Studies of the book industry emphasize, almost without exception, the publishing business model. The author provides the content to the publisher and the bookstore distributes the publisher’s product to the customer. In this model the store provides a service to the publisher and can be replaced if a more efficient or economic distribution service becomes available. Since the 1990s that service provider has been the World Wide Web and it’s Internet infrastructure. The rise of the e-reader (bolstered since 1997 by the Amazon Kindle) further undermined the suitability of the bricks and mortar bookstore as a distributor for publisher’s content. An increasing number of books are more easily accessed as downloads from a computer terminal than from a visit to a local store. Therefore, bookstores that rely on the popular, publisher-focused model have been disappearing as the new service becomes more reliable and more accessible.
Second hand and antiquarian bookstores have also had their traditional business model disrupted by technology. Until the 1990s, a book dealer would normally hunt for books (often at the specific request of the customer) and store them for sale at a price that reflected the quality of the volume, its importance and relative scarcity, and the interest in the topic among the store’s customer base. A good book store would stock a large enough selection of books on particular topics that customers would know that, in this shop, they had a good chance of finding the book they wanted. No physical shop can compete, however, with the infinite library that is the Web. The business model that allowed second hand bookstores to thrive is now unworkable.
If bookstores are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it will be due to their developing a new understanding of the value they provide their customers, the community, and the book industry. This is already happening. The American Booksellers Association claims a 15.5% increase in their membership in 2011. Booksellers are using the new technology to develop new business models that build on their traditional strengths, including their subject knowledge, their knowledge of what books are available, their understanding of customer interests and their role within local communities.. They are incorporating publishing, printing, coffee-shops and events: using the new technologies to diversify.
James McQuivey, blogger for Forrester.com, echoes a common view for 2012 in the book business when he predicts that “physical book sales will decline significantly in 2012” and “content will slip farther out of publishers’ control”. These trends should frighten book store owners; the industry is experiencing a grand disruption that will not allow them to continue as they have. They should also provide some comfort, however, as they are opening up new potentials for the book store to redefine itself, not as a servant of the industry but as truly independent purveyors of books and the culture that attends to them.