Is dead the new black?
one web-based sale equals one less physical shop sale; that one is bad and one is good (take your pick which side you’re on). This is a tendency not just in the media, but throughout the industry. It creates resentment towards the digital world at a point when bookshops need to expand and enrich their online presence.
Certainly, pricing is a major challenge facing bookshops and it’s a problem that goes well beyond what any individual bookshop can do. The hideous discrepancy between prices in store and on the web—just in print editions, before we even get to digital—is doing nothing to keep the local industry in business. If I buy a book for $11.99 and peel off the sticker to find the same book is $3.99 in the US and $4.99 in Canada, then I’m going to feel like an idiot. Worse, I’m going to feel ripped off.
The two most common reasons for purchasing stuff online, at least anecdotally, boils down to two things: convenience and price. The bookshop offers something else—experience—which is a significant consideration for many readers. But this makes a difference only to a point. The most luscious book-buying experience doesn’t justify a 300% mark up and the more readers know they have an alternative, the more likely they will take it. I know there are reasons that books are priced the way they are; some of them are even good ones. It doesn’t change the outcome from the reader’s perspective though. The characterisation might be unfair (and in most cases it is), but no one feels bad about sending a rip off merchant to the wall.
So where does this leave the bookshop as we know it? Are there opportunities for booksellers to take advantage of the things they do well?
Personally, I would love to see a bookshop that offered a seamless integration between what it does online and what it does in bricks and mortar. I would like to be able to browse the stock from home and place books on hold to pick them up. If I pay for a book to pick up or have sent to me, I’d like to get instant access to the eBook at the same time.
If I wander in, even as a new customer, I want to be able to buy a book and be able to load it up on my phone, even before I walk out of there with the print copy under my arm. I’d love to be able to discover a new author’s work and instantly access his or her complete back catalogue, even if the print copies are not there in front of me, of maybe I could access links to other resources on that author while I’m looking. And I’d love this system to be so easy and seamless, that I’m barely aware of the beautiful technology that drives it.
Impossible? Not from a technological view. Most of the tech to achieve this is at least ten years old. So is it a pipe dream? If it is, it’s not mine alone. Sydney-based uberbookseller extraordinaire, Jon Page, offers this remarkably similar vision:
“My vision is when my customers come into the shop to browse or enquire about a book they are presented with the eBook as another format alongside the formats I already offer (hardback, paperback, audio). If they require a book ordered in, I can offer delivery of a physical book in seven days or an instant download. If they are going on holiday and want to load up an eReader with ten books our staff can help them choose the titles and [offer technical assistance]. Our readers won't be ‘either/or’ and we will help them choose the right format for the right book and the right reading experience or reading occasion.”
Hell yeah. Online purchasing seems suddenly sad and anaemic in comparison, the quick and dirty option that you might endure to squeeze that 10% cheaper price, but not your preferred source.
That sounds like my kind of future.
Simon Groth is a writer and editor whose first two novels were shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. His co-edited collection Off The Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press (with Sean Sennett), was published in 2010.
Simon is the manager of if:book Australia, exploring digital futures for authors, readers, and publishers.