While more than half of books — ebooks and print books — are bought online in some form, a much lower proportion of discovery occurs in those venues. On the Web but outside of online retail spaces, readers are discovering new books social networks, especially those like Goodreads, which focuses on books.
Conversations I have shared recently with book dealers in New England would seem both to confirm this trend while suggesting that the landscape holds more variety than this suggests. A recent thorn in the side of many booksellers, for example, is the proliferation of book-scan apps. They allow bookstore browsers to scan a book cover using their smart0-phone and instantly compare the price to prices available on-line. In effect, the bookstore becomes the store front for an on-line retailer. Discover happens in the store, but the sale happens on-line.
The argument in defense of Amazon is nicely summarized in the title of Erik Kain’s article in Forbes Magazine, “Amazon Price Check May Be Evil But Its the Future“. This perception of society and business as technically driven misses the problem behind these apps. While it is possible and reasonable to see these apps as merely making an old practice more convenient, it is important to also see the effect of increasing that practice.
There is a reason why people go to these stores to buy Amazon’s or B&N’s books. Online retails do not want to admit it, but they depend on bricks and mortar stores. In fact, Amazon submitted a patent in 2009 for an “ornamental design for a building structure, as shown and described.”
There are a number of reasons why Amazon would choose to move beyond the virtual, and the role of bookstores in book discovery which the apps highlight is one of them. The bookstore effect is powerful for at least two reasons. Books are physical objects and their physicality effects their content. This is not as true for music or videos (two items which are commonly compared to books as suitable for on-line retail). People like going to stores to see what is available. This may change with the rise of ebooks which are fundamentally visual rather than physical.
The other reason is discovery. Over 4 million books were released in 2010, up from less than 500,000 in 2007. Book dealers are curators. We visit bookstores partly to see the latest best sellers, but equally valuable to us is the chance to see what has been collected together here. “If you like that you’ll like this” is the logic behind a good bookstore. I can go on GoodReads or Amazon and see what a bunch of strangers think (if I’m committed to discovery I’ll engage with those strangers and learn to trust them). Or I can go to a bookstore. A good store will be curated by someone with an interest in the subjects being sold, or who has bothered to go through all the advertising and promotion to select an interesting quality.
Of these two reasons, the second may be the more powerful. I suspect the fall of Borders and to a lesser extent B&N has been down to this fact. They provided the space to enjoy the physical experience of books, but their corporate nature meant they can not do what the indies can, which is to provide the personality of curation or build the community trust that ensures success.
An additional factor in this debate is the role of second-hand books. Physicality and discovery play an even greater role in this side of the industry, although it is a side generally ignored by the publishing world.