Bookstores Can Still Compete By Combining Traditional Strengths With Smart Innovations
from the that's-how-it's-done dept
When Authors Guild boss Scott Turow said that brick-and-mortar stores are the future of book sales, it was hard not to laugh. Tim Cushing & I joined forces to supply him with an ad for his quixotic campaign, and as expected, defenders of the joy of printed books and brick-and-mortar bookstores appeared in the comments to sing their praises in a non-satirical fashion.
But the thing is, if people love bookstores, then bookstores will survive. But the market will inevitably scale according to demand—and there can be no doubt that demand is declining. I count myself among those who get a warm feeling from shopping in a nice independent bookstore full of mismatched shelves and handwritten signs, and I think that's what most people are pining for when they talk about bookstores, not big box retailers with display tables of pop-psychology books and extraneous Twilight supplements. The latter originally thrived on convenience, selection and price—and in those areas they have been rendered completely obsolete by online retailers. But the former subsist on community, personality and charm—things that can be accomplished online, but in a much different way that will never wholly replace a physical space, and that are not really a part of Amazon's arsenal. That doesn't change the fact that independent bookstores are struggling, or that many have shut down and many still will, but the impassioned defenses of the neighbouhood bookstore that pop up in every discussion of this topic show that there is absolutely still a market to be served, even if the size of that market is still uncertain.
There's an additional fear that even if stores offer a superior experience that keeps customers coming in the door, many of those customers will simply browse and then order the books online at a lower price, thus reaping the benefits of the small store without paying for them. I'm not sure how justified that is. People still like to leave a store with something in their hands—and if you build an engrossing retail space with a sense of community, where people interact with the books and each other, they won't be thinking about their smartphones or Amazon's superior prices. A bookstore can also go a step further: Jim O points us to the story of the Harvard Bookstore, where the new owner set up an on-demand printer/binder to see if he could leverage the opposite trend. People don't just shop physically then buy digitally—they also shop digitally and buy physically:
Maybe access to the vast universe of digital content could also save the bookstore. Maybe the bookstore, while limited in inventory, could evolve in the digital world and become a destination where people had access to every digitized book ever published.
To truly compete, he would also have to solve consumer’s expectations for instant gratification and delivery. Jeff needed a complete production, distribution, and fulfillment model. He has likely shocked a lot of people by building one in his own backyard.
Essentially, Jeff installed a printing press to close the inventory gap with Amazon. The Espresso Book Machine sits in the middle of Harvard Bookstore like a hi-tech visitor to an earlier era. A compact digital press, it can print nearly five million titles including Google Books that are in the public domain, as well as out of print titles. We’re talking beautiful, perfect bound paperbacks indistinguishable from books produced by major publishing houses. The Espresso Book Machine can be also used for custom publishing, a growing source of revenue, and customers can order books in the store and on-line.
You can walk into the store, request an out-of-print, or hard-to-find title, and a bookseller can print that book for you in approximately four minutes. Ben Franklin would be impressed.
I've been excited about the prospects of the Espresso Book Machine for a while. Though print is obsolete in many ways, a lot of people still like printed books and express distaste for e-readers. Personally I don't see myself ever giving up printed books entirely (or selling my small collection of antiques), but I also don't mind reading electronically—and unlike many print defenders, I don't condemn those who do truly make the switch. Print still has value to the end consumer, and as such it is not entirely obsolete as a product—but the incredibly wasteful system of printing off huge runs of books and shipping them thousands of miles is. On-demand printers could solve that paradox.
So how is it working out for the Harvard Bookstore? There are no firm numbers, but the owner reports double-digit sales growth monthly over the past year. Can every town and city support a store like this? Certainly not—nothing changes the fact that demand for bookstores has gone down, and it's naive for those who still love them to expect the market not to shrink accordingly. But the reverse is also true: as long as some demand exists, smart entrepreneurs can find ways to stay relevant and succeed.