Friday, June 1, 2012

Another Rant About Bookstores

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, someone wrote something down and someone else wanted to read it. Then lots of people wrote things down and lots of people wanted to read them. As time went by, these things that were being written got longer and longer, and soon, these writings were so long, the pages had to be bound into a durable leather binding. Hence, the birth of a book. Soon afterward, more people wanted to read these books, so more people learned to read. Great, they can read. Where can they buy a book? “Over here!” called one clever little man, who saw a market for a product and sought a way to deliver. He opened up a shop and sold only books. Hence, the birth of a bookstore.

The premise of this is quite simple. There is a need for a product that the customer cannot get at home. People are willing to travel the distance to a store and pay money for that thing which they cannot get for themselves. This was not much different from someone who travels to the store for milk. If you have a milking cow or can get milk delivered to your house for free, would you still travel to the store to buy milk? If you had chickens, would you go out and buy eggs?

I love bookstores. I really do. I love to wander around a bookstore, that smell of crisp paper and ink, the coffee shop in the corner, the stacks and stacks of books with colorful covers filled with exciting tales. My love for bookstores has not changed. My needs, however, have. The world’s needs have changed. If I need to travel to a bookstore to buy a book, then I will go there and the environment pleases me. The problem is, I don’t need to go anywhere for a book. No one does. The only time you may need to go to a bookstore is if you want your book right now. Sadly, however, you might still not get it. The last half-dozen times I went into a bookstore, they did not have the books I wanted. Why? Because while once there were hundreds of books to select from within the confines of a bookstore, there are now hundreds of thousands of books available online. Rather than finding out about books by word of mouth, we find out about books online. Bookstores can’t keep up. They have just enough room to stock the most popular books but not enough room to restock them if they sell out. On top of that, there are e-readers and Audibles and interactive books and read-to-me toys and cell phones to keep up with. Where does a brick and mortar bookstore stand among all this?

Answer: They don’t stand a chance.

The reason brick and mortar bookstores are dying (and yes, they are dying; don’t try to kid yourself) is because they are selling a dead product, that people don’t need, through a vehicle that is inconvenient. Granted, some bookstores have tried to keep up with the trends. I wholly give credit to Barnes and Noble for integrating the Nook into their sales model. Kudos to you, B&N; you understand that there is a change in the world.

Too bad you missed the point. The point that Barnes and Noble missed is that current consumer needs no longer warrant a trip to the store. If their wants say “I want this book, by this author, in a hardback cover,” their needs are saying, “How can I get this book exactly as I want with the least cost and inconvenience?” The answer will almost always be to shop online. The cost of gas is outrageous. Traffic is frustrating. We’re busy people trying to fit too many tasks into too little time. The resolution for all these problems is to “order in” when you can, especially when you are offered free shipping and lower costs. Do you see where Barnes and Noble failed? B&N mistakenly thought that the consumer “needed” e-readers. They saw the e-reader trend and that’s great. They offered an e-reader of their own. Also great. But selling the trend does not solve the vehicle problem. I can buy a Nook online. I can buy a Kindle or an Apple or a Sony online. So, Barnes and Noble, what else have you got?

A more innovative solution would be to stop catering to the “need,” which a brick and mortar will never fulfill, and start catering to the “want.” People want to go out. They want an escape, an environment, some excitement. They want something different. A long time ago, a trip to the bookstore could scratch that itch. There wasn’t much else that could compete with a good book and you couldn’t get it anywhere else. You could sit there all day and read, sip coffee, and then walk out with an armful of books. Now, there’s no reason to get in your car, drive through traffic and sit in a bookstore. I can sit at home and read. I can download my books in an instant. My coffee doesn’t cost $8 a cup and I don’t have to pay for gas.

If brick and mortars are going to stay alive, they need to reinvent themselves, not copy online stores. The reason was so successful was because they invented a need that consumers didn’t know they had. It wasn’t much different from the mall era. Malls created the opportunity to shop for everything in one place. Amazon went one step further. Shop for everything in one place and never leave your house. So now, if you want me to leave my house, you better give me a darn good reason. Be unique. Here are some examples:
  • Hold a Nook Book signing – No, I’m serious. Start making Nooks with an autograph app and sell each one with a stylus. You can draw or sign just as you would when you sign for a UPS package. Then have a Nook signing. Authors come in and sign people’s Nooks and those signatures are saved digitally. Great way to collect autographs and not waste paper. 
  • Have book scene re-enactments – Have the bookstore staff perform scenes from popular books, or invite acting students from local colleges to do it. Not only would it be fun, but it is great promotion for books. Hold these reenactments once a week or have it constantly going on so customers can always expect to see it. 
  • Book readings – Why spend money on an Audible when you can go to the bookstore and have someone read to you? 
  • Hate-the-Book Reviews – Book clubs can be dull. Everyone sits around conjuring up the symbolism of a book they may or may not have actually liked. It’s much more fun to pick on a book, even if you loved the book. Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “Why does she keep saying ‘gosh’? No one says gosh anymore. I hate that.” With a Hate-the-Book review, everyone notes what they hated about the book. The comments will likely be passionate and funny and may even sell more books. This would especially be awesome for kids.
  • Scavenger Hunt -- Hold scavenger hunts in the store. Write a list of passages or quotes. Participants have to search through all the books in the store looking for those passages. When they find the passage, they write the title, author, edition, and page on which the passage or quote appears.

I’m not a bookstore owner, but I am a bookstore customer. I don’t want bookstores to die. I want them to care about me, the customer, enough to draw me back in. Right now, they are failing. I don’t want to drive to the store for an e-reader. DTP (defeats the point). 

I want something I can’t get at home.


  1. You are absolutely right. When I lived in another town we had a fabulous used bookstore. I used to visit every week and it was my treat to myself. They not only had such a huge selection of used books, they also had jewelry and such from local artisans. They had an entire kids room where they did free book themed crafts with the kids, and it was one of our favorite places to visit. I miss it terribly.

    I have to admit even then I was an avid fan of the kindle and I read mostly through the nook and kindle apps on my droid. However, it was still worth it to me to go to the bookstore, for the experience.

    The last time I went to a B&N was for the Breaking Dawn release. We sat around and watched people in costume and did trivia and took quizzes and listened to a reading all about the series. It was interesting enough to us to hire a babysitter for the evening and it was worth every penny.

    I would love to see more events and activities at bookstores. Fortunately for my kids and I, most local libraries do still host things for the kids.

  2. Libraries are an excellent example of how to run the book business. They work their butts off to stay alive by hosting events and trying to lure people in. Libraries try very hard to keep up with the trends. I get regular emails from our local library. They host video gaming sessions, so kids can come in and play Playstation and XBox with other kids (instead of staying home alone and not socializing). They have book clubs and author events. They even have music events. Bookstores should take a page out of the library's book. Why not have a cosplay cafe attached to the store so people come in dressed like their favorite characters. Once a day, they can give a prize (a book) to the best costume. Or maybe they don't even have to put up that much energy. Maybe they can remodel their stores to resemble a book, or scenes in various books, so book lovers can actually sit in their favorite storybook places to read. I don't know, anything.

    I miss the bookstores too. I miss the experience of being there. But part of that experience was to discover something new, maybe a book series I didn't know about or the new release of my favorite series. I like seeing all the options. But stores don't have many options anymore. Years ago, I'd spend hours at a time in a bookstore, but I would prefer B&N to Walden's because Walden's, sitting in the middle of the mall, was nothing more than a book showcase. They didn't have options, just a handful of new best sellers. Barnes and Noble has now gone that route. They are no longer "the" place to get a book. They are a showcase.

    It seems the big book houses need better consultants, not marketing people or sales experts. They need book lovers like us to tell them what would bring us back to the store. I don't want to see the bookstores die. I would, however, like to see them change.