Do Bookstores Have a Future?

Far from wanting the clocks turned back, I think that the digital era can keep bookstores relevant for another twenty or more years; bookstores need only to embrace the digital and adapt. During my talks with all kinds of people from all walks of life, I encountered two main arguments against the bookshop.

The first was that reading is an effort: If a story can be told through a moving, audio-visual medium, why read? With that line of thinking the bookstore can’t compete; books are a different form of entertainment and trying to force someone to read will never lead anywhere.

The second view concerned the kind of challenge that the bookshop can actually take on. A number of people I spoke to felt that the age of retail was over and bookshops, along with other shops, might as well close up and call it quits. They said that the Internet was more convenient and cheaper, that retail cannot compete. I really beg to differ.

Some bookstores have already tried to diversify, building in coffee shops in bookstores (preferably run by the bookstore themselves) placed at the far back or on the highest floor, meaning that customers have to walk through book displays and promotions that might prompt them to spend more money in store. (Plus, coffee keeps them in the store longer and has a high profit margin itself.) Borders tried to go down the CD and DVD route just as digital downloads began to take off, which was a bad move in hindsight: Diversifying can work, but it’s tricky to get right.

Before any shop thinks of diversifying, it must answer a key question: Is the core product the best it can be? Could book stores work with publishers and writers to create special editions with additional content sold only in stores — an epilogue,extra background, or interviews with the writer? There could be mystery book bundles carefully curated and selected by genre and wrapped up in brown paper — or a book group (with monthly, quarterly, or yearly subscriptions) tailored to your favourite genres, the books sent to your home or picked up in-store and accompanied by an interview from the writer. All these strategies would make the bookstore’s core product more appealing than what their online counterparts provide.

The bookstore’s greatest asset in the digital era is its tactile nature. Only human contact can combat low online pricing. Waterstones has a collect-in-store option that allows you to buy the book at the online price and pick it up in-store, but why not reverse this? Have the books in-store, but give customers the option to buy them at the online competitive price and sent out to your address. What if the books in store were displayed alongside a QR or NFC type tag that allowed you to buy and download a digital copy over free Wi-Fi access in shop? What if when you buy a book in-store you got the option of a dual or triple pack book that could include the printed version, a digital copy, and an audio book? This happens already with films, which can be bought in bundles that include a Blue-ray, a DVD, and a downloadable copy.

Bookstores can capitalise on their community roots. An idea from the US and already a good source of money for American booksellers is self-printing book machines that allow the bookshops to team up with local and self-published authors and help sell their work. Booksellers could even have a membership that allows access to a members’ area with workshops, talks, and events, and these memberships could be tailored to students, children, and teens.

The possibilities of bookshops are as wondrous as the stories they sell. Do bookshops have a future? I think they do: They need only try to make one.