TeleRead posted earlier about an idea that was floated by Victoria Barnsley, a HarperCollins CEO, during a recent NPR interview: the idea of charging people for the privilege of browsing in bookstores. The idea was that they’d pay to browse, and then go home and order online from the vendor of their choosing.
The analogy Barnsley gave with this was that of a high-end clothing store—say, for wedding dresses—charging a nominal trying fee that is taken out of the cost of your purchase. But I think that analogy is a faulty one, and I think the true analogy demonstrates why ‘pay to browse’ will never work for bookstores.
Think of it this way: You can’t copyright ideas, right? You can only copyright specific expressions of them. So, I can talk as freely as I wish here on TeleRead about boys who are sent away to boarding schools to learn to be wizards, and JK Rowling can’t say boo. But if you readers want to read a Harry Potter book specifically, you have to get that from an authorized source.
So, to bring this back to the bookstores, here’s why it won’t work: Because the bookstore is the Harry Potter book. And the Internet is the general idea. People won’t pay to ‘browse,’ because they can do that online already.
No Stephen King fan isn’t going to know that a new book is out, regardless of whether he lives near a bookstore or not. He can discover that from the Amazon or Kobo new releases page, or from Goodreads, or Fantastic Fiction’s Stephen King page (which, like all their author pages, lists both published and upcoming releases), or from word of mouth from fellow Stephen King fans he might know. Of course, if this fan then wanted to buy the book, he’d have to go to a store for that. But he can do that online just as easily, too.
Now, granted, there will be some fans who value the ambiance of the bookstore, or have a relationship with the staff there, or it’s on their way home, or whatever. The specific expression of the general concept of ‘a bookstore’ that a consumer chooses may be a brick-and-mortar venue. But that won’t be the case for everyone. And the brick-and-mortar bookstore shouldn’t fool itself into thinking that consumers are choosing it because they wouldn’t otherwise learn about a particular book.