Books, it appears, are following the path of the music industry and going digital. Earlier this week Amazon’s announced that it sold more Kindle books than hardcover books “including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition.” This announcement caused some to predict the demise of bookstores. While I don’t believe eBooks will be the end bookstores or physical books, I do think the number of printed books and bookstores will be cut in half or more in the next decade as eBooks increase in popularity.
Were I a bookstore owner, I’d be worried about the future of my business and be working on ways to entice people to come into my store even if they love their Kindle and eBooks. So I was a little surprised at the arrogant and condescending tone of The King’s English co-owner and co-founder, Betsy Burton, when asked by a local television station about the increasing popularity of eBooks.
“Book-buyers, real readers, are going to pretty much stick with books, at least for the majority," [Burton] says. "I think that readers are very passionate about the physical book and care very deeply about it."
Burton says locally-owned bookstores will have the same role as always, which is controlling content. For example, identifying which books everyone should be reading.
“Real readers” only read physical books? Really? Everyone I know who owns an e-reader is a voracious reader. Belittling them into second class readers isn’t the best way to entice them or others into your bookstore. They care just as much about digital copies as they do physical ones. Burton’s attitude is reminiscent of music industry executives who smugly dismissed the rising popularity of digital music 15 years ago.
Her idea that a bookstore’s job is to “control content” is laughable and a tad scary. Burton may be a fountain of knowledge when it comes to knowing what books are a cut above the rest, but it’s not her job to “control content” especially when the Internet has democratized information and made content controllers like herself increasingly irrelevant. Instead she should be figuring out what’s selling well and different ways to entice people into her store instead of shopping at Barnes & Noble or buying an eBook from Amazon.
For the record, I don’t own a Kindle or other e-reader mostly because I’ve never had the chance to try one for an extended period of time. I can’t justify plunking down $189 unless I’ve tried to read a good portion of a book on one and make sure it’s something that my sometime-sensitive eyes will tolerate. However, I can see many advantages to owning one and have heard nothing but positive things from friends and coworkers who own one. The temptation to buy one and go digital is very, very high.
Both chain and independent bookstores looking to stay in business in an increasing digital book world need to do more than just sell books. They need to become destinations for readers and storytellers where fans can meet and mingle with authors, socialize with other readers who like similar genres, and or offering book clubs a place to talk about their stories. Without a radical transformation in the way they do business, bookstores like The King’s English will suffer the same fate as many music sellers.
And Betsy, as soon as I find a publisher for The Third, I’m more than happy to help your bookstore out by doing a signing, doing joint events with authors, or talking to local books clubs about it at your store. I want to see bookstores like yours to succeed. However, the old bookstore business model that you’re advocating simply doesn’t work in an increasingly digital world.