An American Editor

June 23, 2010

Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting?

I know the article title is a bit odd, especially having been written by a booklover, but the question has been bothering me the past several weeks.

In the past, I went to my local Barnes & Noble at least once a week, sometimes more often, and always walked out with 1 new book and often 2 or 3. But for the past couple of months I have had no desire to visit the store and the one time I did, I bought 2 books rather than the 5 I had originally picked up (i.e., I put 3 back on the shelf after first having decided to buy them). Even more telling, however, was that I had gone to the B&N only because my wife needed to pickup some B&N gift cards for neighborhood children; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone at all. And even more telling was that in the past I loved to browse the shelves looking for books; this trip I was impatient to leave.

I’m not buying fewer books; in fact, since I was given my Sony 505 Reader 2.5 years ago, I’m buying more books than ever. But what has changed in my buying habits is the number of fiction books I am buying — from a handful each year pre-Sony 505 to hundreds each year post-Sony 505 — and how I am obtaining them.

As those of you who have followed my On Today’s Bookshelf posts (On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III)) know, I still buy quite a few nonfiction hardcover pbooks. But whereas before I would largely find them by browsing the bookstore bookshelves, I am increasingly discovering them through ads and reviews in The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the book review sections of various magazines to which I subscribe, such as The Atlantic and Smithsonian. If I read a review of a book that intrigues me or see an ad for one, I simply go online and order the book.

Fiction books, however, follow a different trajectory. For those few authors whose new books I buy in hardcover (e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, Terry Brooks), I go to an online site, check the coming soon category for these authors, and preorder the books. For those fiction authors whose books I do not buy in hardcover, the process excludes the brick-and-mortar bookstore because these aren’t authors I am likely to find on the shelves — they are independent authors. And the largest growth area in published books is books by independent authors whose books are only available online.

I discover independent authors via online forums like MobileRead and by looking through the multiformat section at Fictionwise and Smashwords. At Fictionwise, I wait for the big sales because I am unwilling to spend too much money on an unknown author; I usually get to Smashwords via a recommendation at MobileRead and often with a discount coupon.

But even then independent authors are losing out — at least as far as my buying goes — because I simply do not have the patience to sift through lists of books. Neither Fictionwise nor Smashwords makes it very easy to scroll through their offerings. There is no way to stop for the day, return tomorrow, and pickup where I left off — I am forced to start from the beginning of the list yet again, which rapidly becomes tiresome. And it doesn’t help when what I see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller frustrations.)

The brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstore suffers from an inability to compete either in price or selection. Independent authors are increasingly (or so it seems) pricing their ebooks at $2.99 or less. Knowing this makes me reluctant to try a new author I find at the B&M bookstore; it is one thing to gamble $2.99 on an unknown author and quite another to spend $12.99 or more.

So what is there to attract me to the B&M bookstore? As each week passes, I find it a greater struggle to want to go to the B&M bookstore. I’m not interested in the pastries and coffee; I rarely ever peruse the magazines; I can buy the same books online for less (in Barnes & Noble’s case, its online bookstore undercuts its physical stores on pricing so why buy at the B&M version?).

Are ebooks quickly making B&M bookstores uninteresting destinations? In my case, yes, because there is little incentive to shop at the B&M store, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, the online ebooksellers aren’t making their sites must-go-to destinations either. I think there can be a great future for B&M bookstores, just not in their current guise. I’m not sure what guise they need to undertake, but it is certain that they do need to make the experience an interesting one and they must become must-go-to destinations.

10 Comments »

  1. I still love to troll through real bookstores. I skim through reviews and new-book listings, but there’s just nothing like the real deal. I especially still like used-book stores, even though the higgledy-piggledy shelving can be frustrating. Maybe it’s more that you have other ways to spend your time or energy than that the e-world is changing your perception of bookstores.

    Of course, I haven’t yet bought or read an e-book, so I’m probably not the right demographic for this question!

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 23, 2010 @ 8:29 am | Reply

  2. Actually – I have felt this way for many years, long before e-books exploded. My favorite genre has always been Scifi/Fantasy. Which is always a teeny, tiny section in any B&M store. Today my tastes encompass LGBT and independently published books as well. The B&M LGBT section is even smaller than the Scifi, and independently published books can’t even be special ordered. In fact, many small press books can’t be special ordered either.

    Recently, I spotted an interesting book while browsing a B&M only to learn it was a sequel and they didn’t have the first book so I had to go online anyway. These days, I find browsing easier on Amazon.com with recommended also, reader reviews, people who bought this also bought that, etc. It’s not the price that has me shopping online, it’s the selection. And, B&M stores are heavily invested in promoting certain big publishers because of their close business relationship. It’s not in the B&M’s interest to stock books from small presses, let alone independents. And, I prefer not to have big publishers dictate what I can read.

    Comment by J'aime Maynard — June 23, 2010 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  3. A model exists in my area: Northshire Bookstore (www.northshire.com). This is one of the surviving independents, and it is, to me, a destination.

    I live in rural Vermont. The closest big-box bookstore is a 2-hour drive (in-state; 1.25-hour drive out of state), whereas Northshire is a mere 35 minutes away and located in one of two centers of commerce less than an hour from my house. I make time whenever possible to visit the store when I’m in town on other business. Or, when I need a book that I plan to keep, that’s where I buy it.

    Northshire is not only chock-full of books of every type, arranged in a fun-to-browse, clearly marked, multi-floor layout, but also it offers amenities: a terrific cafe where I always meet friends and business contacts, or occupy time between appointments (it offers wireless, art exhibits, and a bulletin board for activities and for posting business cards); plus book-related gifts and toys, a terrific card section, and an outdoor patio for ice cream and people-watching in the summer. The staff are all knowledgeable booky types. The owner is active in small business development, local food and commerce movements, and everything pertaining to books.

    The store hosts numerous author presentations and signings monthly, as well as speakers on other subjects. It supports local authors by stocking their books in a Vermont Author section. Lately the store has experimented with informal get-togethers for book-minded people who want to socialize and philosophize. In addition, the store sends out regular newsletters advertising its activities and offering contests/giveaways. It even has its own Espresso POD book machine for self-publishers.

    It’s never crossed my mind to see if you can get e-books through them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this sales channel is or becomes available.

    Northshire is the only place I go where, as a book nerd, I feel truly comfortable. Happily, the store is located in a seasonal tourist resort so it gets year-round traffic. But it doesn’t forget the locals. I recommend it as a model for brick-and-mortar stores, a destination spot for visitors, and a source for online purchases.

    Comment by Carolyn — June 23, 2010 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by calreid and Laurent Sauerwein, Laurent Sauerwein. Laurent Sauerwein said: Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting? by Rich Adin | American Editor http://is.gd/d0AXs /via @jafurtado [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting? « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — June 23, 2010 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  5. Funny. Just this weekend, my wife said to me “You know what I don’t like about the Kindle? Shopping in bookstores isn’t as much fun anymore.”

    Now there’s still books I want to read that I wouldn’t read on a Kindle, but the number of things I want to own in paper has been dramatically reduced. And that is a bit of a downer.

    Comment by Eric — June 23, 2010 @ 11:20 am | Reply

  6. Depends what you mean by a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. If you mean a large, all-things-to-all-people store that entirely sells new books (e.g., Barnes and Noble, Borders), then yes. If you mean a smaller independent, like Portland’s Powell’s or Seattle’s University Book Store, Elliott Bay Books, or Third Place Books, then no. And if you mean used-book stores or places like Half Price Books, then definitely not.

    Places like Amazon, for me, largely took away Borders’ and Barnes and Noble’s raison d’etre. But it’s the smaller places that I still go to.

    Of course, I don’t have an e-reader, and don’t plan to get one. I suppose if I ever do, we’ll see. I know that was the original premise of your question, but since you mentioned physical books and Amazon…

    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — June 24, 2010 @ 12:40 am | Reply

  7. Great blog .. I like it

    Comment by cearunfv.com — June 24, 2010 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  8. [...] really good posts at American Editor this week. The first wondered whether we find physical bookstores less interesting after becoming immersed in ebooks. The second asked why readers should bother investing in crappily done ebooks when the author or [...]

    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Lost lands of linkity — June 25, 2010 @ 2:03 am | Reply

  9. Nice article.

    Comment by Patkung — September 13, 2010 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  10. [...] Note: the above is reprinted, with permission, from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog. [...]

    Pingback by Do ebooks make brick-and-mortar bookstore uninteresting … | Self Publishing Companies — September 16, 2010 @ 2:54 pm | Reply


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