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3 takes on why bookstores are dead (and why that might not be such a bad thing)

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Bookstores had a really bad week — at least in the world of blog punditry, where three industry figures I admire posted their takes on why bookstores as we know them are doomed. Seth Godin, in fact, goes further and says that books are dead too. Here’s a little reading for you:

The death of bookstores is a bigger problem for print books than ebooks

In a post titled “An industry pining for bookstores” over at the Scholarly Kitchen, management consultant Joseph Esposito writes, “With bookstores collapsing everywhere, the print business collapses along with it.” As bookstores close, Esposito argues, readers have fewer places to discover print books. Instead, he says, they learn about titles online — through Twitter, Goodreads, or Amazon pages. When it comes time to order the book, they have two options: A cheaper digital version or a more expensive print version. “Why pay for print when you can get the digital edition immediately at a lower price?  The advantage of the physical bookstore — the immediate availability of inventory — is not at play here.”

Thus people migrate to ebooks even if they don’t prefer them, Esposito argues:

“Many people may actually prefer print to digital. The problem is that the collapse of the print distribution network is driving the business to digital despite what individual consumers want.  In other words, the switch from print to digital is an emergent property of the changing ecosystem, not a matter of consumer preference.”

Read his post here.

The death of bookstores is a bigger problem for publishers than readers

Book publishing industry consultant Mike Shatzkin picks up on Esposito’s chain of thought in post titled, “Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for readers.” “The obsession with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital ones,” Shatzkin writes, “is beginning to give way to attention for the more important shift taking place between purchasing books online and purchasing books in stores.”

And that’s a problem for publishers: “The single biggest reason (aside from a fat advance payment, which few get) for authors to work through a publisher is to get the distribution of printed copies to many stores.” So as more sales are made online, Shatzkin writes, publishers face “an increasingly hostile environment” where they either have to change the types of books they publish — because the vast majority of ebooks sales are narrative, text-based titles — or find a new business model.

Uh-oh, are books dead too?

Author and thinker Seth Godin has two good posts this week. First, at the blog for The Domino Project — his former publishing imprint with Amazon, which as of 2011 is not publishing new titles — Godin writes, “If you love books, it’s hard to see Amazon as a villain. More books sold to more people for more reasons than any other retailer in history. More cross-selling, hand-selling and up-selling too. The web pages of Amazon, on average, are better informed than many bookstore clerks…But if you love bookstores, Amazon is the final nail.” He offers a solution:

“Great independent bookstores deserve to thrive, and I hope they will. But they won’t thrive as local substitutes for Amazon. They will make it if they become hubs, connectors and gift shops…More important, though, is the idea of a local place where smart people go to meet each other and the ideas they care about. We shouldn’t have that because it’s the last chance of the local bookstore, we should have that because it’s worth doing.”

In a separate post at his own blog, Godin writes that books in print are dying fast. “No, books won’t be completely eliminated, just as vinyl records are still around (a new vinyl store is opening in my little town). But please don’t hold your breath for any element of the treasured ecosystem to return in force.”

11 Responses to “3 takes on why bookstores are dead (and why that might not be such a bad thing)”

  1. Chris S.

    The Internet cannot replace the bookstore experience until the day comes that Amazon is able to provide:

    1) Comfortable chairs and coffee at convenient downtown locations (they could do this by teaming up with Starbucks – give Prime members a 50% discount off coffee)

    2) The ability to scan the covers of several dozen titles all at once (so that you can discover titles neither you nor Amazon knew you might be looking for. They should be able to simulate a packed bookstore shelf)

    3) The ability to look all the way through books from front cover to back (not sure why this isn’t possible already. Just require people to log in and set a time limit for how long they can browse through the book)

  2. These problems were precipitated by the rise of big box bookstores. Once those retailers began to slash the pricing on bestsellers to 30% below list, they severely compromised the bottom lines of independent book retailers.

    At that point, consumers had a choice: 1) pay list and support the independent; 2) pay less at big box stores.

    I worked at both independent and big box bookstores at that time, and in my view most consumers took the latter route, just as they do for other consumer products, but without committing fully. They purchased their bestsellers and listed books at the big retailers to get their discount, but when they wanted time-consuming personalized service, like recommendations, or special orders, they went to the small stores.

    Having undercut the independents on price by offering relatively less selection (yes, I do mean that: big boxes would always have 10 copies each of 2 titles, rather than 2 copies each of 10 titles to ensure nice shelf facing and colour blocking!) and poorer service, the big boxes had that same strategy turned on them by online retailers with less overhead on the service and delivery side. I think that once free shipping entered the picture, it doomed the big box model. Then you had the same problem happen to big box stores i.e. showrooming – people began to browse books in the big boxes, but buy them online instead.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that a great deal of responsibility for any putative declines in bookstores, publishing, and printed books rests with consumers – even those who are still firmly dedicated to print books.

    PS – your photo for this story should credit the owner, not the photo-sharing community. That’s like citing the library where you found a book instead of its author, or quoting from your story and linking to your parent site instead of the article.

  3. In the “partnership” between the starfish and the clam, the starfish always wins.

    The article, and the comments, appear to miss a key point. Book publishing (printing) is a scale driven process at the manufacturing level. With eBooks taking out the mass market volume that provides printers with efficient operating scale, the cost of manufacturing will rise steadily. These cost will pass to bookshops, and then to consumers. The accelerating price disparity will eventually close off customers, except for true specialty titles where price is not a factor.

    The same process is affecting the textbook market.

    The “renting” rather than “owning” of content raises issues as well.

    These trends may be unavoidable, as the starfish already has a good grip on the clam. Personally, i find both these trends disturbing for: 1) the loss of the bookshop experience, and 2) the potential for centralized digital control of content. The ability to rewrite history, or remove the n-word from Huckleberry Finn because of contemporaneous politics is very dangerous.

  4. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air among the hardcore digerati who continue to rail about the death of bookstores and printed books, despite the facts. As our multiple surveys at Verso Advertising ( have indicated, time and time again since 2009, the book market has been evolving toward a complex hybrid model driven by three factors:

    1. Strong built-in resistance to screen reading for long-form narrative among avid readers, consistently in the 60-65% range. This percentage has been actually increasing over time as the majority of those who were undecided about e-reading for books migrated toward the resistor category over time;
    2. Split-purchasing behavior (print books and e-books) even among the earliest adopters of e-reading devices;
    3. A migration to tablet ownership away from dedicated e-readers. The diversions offered by tablets actually create a drag on e-reading habits.

    All our data, survey after survey, pointed to e-books hitting a plateau at about 25-30% of the market, with a concentration among genre-fiction readers. The dramatic slowdown in e-book growth rates in 2013 bears this out. For the most part, the digerati chose to ignore this customer-driven data and perpetuate their self-interested narrative of total digital-disruption, usually accompanied by facile comparisons to the MP3 revolution that blithely ignore the unique structural characteristics of the book market.

    On the retail side, the American Bookseller Association has been reporting a steady increase in indie bookstore formation for the first time in two decades, driven by the closure of Borders locations and a renewed appetite for shopping local among savvy readers, who are seeking a satisfying shopping experience rather simply the lowest price. A rebounding economy is helping as well, of course, as is the aging Boomer demographic, with their decided preference for print especially as they enjoy greater leisure time for reading in retirement. And in reference to Mr. Esposito’s comment, the distribution channel for print books, at least as far as indie bookstores are concerned, continues to improve, not weaken. Enhanced technology and enlightened publisher strategies, such as Random House’s rapid replenishment policies aimed at the indie community are making a big difference. The merger of Penguin and Random actually should help in this regard.

    While these developments may not make for headlines as sexy as “the printed book is dead” variety, they do enjoy the advantage of being grounded in reality.


    Jack McKeown
    Director of New Business Development, Verso Advertising
    Co-owner, Books & Books Westhampton Beach

    • Thanks for the comment, Jack — it’s great to get more color on this from Verso’s always-useful surveys. I’m particularly interested in “A migration to tablet ownership away from dedicated e-readers. The diversions offered by tablets actually create a drag on e-reading habits” combined with “Strong built-in resistance to screen reading for long-form narrative among avid readers, consistently in the 60-65% range” — as we also hear that avid readers are the biggest users of e-readers. It’s interesting to think about how those two factors interact.

    • David Thomas

      Yes, thanks for stepping in with analysis from the survey data (and the link!), Mr. McKeown. Wiping away the hyperbole of the biased is always a satisfying experience.

  5. David Thomas

    The three commentators have something financially to gain by endorsing their viewpoints — mottebooks is spot on that the Indie bookstore struggle is more about consumer capacity to purchase than a lack of demand, coupled with rising fixed costs. Nothing really new there. There are several bookstores now owned and operated by public intellectuals/authors (Garrison Keillor, Ann Patchett, Louise Erdrich, etc.) with deep pockets and I suspect that is a trend. The consumer trend moving to e-books as a first choice is clear, but the numbers suggest a long, drawn out take over. That longer transition will be what hurts publishers the most: the older format will get more expensive and the transaction costs associated with maintaining it will be a drag.

    • PUblishers were never good for writers, and as such weren’t all that great for readers. Publishers, like Producers of Movies, are too insulated. They try to influence markets instead of sell to them. They don’t give people what they want, they give people what producers want to sell. This will change with a market more under control by the people who want to read and the writers who want readers. Publishers will die not because of the cost, but because, like Hollywood movie makers and Record companies, they were too busy trying to keep everything in their influence rather than changing and adapting to the market.

  6. mottebooks

    I think a lackluster economy and commercial rents rising despite of that are far greater contributors to shops closing than Amazon or ebooks.

    Also, over 100 million more hardcovers were sold last year than ebooks, so the print is dying cry is still in chicken little territory. Remember CD-Roms and how they killed the book in the early 90s? And remember the ebook push and hype of the late 90s and 2000 that was to deal a death blow to the book?

    Sue, today we have both readers and a better delivery system, and ebooks have taken off. But too many people equate a print version of a book on equal terms with its ebook version, and that is not currently true in a majority of cases. If we are only talking about unillustrated genres or popular fiction and nonfiction, then we are pretty close, though ebook advocates seem to ignore the impact of book design on reading, enjoyment and retention. Other types of books, eh, not so much.

    As for shops, many bookshops need to realize that if they go head to head with Amamzon and ebooks over popular titles, their model will be unsustainable without events and sheer loyalty – and it will still be difficult.

    I think speciality bookseller is the new model – small focused shops with definite specialites (good, unusual books you don’t dfind on Amazon or that amazon can’t discount) in some proximity to each other in urban areas, with popular titles in small quantities or in used copies. There’s plenty of opportunities for good booksellers and good bookshops, but I think only the general bookshop is engandered, not all of them.