Now that Borders is in bankruptcy and at least 200 stores closing, some people have asked me what I think is going to happen to brick and mortar bookstores in the future. Do they have a future? Will they survive?
There’s one comparison I keep coming back to: record stores.
When you consider that the digital revolution happened in music a little over a decade ago, it’s interesting to see what has happened to record stores since the rise of the mp3. Basically: carnage on a massive scale. A huge number of stores closed, especially national chains. First it was Tower Records, then Virgin Megastores (here in the US), and now, well, Borders.
And an interesting fact to bear in mind is that digital revenue still has not surpassed physical. It’s debatable about whether we’ve really seen a digital tipping point in the music industry. Declining overall sales (likely due at least in part to piracy), and a shift to online music vending and digital music was enough to tip the balance away from profitability for most brick and mortar chains.
Now there’s a seriously fractured landscape. Record stores haven’t disappeared entirely, but there’s a whole lot less of them.
So what’s the comparison for books? Well, I look at the situation here in San Francisco. After the closure of the Virgin Megstore, Tower Records, and (nearly) all of our Borders, there are basically three types of record stores left, and they could offer some clues on the types of bookstores that will survive:
1) The Aquarius Records Model. Aquarius Records is a very small record store in the Mission District known for its hand-picked roster of sales and its knowledgeable staff. It’s small, it’s intimate, they support local artists, you go there knowing what kind of music they sell and you come away with new discoveries you might not have found otherwise. You’re not going to find a vast selection or Justin Bieber’s latest album, but you will find some gems you didn’t know you were looking for.
Bookstore comparison: your small, beloved, curated independent bookstore.
2) The Amoeba Music Model. Amoeba is a very large record store in the Upper Haight (a neighborhood you may know as Haight Ashbury if you’re not from ’round these parts) that has a massive, gargantuan selection of used CDs for low prices. Buy/sell/trade/awesome. They also have locations in Berkeley and LA.
Bookstore comparison: your Powell’s, your Strand, your basic large urban book clearing house
3) The Costco Model. San Francisco doesn’t have a WalMart, but we do have a Costco. And they sell music. In fact, big box stores sell a whole lot of music: mass merchangs like WalMart and Target accounted for 33% of all album sales in 2010. The selection isn’t great, but they move a lot of CDs. Oh, and I’m guessing you will find the latest Justin Bieber album.
Bookstore comparison: WalMart, Costco, Target
And…… that’s basically it. Could these be the types of physical bookstores/booksellers that survive?
Sure, this is all an inexact comparison as music isn’t quite the same thing as books. Book piracy has not (at least yet) become the existential crisis that it was to music and bookstores have arguably a bit more potential for incorporating live events into their offerings, at least without upsetting the neighbors with loud music (though some record stores definitely have some great shows).
As much as I’m rooting for bookstores, ultimately I find it a bit tough to imagine huge box stores devoted solely to books still around in significant numbers a decade from now. That’s a lot of overhead to support and infrastructure to pay for when they’re competing against online vendors with significantly less or virtually no overhead. It wasn’t a sustainable model for music when a substantial chunk of sales left for Amazon and iTunes, and book box stores are going to face similar challenges.
Still, I also can’t imagine bookstores disappearing entirely. There is too much love for physical books, too much value provided by bookstores, and I think people will still pay a premium to shop local and for a personal touch. It may be a perpetually tough landscape to survive in, but I think the gems will make it.
Oh, and there’s still one more thing working in bookstores’ favor. Whether through a mix of nostalgia or a thirst for authentic experience, vinyl record sales are the highest they’ve been since at least 1991.
What do you think? Are record stores an apt comparison and are there other types of bookstores that will make it?
Mystery Robin says
The comparison doesn't work because listening to music on my ipod and listening to a cd is the *exact* same experience. The only slight difference is I get to play Angry Birds while I listen to my music and it's tons easier to make a mixtape, I mean playlist.
Books – not the same. Reading on my kindle and reading a paperback are *not* the same and never will be. And as much as I love ereading, I also love paper reading and they are different. Bookstores won't go away. The other thing is you can buy a book or magazine, then sit down and flip through it with a cup of coffee in the cafe. But you can't really enjoy your music right there (unless you've just downloaded it to your ipod)
Peter Dudley says
I think this is perhaps the most brilliant in a long history of brilliant things you've said.
There's only one other outlet you've missed that I can think of: Airports. As long as people travel, and as long as we have to keep our iPods turned off for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the flight, people will buy books at the airport. They might be only legal thrillers and Sudoku, but still.
But then, those aren't really bookstores so much as kiosks, and we already see kiosks of books in all kinds of related retail (e.g. Home Depot sells home improvement books, wineries sell grape books, kitchen stores sell cookbooks, etc.).
karen wester newton says
Well, you know, it is called Borders Books & Music. According to some folks, one reason Borders failed was because they relied on music sales in their stores. So in a way, Borders closing is part of the undertow from the music industry going down.
The POD bookstore.
The customer either selects the different materials to create their book with online and then goes to pick it up after a few hours have passed or they can customize their book from within the store.
I suspect browsing the e-book kiosk and then loading your choices into your e-reader will replace browsing real books. It's interesting how MUCH "Look Inside" sections on books, when available, helps sell them.
Also interesting: in the news, Amazon (and others) are now also moving to the grocery delivery business (right to your door). Soon, you won't have to go out for anything: your job, your books, your Christmas shopping, even your groceries and dog food.
I suspect this will follow the trend of the automated answering machine (and automated phone hell):
At one time, it was considered progressive. Now, it is lazy. It's bad business in many cases. So, NOW, if you have a REAL PERSON answering and responding, THAT is who you want to do business with, not some automated service.
Anyway, I suspect it will get less and less personal and after that trend leaves us all feeling isolated in our little cubicles, community will return and ways of touching, connecting, interacting in real time will once again be in flower.
My prediction anyway.
word verification: reeda
like in letta me reeda you fo'tchine.
I think its a pretty good comparison.
A lot of people want quality stuff, be it books or music.
I love browsing the local old/new record store simply because I can stock up on the stuff I couldn't buy when I was younger or bought the hit 45 from the album and now some thirty years later looking for the album it came from.
I think the bookstores will fare better than record stores. Plus if all that was left was to get a book in the traditional manner at WalMart or Target, where would authors have their book signings? It would be sad to see those disappear…
One data point that says that record stores and bookstores are similar: I almost never bought a record (tape, CD, whatever) at a record store, and I almost never bought a book at a bookstore.
I'm not sure how useful that data point is. 🙂
Personally, I think that paper as a mass market book medium for fiction is doomed. I've been reading for, um, well, let's say over half a century, okay? I'm done with paper books for fiction. I can get e-books so much easier and faster with an e-reader, I can get them for less money, I can read them in type that's large enough I don't need my glasses, and when I'm done, I don't need to store or dispose of the book. I don't miss anything about the paper book experience. I don't have any reliable data, but I suspect that the median age of serious e-reader users is probably over 40 (okay, in part because of the current cost).
Tech books I still want in paper, so that I can flip pages, highlight in multiple colors, have multiple books open at once, stick other documents in at various spots, etc.
All of the "bookstores need to be community centers" suggestions are fine, but how does the bookstore monetize that? I go to a couple of bookstores for meetings, and I've never bought anything. The chairs are full of people who don't seem to be inclined to buy anything, either. One of those bookstores (a Borders that is closing) has a resident homeless person during operating hours. He goes outside to panhandle in the parking lot, then goes back in to relax, cool off/warm up, and use the water fountain and restroom.
A bookstore will never survive by pretending it's an unfunded public lending library that doesn't allow books to be checked out. A bookstore needs to sell books. If it makes money by selling coffee, then it's a coffee-house, not a bookstore.
John Jack says
I'm thinking now, too, that the record store consumer demographic and the bookstore consumer demographic are two different demographic bases. Same with physical versus digital. Even now an entire generation later on from the breakout digital age the disparate demographics are markedly different. And the digital divide is growing.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recently published statistics, 2009.
U.S. Internet connections by household: 76.88 percent anywhere; in the home 68.89 percent total, 63.53 percent broadband, 4.74 percent dial up. 23.12 percent none. One quarter of U.S. households do not access the Internet.
Just one sample data point. For more see the National Book 2011 Statistical Abstract Index.
I really prefer Barnes & Noble to Borders, simply because both chains had my works, and Borders chose to let Amazon.com sell comp copies along with their stock at pirated prices. B&N did not and does not.
I also like the people at B&N; they are usually knowledgeable and nice. I'm impressed with what they've done with their online presence as well.
Frankly, I'll be surprised–horrified, actually–if B&N goes under. (As for the independent bookseller, I've seen too many of my favorites bite the dust, e.g., "Chinook" in Colorado Springs, Colo. I'm still crying about losing them.
Cynthia Robertson says
Let's don't forget to factor in how many industries are being hit by our current economy. This bankruptcy and the subsequent store closings is not just about books, but is possibly about real estate as well. I don't see it as a trend, just a symptom. When the illness of our economy is cured the book stores will still be here. Although the thought of 'little' bookstores flourishing is a pleasant one and I would welcome them.
J. T. Shea says
May I again gently remind everyone a vinyl record is not analogous to a paper book? Music (and movies) never had anything remotely like a paper book.
Music and movies were always recorded and transported and sold or rented as coded signals in a storage medium, and could never be experienced without one or more mechanical devices, as 12stargazers pointed out.
Scored grooves on wax cylinders or wax, shellac or vinyl discs, magnetic signals on metal wire or metal or plastic tape, electronic signals on a plastic disc you buy or that you download and store on your own disc, the essence of music and movie systems is unchanged in over a century.
The closest a book store could come to a record store would be if it sold only CD audiobooks and CD e-books. A rather limited niche!
A record store would only begin to slightly resemble a book store if you could experience any record by simply picking it off the shelf and opening the packaging. Chalk and cheese!
Mira asks interesting questions about printing costs. My general understanding is that both printing and handling costs are already lower than people think.
It seems the next big thing is High Speed Inkjet Printing, which promises to combine print-on-demand's flexibility with the lower costs of offset printing. I assume High Speed Inkjet Printing is very different from the sort of inkjet printing we writers know and hate!
Good points, Lily Cate! People love doing things in many different and seemingly redundant ways. At the dawn of home video decades ago, who would have predicted hundreds of millions of people would leave their home video systems in the depths of winter and pay a total of over two billion dollars to see a single Science Fiction movie in theaters?
Bryan Russell's Chapters woman intrigues me too, and provokes similar questions. Is she a threat or opportunity?
Imagine a small store with a small physical inventory, but one or more Espresso Book Machines or similar, and a wireless hotspot system for e-book ordering and downloading, possibly discounted as Bryan suggests? Also a REAL espresso machine, of course!
Now I must go shopping before that dang blasted Sears Roebuck mail order catalog puts all physical stores out of business and we all starve to death! That will happen before the year 1900! Mark my words!
Amber Argyle says
Our local Borders closed. A crushing blow to our small town, and our small town authors (me included).
The Red Angel says
I can see the comparison, it makes sense. There are still a few record stores open in business, but it can't be denied that the industry has gone down some since the age of iEverything emerged.
I truly hope bookstores and paper books never go out of business! The idea of an e-book is clever and convenient and all, but I just want my novel in paper form. 🙁
Well, perhaps record sales have dropped off, not because of piracy, but because there's not the quality of music or the originality there once was. Ok, I'm in my fifties, so it could be argued I'm stuck in the music preferences of my youth. However, I do like some contemporary music, just not much of it. The sixties and seventies and eighties was an exciting time for music as there were so many innovative trends started: rock 'n roll, heavy rock, pop, heavy metal, electronic rock, psychedelic music, progressive rock, punk, etc. But now it's mainly a repetition of what has already been established. Rock bands have become passe to some extend. Well, that's what I feel when I watch people strapping on ye olde guitars and singing into the mike.
And the decline of book sales? Could it be there's always a market for what people like to read? Books such as the Twilight and Harry Potter sagas have walked off shelves, desite other innovations such as social networking and whatever, because they're a delightful read. Could the quality of many books also not be what they once were? I'd like to argue that the high brow literary books are often not appealing to the masses as they're sometimes downbeat and heavy of spirit containing clever words without fun or soul. Perhaps the majority of people like to have fun when they read and immerse themselves in a world that's more like the kind of world they'd prefer to live in, to read about people that inspire them, not drag them down to the depths of despair and superficiality.
Fighting words? Just IMHO 🙂
Benjamin Gorman says
Criticizing an analogy by saying the two things are different is more than a bit ridiculous. Of course they're different. It's an analogy. It's designed to focus us on the similarities.
One variable to consider: Libraries. Libraries are essentially big box stores with similar overhead but no profit. They will cut into the independent bookstore market by providing that knowledgeable person who can point you in the right direction. How will that affect the book store culture? And how will it change the voting and buying patterns of those of us who love both bookstores and libraries? My library is now part of a consortium that offers ebooks and audiobooks online. Will that affect the market? I'm eager to see.
And no, libraries aren't bookstores. And apples aren't oranges. And books aren't ebooks. Just so we've covered those.
Let's not fail to recognize the clout B&N now have as the only major national chain. That said, I agree with your analogy as an avid reader (electronic and hard copy) and former San Francisco and Portland resident. (Excellent examples with Amoeba and Powell's.)
I've been thinking about this same thing for a while. People will always choose that which is more convenient and cheaper, but there are also a lot of people out there who collect vinyl because they love the look, sound and smell of old records.
I am one of those people who views the decline of the "analog" book as an opportunity to pick up some great additions to my library at book sales and garage sales.
"Piracy, which can be also described as "sharing" or "lending" or "borrowing" (beyond what a printed book or actual CD or physical object could)is a real concern."
I know everyone thinks this is the case. But it's not. And I'm not a pirate and I've never downloaded anything this way in my life.
I'm an author who has been pirated many time, and I've learned a great deal about pirates. Not only do they help promote books, they also have some valid reasons for pirating. I know it's illegal. I'm not for it. But I know for a fact pirating can be very advantages to authors.
And, many pirates actually do buy books they love. Personally, if I were an author right now and I wasn't being pirated, I'd be very worried about what I'm doing wrong.
I type too fast sometimes.
It is a comparission that has been made numerous times. Powell has already claimed that digital sales are hurting their stores. Outside of Powell's though we also have Half Priced Books, which sells not only books but CDs.
As tablets take off, and Amazon and others continue to support various formats, I don't see a long life ahead for bookstores. I do see more 'exclusives' coming down the road, such as AC/DC did with Wallmart/Sams, and the Eagle's. Exclusive distribution will be something to look out for unless authors somehow manage to 'do it for themselves' as the digital prices and profits for the authors seem way out of line still.
Having worked at a chain record store myself in the late 90s (HMV, back when they were briefly in the US), and having witnessed HMV's slow but steady rise and ultimate and sad demise (not to mention witnessing the Universal/Polygram merger in '98 and its aftershocks in the music biz), I can definitely see the similarities.
I've frequently seen large box stores and anchor stores at malls touting the "We have everything! In multiple copies!" line, and for awhile they work, but ultimately, unless they're like CostCo/WalMart and are focused more on profits, these large stores are going to fade away after a time. I think this is why Amoeba was worked so well–they're like a combination of a big box store that acts like your favorite small indie store.
On the other hand, I've also seen 'eclectic' stores that barely stay afloat and also go away…there, I'd say one can only be so eclectic before it starts backfiring. That's not to say eclectic is bad as well–I've been to Aquarius, and though their stock isn't really to my tastes, they definitely work well where they are, given the neighborhood they're in.
Bookwise, I think this is why Green Apple out in my neighborhood (Richmond District) works as well–they're quirky yet don't alienate–and given their size, they're able to stock a goodly amount of titles. If anything, I'd say all three of the plans you mention would work, depending on where the store is situated and what they're willing to sell.
Anna Zagar says
Facebook will never replace the value of spending face to face time with a friend.
Email will never replace the value of a handwritten letter from a person who lives across the country or maybe even across the world.
I think the process will reverse itself. I think printed books will wither under the next generation's practicality. Then the generation after that will realize how cool printed books were, and it will become a hot commodity again. Bookstores will arise from the ashes. It's like the real estate market, or the water cycle, or bell bottoms. Don't worry. It might get much worse for bookstores. But then it will get better.
I totally agree with S. Kyle Davis on this point: 'Taking your library with you is, but then, people don't usually flip from one to the next the way they do music.'
Digital music means I can have all of my favourite music at my fingertips, in one little device. I put it on shuffle and have track after track of random pieces of my favourite stuff. Beethoven followed by Mumford and Sons followed by Muse followed by Rachmaninov. It's a fantastic way to listen to music.
There is no comparison with books. I tend to read one, maybe two, books at a time. As long as I have something to read, I don't have any need to have my entire library on standby. I certainly don't need a random chapter function that mixes all my reading material up. I am a compulsive reader. I buy material books. I don't own an e-reader, and don't particularly want one. (I also happen to be in my twenties.)
And though I live in the UK, one of my favourite places in the world is the Russian Hill Bookstore on Polk Street. Whenever I visit friends in SF, my suitcase verges on being overweight on the way home due to the books I find in that store. 🙂
There are some independent record stores in Minneapolis and I hope that some of the independent book stores survive. I think that Barnes and Noble was smart to enter the ereader market with the Nook but Borders didn't really have their own.
Emily Wenstrom says
This seems pretty reasonable to me. I can definitely see paper books becoming comparable to vinyl records down the line as eReaders and tablets become mainstream. (Can you imagine the value of a author-signed paper book in that world?)
The comparison with music stores may be slightly helpful, but there's a big difference between music and books. Music is a performance art. Physical records/tapes/CDs are not regarded by buyers as crucial to a musical experience. They are simply different means of transmission (the cover art & packaging is not the main thing at all). Music via digital files loses virtually nothing of the experience.
Books, however, lose a significant part of their utility and reader's experience in digital form. You get the text, the information transmission. You lose the paper, structure, page and book design, the physical form of what is a practical and elegant structure for portability, note-taking, and efficient reading. Even Bill Gates recently said, "reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper. . . . it's quite a hurdle for technology to achieve, to match that level of usability."
A book is also an art object in itself. Just because it's not *expensive* or one-of-a-kind art doesn't mean that we aren't responding to a book as both literary and visual/tactile art. (I'll concede that an iPad gives you more of a visual art experience that a Kindle or Nook.)
I'll be sorry to see the megabookstores go — if they do. I don't see any reason to fear that happening right now. What's going on is a matter of downsizing. Some places aren't doing enough business to support the size of the stores. I don't foresee the loss of all Borders and B&Ns, not to mention all bookstores. Stores and chains come and go, that's all.
In terms of Bill Gates speaking up about something, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he'll 'fix' digital reading and make sure people get that optimal experience with the new Windows Tablet!
Are record stores and bookstores comparable on some level? Absolutely. On every level? I would have to disagree.
Music is all over the internet – on iTunes, Zune, YouTube, etc. It's easy to find a song somewhere and listen to it a few times to get it out of your system without contributing a dime. And personally I find that I usually enjoy a few tracks off an album rather than the entire thing, making the opportunity to buy separate tracks digitally extremely convenient. I've noticed certain Borders offering the chance to do this and burn a CD in-store, and maybe the remaining record stores would also profit in doing this if they haven't already.
However, I would say books are more comparable to something like shopping for clothes. A lot of people buy dresses, shoes, accessories, etc. online, and brick and mortar stores have suffered for it. But in reality, a lot more people need the comfort of trying a product out first before they're willing to buy it. One shirt may not fit, which you know because you tried it on in the dressing room, but maybe there's something else on the same rack that will.
With music, we have the opportunity to try it out when we listen to the radio or the 1:30 preview option on iTunes. With books, many sites offer the opportunity to read a preview, but not everyone is a voracious reader willing to give anything with an interesting hook a try. Many times people need an hour or so to sit down, read several chapters, and really get into the story before they're willing to put down money for it. eBooks don't offer this opportunity. You don't get to sample the entire product to find out if it's worth your money like you do with music on the radio, and that can make a huge difference as to whether or not someone is willing to pick up the eBook. It would be interesting to know how many eBook buyers go into a bookstore first to check out a copy and see if it's something they think they would enjoy.
Lastly, there's very little difference between listening to a song on iTunes vs. listening to it on a CD you bought from a store, but there is a considerable difference between a book you buy for your Kindle or Nook and a book you buy from your local B&N. There will be a market for the latter for a very long time, and while we're seeing a significant downsize of bookstores, I don't think we can count them out just yet. After all, many are wising up and selling things other than books now (music, DVDs, puzzles, games, coffee, etc.), helping to boost their sales and get more traffic in the door. I don't remember music shops doing much more than selling posters or books of music in their dying days.
Kenner R. McQuaid says
I still think that there will always be people who like to physically hold a book while reading it, just like there will always be collectors of vinyl and those that buy CDs as long as they continued to be manufactured.
I've already stopped buying CDs, though. iTunes is much easier, much cheaper, there's no maintenance as long as you back-up your purchases, and the music can be made portable. No CD cases or the discs themselves taking up space, either. That's huge when your first love is music and you have over 200 discs by the Grateful Dead alone. Is there an iPad in my future? Probably, but I still love holding a book in my hand.
One difference with music vs. books, though, is that once people realized that the actual compact disc itself cost less than $0.99 people suddenly weren't so keen on paying $18.99 for an album at a chain store when much of that was going to a middleman and not the artist itself. I don't think that people look at books the same way, the exception being the outrageous prices for academic textbooks.
Speaking of vinyl, the guitar player for Boston, Tom Scholz, is also an electrical engineer and MIT grad. He said he's take the first pressing of a record and a good needle over a CD any day.
My thoughts exactly.
Actually, there are people out there saying that ebooks shouldn't cost what they do because they have NONE of the costs of a print book. They mean printing and shipping. They conveniently refuse to think about editors reading manuscripts, editors editing manuscripts, design, publicity, selling, and paying the author for his product, just to mention some of the main costs of a book. I guess they consider them "middlemen".
We take books so for granted that we forget what a masterful design they are. Bill Gates was saying not just that tablets don't match the functionality of paper, but that he can't envision them matching it — doesn't sound like the next device will do the trick yet.
Because I read the Gates quote only a couple weeks ago in the Washington Post, I assumed the quote was recent. But when I googled to see if there was more context than the Post article gave, it appears that Gates spoke those words in a speech over 10 years ago! Obviously, things have changed since then.
My guess would be that Gates has partially, but not entirely, revised his verdict. Speaking for myself, I find the e-reader experience unsatisfactory and less useful in several respects. Other people claim to have gone entirely digital; presumably they do not find e-readers lacking.
Both e-readers and books have the essential content, but I love the sensorial aspect of reading a book: the touch of the page as I turn it or the sense of security in holding onto it as I'm reading, the smell of the paper which actually absorbs the smell of my home environment over time, the look of the word on the page as natural light hits it, the often beautiful book cover art, the soft sound of the turning page. There you have it for me: sight, sound, smell, touch. A real book has all of those, and as a human, reading this way gives me the feel and sense of completeness.
I think there will always be a need (and want) by Customers for bookstores. Walking in, looking around, touching the book, browsing through, seeing titles you may not have even heard of, is all part of the fun.
Although as you mentioned in your post, there will no doubt be a decline in bookstores, I would hope there is always a bricks and mortar store around to walk into. A towns local bookstore have been part of society for a long time, and I hope it would always be that way. Even as an online specialist bookstore myself, I always want to see a bricks and mortar bookstore around, it wouldn't be the same without them.