The Work

Leapfrogging

This is an update of a post I wrote on June 6, 2010, before Borders shuttered its doors. It seems particularly appropriate to revisit it in 2013, in light of B&N’s latest results.

It’s going to happen slowly, and then it’s going to happen very quickly. It has already started – the rate at which independent bookstores have shuttered over the years is not publicized, but we know they’ve been an endangered species since the 1990s, when Borders and Barnes & Noble began their rapid superstore expansion.

Borders is suffering a lingering death, but there’s little doubt among industry pundits that its lifespan is seriously limited. (Please prove them wrong, please prove them wrong!!!) This will be a much bigger deal than anybody’s anticipating.

Why?

Because Barnes & Noble is not going to pick up all those locations. And if a huge chain like Borders can’t survive, what indie bookstore in its right mind is going to open in those locations?

There will be fewer brick and mortar bookstores. By a factor of a lot. Possibly a third of bookstores in the US will close when Borders is finished with its death spiral and Barnes & Noble and successful independents have picked up what business makes sense in those locations. But for that newly-deprived third of bookstore customers? Where will they get their books?

Two places: the library and the internet.

Libraries are themselves rather limited in this way: waiting lists for popular books. (This includes ebooks.) If you really must own a book right now, the best way to get it is online.

So in approximately a third of areas previously served by large chains, customers will become quickly accustomed to ordering books online.

How long do you think it will be before they realize that if they order ebooks, they don’t have to wait even 24 hours before they get what they want? How long do you think it will be before instant gratification means that suddenly these underserved areas are hotbeds of ebook consumption?

We’ve seen this sort of leapfrogging happen in underdeveloped areas before – that is why residents of certain African and Asian countries are so wedded to their cell phones; they skipped the land-line process altogether.

We’ve seen it happen in the music industry as well – when was the last time you went into a store where the primary stock was CDs? A Virgin or an HMV or a Tower? Or, heaven help you, your local indie music store?

We are seeing it happen in video. I live in New York City – there used to be video stores every few blocks, staffed by amazing kids from NYU or Columbia; those Quentin Tarantino-breeding environments are gone. We get our movies from Netflix. We get our movies on demand from Time-Warner. We get our movies streamed through our laptops directly to our TVs.

That leapfrogging in the book business is going to happen primarily in rural and suburban areas where intellectual life was always underserved. That is where it will start. And once that convenience of immediate delivery of digital books is realized, it is only a matter of time before we see that the bookstores we treasure have to offer more than just books if they want to attract customers. Books are commodities – and they will become increasingly more commoditized as Google Editions launches, as Kobo develops device-independent platforms, as Overdrive adds more titles to its Content Reserve service.

The bookstores that will be successful in that environment will be shops that sell deep inventory in specific areas (such as the spiritual/inspirational Breathe Books, staffed by the amazing Jenn Northington, aka @JennIRL on Twitter) and can provide a rich experience (offering CDs, videos, other media within those areas), or shops that have deep ties to their communities – that offer afterschool programs, sports events, matchmaking services (if you doubt me, look at WORD Bookstore’s Lonely Hearts board, or follow @bookavore on Twitter), or other beyond-the-book activities. Because when a book becomes commoditized, what becomes important – and NOT a commodity – is the conversation AROUND the book. The community of readers. And if brick and mortar bookstores can tap that community, engender those conversations in ways the community finds valuable…then their community will support them.

UPDATE:

Publishers are gradually establishing friendlier terms with libraries for lending ebooks, but it’s still an uphill climb – many, many ebooks are simply not available via libraries. B&N has fewer print books on its shelves, giving way to toys and games and other things. Blockbuster declared bankruptcy and was acquired by Dish Network, which is shuttering many of its stores. Jenn Northington moved to Brooklyn to be event manager at WORD Bookstore – a perfect match. And the debate about where bookish people should go in real life, as opposed to online, continues.

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