Amazon vs. Book Stores: Another Crushing Victory?

Amazon may well be the Next Big Publisher, but it is already one of the biggest book distributor, both for printed books and ebooks, if not the biggest. Does that spell out the end for your traditional corner bookstore?

The rumour around the blogsophere leaves little doubt as to the answer: Amazon is not only the biggest online bookstore but could well become the biggest bookstore in the United States, period.

We've all heard how the Kindle, introduced only three and half years ago, has changed the parameters of online book sales.

This year, the company is expected to sell 17.5 million devices for a total $ 2 billion: not bad! And for us over here in Europe, it has come out with a really good model (see pix above). It can be used anywhere without having to remember passwords etc to link into a local Wi-Fi system: the 3G model works no matter where you are. And whenever you feel like it, you can tap into the Kindle Store from your device and buy anyone of the million titles available (yes, one million, that isn't a typo!). It will be delivered to you in a matter of one or two minutes (probably less if you live in the US). Amazon charges about $2 to "whispernet" it to you if you live in Europe, but that is still a very reasonable expense and unbeatable if you happen to be in Timbouctou, far away from any bookstore of any kind...
Corner Bookstore, Washington St., BostonCorner Bookstore Washington St. BostonImage via Wikipedia
The Kindle was - and is - an obvious winning card, but not only.

What really makes the difference, as recently pointed out by Mike Shatzkin  in his widely read Shatzkin Files, is the sea change Amazon has brought to "book curation" - the term used to describe the work and role of bookstores. In Mike Shatzkin's words, here is what curation is all about (highlights added): 

In a shop, curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

That describes pretty accurately what a traditional bookstore is all about.

How does Amazon differ? From the start, when it was a young upstart online bookstore, it had to come up with a different curation model, one that works from your computer. Again, as Mike Shatzkin says:

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

But the sea-change didn't stop here. There was more to it, in Mike's words, recalling his own experience at Brentano's: 

I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit to the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Yes, and that spells out the end of traditional bookstores and of course, goes a long way to explain the demise of Borders.

So are we stepping into a completely different world in which bookstores will be no more?

Mike Shatzkin points out that not all aspects of book curation are that well done online, in particular the guidance and advice that a good bookstore personnel can provide to its customers. As he says (and I've said it also in an earlier post) at least three Big Publishers have realized this and set up Bookish.com for that very purpose, in an attempt to link readers with the legacy publisher's traditional role as "taste gatekeeper". Naturally, Amazon has not held back and has also tried to remedy this, setting up readers forum and savvy editors'advice via Amazon Omnivoracious daily digest.

Beyond this, I think it's a little premature to expect all bookstores to go the way Borders went and close down. It is certainly not the case yet in Europe but of course the impact of the digital revolution has yet to be felt.  But it is perhaps not even the case in the United States.

What bookstore owners need to understand is that ebooks and printed books are NOT two different products and they can showcase BOTH. That is what Barnes & Noble does, and with its Nook, a device equivalent to the Kindle, it has managed to avoid Borders' fate so far.

But bookstores can do more to remain relevant to their neighborhood clientele. They can organize community events, conferences, meetings with celebrities etc They can provide additional "comfort" services, like a Starbucks-type coffee shop/lounge where clients would be enticed to stay, read and write...and walk off with a book purchase, whether ebook or printed book, it doesn't matter.

Again Barnes & Noble has partnered with Starbucks and is moving towards a "Nookcafé"...clever! But small non-chain bookstores are waking up too, and carving out their own space with success. Take the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass: it has an attractive website and a carrousel of events every month - things like Fiction Friday with 15% off on purchases online that day.

In Germany also there are such bookstores, and I don't mean a big chain store but simple local bookstores, that are developing following this model, both physical and online. And you can probably come up with examples in your own area.bookstoreBook Shelf CharmImage by darwin.wins via Flickr

Whatever sea change the digital revolution brings, it will not kill off either the printed book or the traditional bookstore - just like the movies did not kill off the theater, or mp3 players displaced concert halls and music festivals. People like to get together around what they love to do - in this case, read books.

In my view, those able to and smart enough to play on both fields - in the real and in the virtual world - will be the winners - or at least the big survivors!

What do you think? Are the cities of the future going to be without bookstores?

Link toMike Shatzkin Files here for more on "book curation" and a fascinating historical overview of how it evolved over the past 50 years and  Passive Voice here for further illuminating comments  on Amazon's role as a primary online bookstore.

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