Future Bookstores (Brick-and-Mortar Edition)

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There is a presumption in the air that Amazon’s ability—and willingness—to cut into profit margins and even sell at a loss—means the end of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as we know it. (As a corollary, some believe that this may also mean the end of the brick-and-mortar retail store—full-stop—as we know it…)

And this much is true: A stand-alone store cannot compete with an entity like Amazon when it plays the modern Internet version of the old Railroad Rebate game and the “I’ll lose money here, and charge more there, so I can drive my competitor out of business” game. For those who don’t recall the history of the Gilded Age… Before Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive reforms, Robber Barons were able to extract concessions from partners (rebates, for example, on railroad shipping—meaning they paid less than smaller competitors) and target competitors for elimination. Standard Oil could charge more in California while charging less in New York, in order to sell oil in New York below-cost, making it impossible for a New York oil company to compete.

Whether or not someone should step in, call out Amazon’s practices for what they are, and stop them is a discussion for another time. My project here is what bookstores might do to compete, given the way things actually are. And they can compete. Because they can offer something that Amazon specifically (at this time, at least) does not: Human expertise.

I mean, for example, the curation of a bookstore’s collection. I mean, value-added personal recommendations. I mean, human-led in-person book clubs. I mean, in-person author events. Other kinds of classes. Other kinds of in-store events. In short, the kind of human contact, and human experience, that Amazon simply cannot provide. And there’s a prior example for this: The music business.

Not long ago, the music industry was supposed to die. Killed off by Napster and the like. And even the rise of iTunes (more on iTunes in another installment…) was supposed to be too little, too late. And to be fair the record labels are still hurting. But successful bands are doing better. Why? Because they’ve turned the business model on its head. Used to be, the concert tour was a promotional tour—the tour’s purpose was to sell records. Now however, the tour has become the main revenue generator, and the recordings promote the tour. Because you don’t have to buy albums, you can buy single songs for a dollar or less, any time you want. And you can even get them pirated and free. But you can’t get the experience of seeing the band, in person, live, from the Internet. Maybe you can get a grainy phone video on YouTube. But that’s not the same, is it?

So back to bookstores. Traditionally, expert booksellers made recommendations. And they arranged for author publicity stops at their stores. And they did these things for free to get people into the store to buy the books, which was where they made money. Now, though, people buy books on Amazon, both in print and electronically. They may still come into the store for the in-person events, and then buy the book online. Which is ironic, because a bookseller’s added value—over and above the books themselves—is being given away for free.

But, what if booksellers turned that around and started charging for author appearances, and for book clubs. And for classes. And for recommendations (i.e., a subscription-based newsletter)? And the things that an expert and experienced bookseller can do, that Amazon can’t, become the thing sold? Can a real-world bookstore make a go of it selling the experience? I don’t know; but someone ought to try.

(Actually, someone is trying—still also for free: Public Libraries. Well, classes, book clubs, and other related activities and librarians are available for consultation on request. But not so much author appearances.)

There is one objection, though, other than price point/business model viability. And that is: Amazon could offer some of this—they could hire experts to make recommendations. They could arrange for “virtual author appearances.” And they could do other things. But experts—and by which I mean in part people who do this full time and not interested part-timers—need to make livings. And if Amazon were to recruit people like that, they’d have to pay them. At least as much as they’d get working in their own stores or at their own storefronts. And how long would Amazon be willing to take losses on a service that doesn’t even fit with their core model or with their strengths?

About Scott Epstein

I've consumed science fiction for as long as I can remember. I've written it since age 8. I founded and edited Proteus Continuum, a Science Fiction magazine, at Tufts University from 1990-1992. Professionally, I've worked in professional publishing for more than 17 years, in both editorial and marketing functions.
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