Can bookstores welcome the ebook customer?

20110709-010717.jpgI’m writing this today from the coffee shop at a Borders, one of the superstore locations in the middle of the U.S. to survive the company’s recent bankruptcy and ensuing real estate culling. I was the first person in the store this morning, and in the past half hour nobody else has come in, which seems too bad: here are thousands upon thousands of books, comics, and magazines, and nobody to browse them.

John C. Malone, who wants to buy 70% of Barnes & Noble, told the New York Times earlier this week why he thinks bookstores still matter (emphasis mine):

“We believe that publishers like the existing physical bookstores, they like having a partner in distribution who lives and dies in the book business as opposed to just commoditizing it, which these other players do,” he said. “So I think you go into it with an edge in your relationship with the publishers.”

The thing that strikes me today about Borders, especially when compared to my recent visits to Barnes & Noble, is how little the company has warmly embraced ebooks. And I do mean “warmly,” not just setting up a little display and otherwise ignoring it, or worse, treating it as the enemy–both conditions apply to this Borders. If ebooks are a valid component of the book business, why do they barely register in a store that lives and dies by it?

I asked an employee if they had the Kobo Touch available, and he brought it out from the back. (He hadn’t had a chance to secure it to the display table yet.) We talked a little about ereaders. I told him I had a Kindle 3 and that I thought Nook and Kobo had finally trumped Amazon on the interface front.

That’s when he confessed, “I won’t buy an ereader at this point, I won’t even touch them. It’s a principle thing.” He was a really awesome, generous guy, but he was basically un-selling me on the device.

I don’t blame him for seeing sides and taking the one that more directly benefits him, especially after all the trouble his company has gone through. But it’s too bad that so many bookstores and booksellers remain grim at the idea of ebook sales. I mean, if I walked among the shelves here today and found a book I liked, I would want it in digital format, not print. I just don’t buy print books anymore. So why isn’t there an easy way for me to make that purchase right here in the store (without cheating and visiting Amazon on my smartphone)? Why can’t I bring the book to the register, tell the cashier I actually just want it as an ebook, pay for it it, and receive an email with a download link? Why am I, a potential customer, so problematic to sell to?

Or: why aren’t there more accessories for ebook devices for sale here today–cases, decals, lights, cards that represent warranty extension plans? I’m at a bookstore, and for all practical purposes my Kindle is my book. Maybe a competitor makes it, but that doesn’t mean Borders can’t sell accessories for it. It would be nice if everyone in this town who owns a Kindle thought of their local Borders, not Best Buy or any other brick and mortar store, as the place to shop for Kindle-related items. They might even buy some print books while in the store.

And maybe short-sighted executives are gumming up the purchase experience with overcomplicated DRM and proprietary platforms, but that doesn’t mean bookstores can’t create special kiosks or displays that feature titles from DRM-free, device-agnostic publishers, and sell digital copies of those books directly to shoppers, alongside print editions.

I love bookstores and want them to thrive. But I also want them to be relevant. I’ll probably buy something here before I leave today as a “get well soon” gesture for Borders, but right now I can honestly say there’s almost no reason for me–a heavy reader and frequent buyer of books–to ever step foot in one of its stores again. Amazon may have created the problem of the ebook customer, but it’s up to the bookstore to find a way to sell to him again.

(Photo: doortoriver)

14 Comments on Can bookstores welcome the ebook customer?

  1. Rob in Denver // July 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm //

    Here’s a snippet of an interview I did with Joe Konrath last year ( Back in the 90s, before I was a pro writer, I ran record stores for a small, Midwest-based independent chain that doesn’t exist now. This was an interesting time to be in that business: everyone was expanding as CD sales fueled enormous growth. Labels were signing anyone who wore a guitar. But I remember as plain as day having three interactions, at different times, during that tenure. The first was in 1993-ish. I was running one of the company’s college-town stores. The campus was completely connected through a VAX system, which was the same system our stores used. The systems were closed to each other, of course, but they were basically using the same technology. One afternoon at a manager’s meeting, I mused at how great it would be if the students could search our catalog database and place a special order or hold for a CD from a campus computer lab or their dorm rooms. The other managers looked at me like I had three heads. For the second interaction, jump forward to sometime in 1996. A customer wanted a CD we didn’t normally carry and asked whether I thought had it. I didn’t own a computer at that point and had never seen the Internet (let alone the Amazon Web site), but I’d read enough stuff in the record industry trade magazines to know what she was talking about. I remember feeling threatened by her question. The third interaction, in 1998, was with an employee who worked for me. He raved to me about the mp3 format… its compression, its virtually imperceptible loss in fidelity, and how you could, if you knew where to look, download off the Internet for free just about anything we carried in the store. I went home after work and learned more about it and quickly understood that the industry I loved was about to get clobbered. *** Your interaction with Borders employee might as well have been me 15 years ago. I understand his point of view and I empathize. But book stores are going to have to figure out how to adapt if they want to survive. Incidentally, that record store chain I worked for has just one location still open.

  2. meredithgreene // July 10, 2011 at 1:26 am //

    I felt a melancholy type of humor wash over me as I read this, mostly at the expense of the Borders employee that thought he had to “take sides” in a non-existent ‘war’. I suppose Washington would have thought it quite odd if Nathaniel Greene had shown up on a mechanical horse to battle, but they’d still be fighting on the same side. (Emphasis on Same Side.)

  3. I can only (physically) read ebooks and not regular books (unless they’re photographed) and I wish they were somewhat priced economically but also notice not much is made about them anywhere but online. P.S. I thought Borders was done–bankrupt or broke–w/o having it’s own ereader device to compete with. I use Kindle/NOOK for PC.

  4. Jes, I too can only read ebooks, and I agree with you about price and access (including the fact that living in Australia, I’m not “allowed” to buy most of the ebooks I want). Why not integrate ebooks into all sorts of retail and service structures? As for Borders, they’re not quite dead. Most stores have been closed, but there are a very few left. My nearest Borders store is thousands of kilometers away now. Borders Online is still with us. Let’s hope it survives: it’s the biggest support for ebooks in Australia (as opposed to, which is based in Australia but refuses to sell most titles to us).

  5. Steven Lyle Jordan // July 10, 2011 at 8:59 am //

    “Why can’t I bring the book to the register, tell the cashier I actually just want it as an ebook, pay for it it, and receive an email with a download link?” Exactly what I’ve been saying for years. And Meredith is right about this being a nonexistent “war”… Borders essentially designated itself a non-combatant, at exactly the moment when they needed to stand up and take action, so it has little say over what happens to it now. And it’s a double-shame, because if a company had worked out exactly that sale-in-store system mentioned above, it could have been passed on to mom-and-pop stores too, and preserved many of them as well. This is a case of suffering for your industry’s short-sightedness.

  6. A very thoughtful article, thank you. I have felt a little guilty over switching to an e-reader when I still enjoy browsing in the bookstore. I don’t want to see traditional bookstores die. You make some good points about how they can co-exist with e-readers.

  7. I love this article. Great point of view. Another thing that could help stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, is to sell gift cards that you can use on the idevice of your choice. Not everyone has a Credit Card…and the current system only uses Credit Cards. I have been asking for them to do this for a long time. You buy a prepaid card, use it for purchasing ebooks from their online store…what need is there to have a Credit Card on file? It can be done…iTunes does it, so can the others.

  8. I have a real good reason to go to a physical borders: those 33%-40% off coupons they send out every week. It usually beats the crud out of the price for the corresponding ebook. I have to say that ever since the Agency system started, my enthusiasm for ebooks as a practical way to do my reading has wayned a bit. I still very much believe in their importance for education and in their broader cultural impact, but I can definitely see a future for both e and p, especially if the “Espresso Machines” take off. It gets a bit tiresome always babying my kindle or my libre, worried that one of my kids may break it or that I’ll twist the oh-so-fragile e-ink screen. Reading on my phone, while handy at times, feels different than reading a p-book or on a dedicated reader. The cultural signals it sends out are different.

  9. Borders may be planning to have its own ebookstore after they shed Kobo. At the moment, what benefit is it to them to sell ereaders? So that other companies receive the ebook sales?

  10. I see nothing in these ideas that will contribute much towards paying the rent for any bookstore. Ebooks and bookstores do not mix and as one rises the other will fall. Some ebook advocates seem to want to have it both ways. ‘Present book industry is a doomed horse and buggy business but horses will continue to play a role in the transportation industry’ Not gonna happen. The Bureau of the Census defines a bookstore as any retail establishment with sales comprised of more than 50 percent new books and periodicals. As defined hardly any will survive the transition towards digital.

  11. Steven Lyle Jordan // July 11, 2011 at 10:14 am //

    The ebook sale-in-store system, in order to benefit bookstores, would direct purchases through the store’s purchasing system, or through a store portal, that would make the sale and either add an amount to the price for their profit, or take a bit off the top of the price for store profit. Both methods have been used by stores that access product warehouses and databases for years… there’s no reason the publishing industry could not set one up for connected bookstores, or, for that matter, any store that sells ebooks as well as other products. Even simpler than this, I suppose, would be preprinted cards that would be sold at the bookstore, and include a download link and passcode to access a book. This incredibly low-tech system could have been in place years ago as well. Bottom line, if bookstores had wanted to get in on ebooks, they could have done so at any time, at many levels. Their refusal to do so–even if it was at the level of “I’m waiting for someone else to set it up for us”–is essentially their own fault.

  12. Robert Nagle // July 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm //

    Other things to think about: BN lets Nook owners download ANY ebook on their Nook device free for 1 hour if inside the store. That’s certainly an incentive to come to the store on a regular basis. Although I like the Nook device, my two biggest disappointments are 1)the Nook store interface on the device is cumbersome, and many books on BN lack good metadata. Also,you have to click several times to expand reader comments…. There’s really no way on the Nook to go exploring for interesting reads. The amazon store/website is a lot easier to go through. At least with walking down aisles you can browse more quickly and effortlessly. Secondly, ebooks are ugly. You use only fonts provided by the device manufacturer; as a result almost all the ebooks look exactly the same on the device. I’d imagine that the print books almost always look better than the epub version — more layout options, more fonts. I mentioned before the BN stores let you download complete ebooks onto your Nook device. They do NOT do this for BN app on the ipad.. which is a real shame..(the BN app on the ipad seems to be buggy and almost abandoned by BN).

  13. Honestly I think bookstores will simply need to change their focus. These days when I go with friends, we’re mostly there to get coffee and browse the shelves. Usually if I want something in particular, they’re not going to have it. But even though I use my e-reader frequently, I tend to split my time between that and print books. In around ten years I could easily see regular chain bookstores with LCD monitors displaying the latest book trailers (since they’re gaining in popularity), and include websites to download the book, or a few kiosks to do it instantly. The actual printed shelves I could see being cut back to make more room for tables & chairs, since I think bookstores should first and foremost be hang-out locations. Most of the folks I see in Barnes & Nobles are student teams, folks working on business, studying for classes, or people meeting up with friends just to hang out. I don’t see as much of that at the Books-A-Million I go to, but with a smaller seating area, people are less likely to want to sit around and chat.

  14. Marion Gropen // July 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm //

    I think bookstores can make even more from ebooks — why not set up a system where they get a commission on every sale of a Kindle or epub book made while a customer is IN their store. They could offer it by kiosk, or some such, and have a commercial affiliate relationship with Amazon, or the publishers’ online stores. Or they could have a server of their own, if they’re chains. Most of us like browsing bookstores. Soon they’ll have mostly hardbacks, but a lot of readers will prefer the ebook, so why not serve the need? (Answer: mostly it’s emotion, but it’s also the expense of setting up another relationship and system, when the margins are so tiny. But still, bookstores, if you’re gonna make it into the next few decades, you’re gonna need to add the ebooks for volume, I think.)

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