J.M. Reep

Are Bookstores Doomed?

In Commentary on August 3, 2009 at 12:39 am

One of the things that people wonder about as sales of e-readers continue to increase, as new e-reader devices enter the market, and as the idea of ebooks catches on with the reading public, is whether we’ll see the same sort of collapse in retail infrastructure in the bookselling marketplace as we saw in the music marketplace earlier this decade. In other words, are bookstores, especially large chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, going to follow in the footsteps of Tower Records and other big chain record stores?

Some background: In the 20th century, before Napster, if you wanted to purchase new music, you had to leave your home and visit your local record store. When I started buying music as a teenager, the big chain record stores no longer sold “records” (LPs), they just sold CDs and cassettes, although some of the smaller, independently owned stores still sold vinyl. In a record store, you could browse the shelves and in some stores you could even sample some of the music before you bought it.

But then Napster (and later peer-to-peer file trading and, ultimately, iTunes) came along and everything changed. Suddenly, record stores were obsolete because the Internet not only made it possible to acquire new music without leaving the comfort of one’s home, but it also made it much easier to try out new music and search for new bands that weren’t being broadcast on the radio or MTV (back when MTV still played videos, that is). As a result, record stores began going out of business in the first decade of the new century. Today, one is hard pressed even to find a record store. Some independent retailers and used record stores still exist, but for how much longer?

So will the same thing happen to bookstores? Will they become obsolete if ebooks take off and start to replace pbooks (physical books) as the reading material of choice?

Bookstores (and libraries, let’s not forget them) allow for moments of serendipity. You might come in looking for one book, but as you browse the shelves, you find something else — something equally interesting that you didn’t even know existed two minutes earlier. And because books invite you to pick them up and browse through them (something that you can’t do with a CD in a record store) it’s easier to make a decision about whether to buy a book that you’ve just found. I, myself, have found many books and authors this way — and I’ll bet you have too. It’s difficult to recreate that serendipity online, but it’s not impossible.

Amazon was one of the pioneers in effective product search. Amazon’s website keeps track of customers as they browse the site. It remembers what products you look at and it offers suggestions for products that, based on your previous browsing history, you might be interested in. But as useful as Amazon’s product search may be, it isn’t the most effective way to find new books. You still have the sense, as you browse Amazon, that there are vast collections of books waiting for you, but you can’t access them because you don’t know where to look, you don’t know what to search. In a real-world bookstore or a library, the entire collection is right there in front of you, but online, you can only visit one product page at a time. It is this advantage that keeps bookstores relevant and keeps them in business.

You can use Amazon to search for music in this way, too, but as with books, it is inefficient and mostly ineffective. However, over the last few years, other options for finding new music have sprung up, sealing the fate of the record stores. For example, some sites, like Last FM and MySpace take advantage of social networks. You can find new music recommendations based on what your online friends in your network are listening to at any given moment. It’s effective because you’re more likely to be interested in what your friends are interested in.

But perhaps the most effective way to find new music is Pandora, which asks you to enter the name of one or more artists that you like and which will then play songs by other, similar artists — and give you the ability to decide whether you like or dislike the new songs, which leads to further selections. The genius of Pandora is that it creates a unique, personalized experience for every visitor of the site. I consider Pandora the most dangerous site on the net, because every time I visit, I come away with two or three new artists whose work I have to buy immediately.

So all of these new tools for finding music, combined with the convenience of downloading, have sealed the fate for record stores. Right now, though, bookstores must only contend with one of these factors: the convenience of online shopping, which has become even easier with the rise of ebooks. Now, you can get a book instantly, just like you can get a song instantly.

But what we don’t have yet is a Pandora for books — an efficient, effective, and highly personalized way of getting recommendations for new books and authors. This won’t always be the case though; at some point, someone will invent a new way of searching for books that will change the game.

In the meantime, it’s interesting to see some bookstores move to try to ward off this impending threat. Recently, Barnes & Noble, which is planning to launch its own e-reader, announced it was going to offer free WiFi in its stores. This will allow people to come into the store, browse for books, and when they find one they want, they can either purchase the physical copy or purchase and download the ebook verson (if there is one) of the book right there in the aisles. It’s a clever idea which should keep B&N in business for a few more years, at least, but like record stores, the time will probably come when leaving your home to go to a store is no longer necessary for books, just as it’s no longer necessary for music.

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