e-readers.

      • We have a secretary desk/book shelf with glass doors on the book shelves. I populate this with leather bound books with gold gilding on the page edges. I know you aren’t supposed to do it, but I do judge books by their cover before purchasing them – especially the ones I plan to display on this book shelf. (One of these books is the leather bound collection of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy novels from Barnes & Noble.) This book shelf is now full, so I’m back to shopping for e-books.

        • It’s funny, the only real “display book” that I own like that (leather cover, gold gilded pages) is … The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy omnibus edition you described.

  3. The books from Easton Press managed to quickly fill up my bookcase. I answered some junk mail and had them sending me classics (Moby Dick, etc.) as well as signed first edition of science fiction. They had some very nice books (leather bound, gold gilded pages) for a fairly reasonable price. The books started coming faster than I wanted and I finally discontinued recieving them. I’ve since found a few classic science fiction books from Easton in a used book store in L.A. I haven’t read all of these display books, but someday I might.

  4. David:

    I’ve had almost exactly the same vision of the “future of book stores” kicking around inside my head for the past year or so… it’s the only model that makes any sense at all.

    “Build a Bear” at Borders is just doomed to fail at every level. I can’t imagine that anyone with a brain thinks this is a serious initiative.

    I believe there will always be a substantial market for printed books because they are cheap-ish and convenient and require no tech to work (outside of eyes).

    I do think, however, that the current book superstore model is doomed because of both ebooks and online sales. The stores we have now are unsustainable.

    Pbooks will be significantly cannibalized by ebooks; I believe dedicated ebook readers are only a transition tech on the way to the mainstreaming of reading ebooks on tablets, smart phones and other multi-purpose gadgets but ebooks will become mainstream sooner or later.

    “Everything old is new again” as stores will revert back to the Waldenbooks-sized stores (a fraction of the current Borders/B&N stores) and about half (or more) of the retail space will be devoted to the “Browsers’ Cafe.”

    There will be a much smaller collection of physical books to browse through (only the high volume sellers) but everyone will get a loaner e-reader to browse for titles and sample selections so you can order a POD copy to be printed in the back. (Or you can order and download to your ereading program of choice — Kindle, B&N, IReader, whatever — maybe the retailers will have some sort of “bonus program” or exclusive store-branded content to make it worthwhile to order from the book retailer rather than Amazon, Kobo or the other online-only retailers).

    While publishers will fight the POD at the store model, it actually is ideal for them: They eliminate all printing and shipping costs and have no returns. They become book “packagers” — their value comes in finding authors, preparing a finished, professional book and marketing it, not unlike television networks. But their days of being a company whose main business is selling paper with ink on it is just about over.

    With this model, the customer should get a decent price and it should work for retailers, too: The store keeps “actual printing costs” and splits the proceeds with the publisher, so this model can be vastly more profitable for both publisher and retailer than the current “ship, strip and return” model. Retailers also save on labor costs because they can cut the number of clerks on the floor due to decreased need for shelving, pulling for returns and merchandising.

    This approach also keeps bookstores meaningful in the future. As it is, physical bookstores risk being made irrelevant because readers are increasingly getting used to not finding the title they want in stock so they just go to Amazon or and order it for home delivery.

    With this model, bookstores have the advantage of near instantaneous delivery of a printed book rather than waiting 3-4 days.

    And the final advantage — perhaps the biggest one for me as an independent author — is that I can get in the game as an independent publisher. Now, I have zero chance of getting into B&N and Borders except as a special order. But with this model, a reader can stumble across my book while browsing, order it and get a POD copy at the store in minutes, putting me on an even footing with all of the large publishing houses.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your excellent comment. We’re definitely on the same page here. As POD prices continue to decrease, it just makes too much sense for all parties for what we’ve described NOT to happen.

      Publishers get to avoid a large part of the up-front costs that make their business model so risky; they avoid shipping and warehousing costs; they never have to worry about being stuck with huge demand and not enough printed copies to meet it; and they can finally say goodbye to returns, which claim anywhere from 25% to 75% of books printed.

      Bookstores get infinite selection and inventory (to match Amazon), but with the huge advantage of 10-minute printing and delivery instead of 2-4 day shipping; they get to run much smaller (and thus less expensive) stores, but with exponentially more inventory; and, like publishers, they’ll never run out of copies of hot-selling books.

      Readers get the ability to get any book they can think of printed for them in 10 minutes, and they retain places devoted to books, where they can browse and mingle and sample and get printed versions of books for display or gifts.

      As you say, authors will benefit from these changes as well: popular authors are ensured that bookstores never run out of their books, mid-list authors never have to go out of print, and independent authors like us can get into the game as well. On top of that, hopefully some of the cost and efficiency savings (along with the lower up-front financial risk on the part of publishers) will be shared with authors as well.

      Far from the “death” of bookstores, I see this as a renaissance.

      • David:

        I sure hope so. I love my local Borders and don’t want to see the idea of the bookstore/cafe go away.

        I think this business model is the only one that makes any sense going forward…

        However, just as the music industry managed to destroy itself fighting the advance of new technology, I’m really concerned that the big bookstore chains and publishers are going to fight this model.

        The big bookstore chains are wedded to the idea of big stores with huge, long-term leases. There are entrenched interests within the companies determined to keep it that way.

        Big publisher will fight instant, onsite POD out of fear — how do we ensure “pirate” copies aren’t being printed, “but we’ve never done it that way,” etc. They’re afraid of losing control even though they’ve already lost it.

        But I think it is a great potential business model — come, hang out at the cool cafe, get some books and other media while you’re there.

        Plus the business is scaleable to much smaller communities…a Borders or B&N needs a fairly large community to support it because they carry 10,000+ titles, but these much smaller stores, with much lower inventory, could be supported in smaller towns all across the country. The little cafe/bookstore could become as commonplace as McD’s or a Starbucks, kind of serving as a focal point for communities.

        It really is a neat opportunity once the printers become available and the publishers get onboard.

        From what I hear, the fully automated Expresso printing/binding machine is really finicky and requires near constant technical support–

        BUT this is something that could easily be done with any standard high volume laser printer if you don’t mind the clerks hand-binding your books (perfect binding, glued spine using Gorilla glue). The actual “binding rigs” are pretty simple to build — Michael Kube-McDowell sells a book and the units online. And high-volume laser printing only runs 1-2 cents a page (at least that’s what Dell advertises for their high volume units) and the printers themselves are very affordable now.

        The one thing I will REALLY miss is the serendipity of just browsing and stumbling across something really cool. Amazon, for all its good points, still has not replicated the whimsy of wandering down an aisle and finding something neat but unexpected — Amazon and other retailers try to steer you towards stuff that you’ve already expressed an interest in, but the great part about bookstores and libraries is discovering something you DIDN’T know you were interested in until you found it.

        Found your blog by your posts on by the way!

        — Bill Smith

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