Bookstores 2.0: An Essay on the Continually Changing Bookstore Market

By Josh Anthony

The future of bookstores (and print in general) stands like the wall of mist that Wolf Larsen entered to escape his brother, Death Larsen. As Tim Brookes – Champlain College professor, head of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative, and well known author – has mentioned time and time again, the people in the publishing industry don’t really know what the future holds because there are so many different possibilities, not including those ideas that haven’t been thought of yet. While most people are talking about the “death of bookstores,” as if they will disappear overnight, the real talk should center on the kind of bookstore that will survive.

I was able to talk to two different independent bookstores, Phoenix Bookstore of Burlington VT, and Northshire Bookstore of Manchester VT. I spoke to two managers, Erik Barnum of Northshire and Tod Gross of Phoenix books. Both these managers have optimism for the future of bookstores. They both expressed positivity towards the position that independent, local bookstores hold and how they’re in a better place than the large chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble.

One of the main reasons for this optimism is found in the flexibility of an independent bookstore. Erik spoke about the bureaucracy that chain bookstores have to deal with and how their bookstore doesn’t have to deal with that kind of corporate environment – when they want to change a window display, they don’t have to think about who is paying for that display, they just have to think about the aesthetics and appeal.

More importantly, though, is the ability for independent bookstores to spread their eggs out (as opposed to placing them in a single basket). Both Northshire and Phoenix have started using Kobo, a Canadian based company that sells different kinds of e-readers and tablets, as a way of competing with the e-book movement. Kobo allows stores to have their own online bookstore browser (it relies on third-party eBookstores to function). In addition, Kobo fares better in the market by catering specifically to readers, while other companies, like Barnes and Noble and Apple, use their tablets for a variety of different purposes, which chief content officer for Kobo, Michael Tamblyn, says gives, “a clarity of purpose that none of our competitors really have.”

At the same time, Northshire has invested into an Espresso Book Machine, which allows them to publish a new book right there in the shop. Like a conscious minded community, independent bookstores have started to create large portfolios of investment. Not only do they invest in the e-book market, but independent bookstores are starting to invest in the Print on Demand market. Self-published print books and e-books, in the same room, and they aren’t even fighting, in fact, they are working together, both catering to different niche markets, both being important in their own right. Even if it is granted that the Espresso Book Machine is an experiment in progress, it is far better to be a part of the movement forward than to be stuck catching up.

Speaking of e-books, Tod mentioned something very interesting that I hadn’t really thought about. As Tim Brookes mentions in his book The Story So Far… “If the only virtue of a book is that it is cheap, it may well be replaced by an e-reader product that is even cheaper (cheaper to buy, cheaper to ship, cheaper to store, and so on).” But Tod looked at e-books in a different light. He talked about how people are staring at computer screens all day now – from work to e-mails, from checking your bank account to checking movie times – and that, if we accept reading as a leisure activity, people don’t want to look at a computer screen when reading their book, they want a break from the glow. Even with the granted convenience of an e-reader, there are still reasons for cheap books to be viable consumer items. The fact that there are so many “how to reduce eye strain from computer screens” attests to the fact that people are both a) having their eyes strained from computer screens, and b) people are looking to reduce that strain (and what better way than taking a break and looking at a book?).

Tod continued to explain how the e-book market has slowed down tremendously. He said that even though sales are still expanding, their growth has teetered to a trickle. Even though e-books were once on the same high-flying, hockey stick trajectory that digital music & film are on, this trend has ceased for digital books, the sales have flattened out.

This flattening of sales has many factors. I’d like to talk a little bit about one possible factor, which is piracy, and how that could affect the book industry.

When I talked to Tod about piracy, he referenced the “destruction” of the music industry when music piracy exploded in the late 1990s. However, this destruction was mostly for the record labels themselves, as artists were at the mercy of record labels profit margins – like authors with publishers. Even after the Napster frenzy cooled down, other sources, like MySpace, allowed for the free give and take of music and allowed for a connection to be made between an artist and their fans. Although book piracy has the possibility to destroy certain markets, there is also the possibility that something new will spawn from it, like a website where authors record themselves reading for their fans, free sections of their book to be placed on their page, or printable book covers. The piracy of music on the internet opened the eyes of many different artists and fans to realize that niche communities could be developed on the web, without help from a record company. This, too, could happen to books.

But back to the stores themselves. As mentioned before, both Tod and Erik expressed how, as chain bookstores close, there are opportunities for local, independent booksellers to become more viable and important parts of the community. In fact, the opening of the Burlington Phoenix bookstore was sponsored in large part by community given funds – because a bank wouldn’t invest into a bookstore, Tod said, they had to reach out to the community, and the community gave a large, half a million dollar hand, to pull them up. This model of community driven enterprises is becoming more common, especially in Burlington. Another successful, community driven business is actually right across the street from Phoenix, City Market, the downtown grocery store in Burlington.

Northshire, too, has a promise to keep the community in mind, as well. On their website, and briefly mentioned by Erik, Northshire strives to be a triple bottom line business, meaning they have the interest of people, the planet, and profit in mind. This triple bottom line business model is also mentioned in the book Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy as a necessity to building a sustainable economy.

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And now it is important to mention the villain that has been lurking in the background this whole time: Amazon.

Tod spoke about Amazon and the difference between a bookstore and the search engine. One of the first things he mentioned about Amazon is the hidden cost behind that $0.01 book (and I’m not talking about the $4.99 shipping fee). What most consumers don’t realize is that there are externalized costs that produce this penny book, and those externalized costs fall on communities, rather than the broad back of Amazon. So, when I pay a penny for a book on Amazon, someone somewhere is eating up the rest of the cost of that book. Point in fact, Amazon had been selling their Kindle at a loss, because they can. In addition to costing communities through externalized costs, Amazon simultaneously doesn’t give back to a community – a search engine doesn’t pay state taxes for property, they don’t allow for a center of community and art, they don’t allow choice.

So, it is possible that Amazon working under an unsustainable business structure (which is created by externalized cost and other business decisions) will lead only to its inevitable failing, although when or in how many years, it is hard to say. Amazon could change its ways, too, finding a way to give back to communities, but only time will really tell.

Tod also expressed how Amazon and other web based booksellers make browsing difficult, if not impossible, and how browsing is an integral part of the bookshop system and the experience of buying a book. Personally, I love browsing in bookstores. Most times when I go into a bookstore I’ll find a book I was looking for (I’ll usually bring a list of 5-7 books) and then look at other, random authors. First of all, this would be almost impossible to do on Amazon, unless they recently installed Find Random Author button. Second, not all books on Amazon can be sample read. It is this kind of tangible feeling that a search engine could never replace (until, perhaps, fully immersive internet simulators).

All told, there seems to be three main factors that are involved in the bookstores of the future, namely being, e-books sold through independent bookstores, print on demand located within a bookstore itself, and the continuation of the standard book practices that consumers enjoy (browsing for books).

So long as independent bookstores stay close to the communities, the communities will stay close to the bookstores – in fact, Northshire uses their Espresso Book Machine to help publish local authors! This disconnect between a bookstore and the local community is probably one of the reasons chain bookstores are failing and why independent bookstores have more hope for the future. Indeed, as capitalism continues its course into the 21st century, competition is being outpaced by community driven efforts. Both Tod and Erik have hope for the future of independent bookstores, and so too should the consumer. Adaptation has become the name of the game in publishing and books, and independent booksellers are in optimal position to change to meet the demands of the market.

 

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