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.

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