Monday 10 December 2012

Reinventing the Bookshop for the Future of the Book

That Newsweek cover.
I got a Kindle recently. Yup. I admit it. I have crossed the digital divide. And yes, I LOVE it. Loved it so much that I downloaded a fortune's worth of books in the first week and I've read MORE since getting it than my normal. And my normal is A LOT.

But you know what? Getting a Kindle made me realize how much we need bookshops.

Yes the buying process is a doddle. But I only had to walk into my local Waterstones on Islington High Street to realize that shopping on a Kindle is a limited experience.

As a children's author, I've found myself working with children's bookshops - and in the process I've discovered that a bookstore is not just bricks and mortar with IKEA shelving. It's an engine delivering the right books to the right people. I haven't got the time to extoll all the virtues of children's booksellers so may I invite you to read this article from the Bookseller on the best of the best children's bookshops (but only after you've finished reading this blog).

Heads up! From tomorrow, watch out for our Christmas offering ... 12 days of treats for you

From 11 December 2012.

Anyway, getting a Kindle made me realize that an e-reader isn't a bookshop. The joy of book-buying (my bookbuying at least) is that wonderful spur of the ooooh, I'd like to read that moment.

Sure, Amazon suggests 'If you like this, you will like this', but honestly, walk into a bookshop and you realize what a limited palette Amazon is offering you. It's an algorithm. It's not what you need to stumble upon something magic.

I may be too geeky to resist a digital future, but I love books too much to allow bookshops to disappear from the face of the earth. My new Kindle had me scribbling down ideas for a blog post on how to re-invent the bookshop for the digital era. But I didn't really have the courage to post my thoughts - I mean, what do I know? I'm no retail expert.

Interestingly, indy publisher Foyles and the industry magazine The Bookseller have teamed up  to 'reimagine the bookshop'. You can read the article here.

Foyles calls on the crowd to reimagine a future
for the bookshop. Photo: Sarah McIntyre
In a nod to 'crowdsourcing' - the Foyles/Bookseller alliance is seeking input from both industry experts and customers on how to redesign the new Foyles flagship:
(We) need practical solutions to real-world problems: and this is what we'll achieve, in what is essentially a trade-wide initiative to re-invent and re-invigorate the high street bookshop, using this iconic London shop as the template. Philip Jones, Editor of The Bookseller

How cool is that? I would have put my name forward but I kind of heard of it too late and I hear they are inundated with people wanting to be part of the re-invention workshop event in February.

But for what it's worth - here are those thoughts from my notebook - I'm no expert and some of these probably sound ridiculous ... but that's okay. Ridiculous is always a good place to start.

1. Learn from Amazon?

 When Amazon realized that delivery charges created reluctant buyers, they delivered for free. And Amazon is selling Kindles at cost, knowing that it can make its money back in selling content. By giving the reader a venue, they created the need to buy. The browsing space is just the beginning for a reader.

Customers are reluctant to come to a bricks and mortar shop because they're so used to internet convenience and price. How can booksellers make it easy on a reader? find a point of convenience that would justify a price? Amazon's strategy is to take the hit of free delivery to maximise sales. Can publishers and bookshops sacrifice something, give something extra for free?

2. Sell Digital

The truth is I think my own print book buying is going to shrink dramatically, even though I'm an avid reader. I want the bookshop experience without having to march out laden with heavy bags. There's more than just the Kindle now. Ipads, Nooks, Kobos, smartphones. Waterstones are selling Kindles alongside books. But are they selling ebooks? Perhaps it's already in the mix - although I can't see how Waterstones can make money selling books for the Kindle in-shop given Amazon's dictat on pricing.

I imagine we're getting closer to the sales of over-the-counter ebooks and apps. Which means bookshops will have to invent an inhouse digital browsing experience that beats browsing at home. The Amazon browsing experience doesn't serve me nice surprises - perhaps bookshops can figure out a way to do that.

3. Learn from Tesco Express?

My shopping habits have changed. I used to do massive shops, driving every week to a supermarket with a huge car park. But now I find it simpler to grab a shopping bag and walk to the nearest express supermarket when the thought occurs to me. It's quicker, smaller, not such a big song and dance. Maybe my attention span has shrunk like everyone else's in this digital world. I don't have the patience to invest big chunks of my time. My impulse shopping seems to happen online. It's so easy to click and buy that weird little lamp that turns out to be half the size and double the brightness.

Palatial bookstores had a place in the Old World where information was not on a superhighway. Perhaps the new bookstore should be more of an express shop, a small curated space targeted at opportunity shoppers. I might pop into the cookbook kiosk in the Nag's Head Shopping Centre to search the screen for recipes using Hungarian sausages. Pick the cookbook, zap it into my phone and off I go. Or I might use the e-Vending Machine at Heathrow to download a guidebook to Tanzania.

Web designers like me often talk about discoverability. How can I design a website that will be discovered in the big soup of websites on the internet? Books have the same problem. There are so many, how can you discover the one book you would like to read? Perhaps smaller, specialist outlets will do the trick? Is small more discoverable?

4. Cater to the Culture of Free.

It's one of the byproducts of the Internet. This expectation that most digital things are free because they're ... well, digital.

Publishers and bookseller should view this as the opportunity - the culture of free is the crooked finger inviting the reader into the store. Exclusive! A free download of short stories for ever copy of *Famous Author*'s book! Free access to playlist of music from *Famous Musician's* biography with every copy of book! And so on.

5. Reputation Matters.

Everybody's publishing. Which means there's a lot of rubbish out there. Publishers and booksellers must realize that they have reputations to parlay in this game and not be drawn into the free for all of disposable publishing. People don't like reading crap. They still rely on the Publisher/Bookseller to filter out all the dross.  So it's important for the industry to maintain the quality of its offerings.

6. Sell the culture.

Working with  children's booksellers, I'm full of admiration. Not only are they immersed in the literature they sell, they understand literacy and everything that goes with it - the keystages, the phonics, the reading schemes, everything. Looking at the imaginative festivals and events they create, it feels like they are not just retailers but even organizers. It's an example to the rest of the bookselling world.

That's it. That's what I've been scribbling in my notebook and I apologize in advance if they seem ignorant and totally uninformed. They're just the thoughts of someone who has discovered that the Kindle for all its joys, could never replace a bookshop.

Saving our literary heritage? There's no app for that.


  1. Candy, you have some awesome ideas! I don't want bookstores to disappear either, but I'm running out of room in my apartment for my books. Going digital for at least some of my library is just practical.

    1. Colleen the Kindle has been a relief from back ache. I no longer have to trudge everywhere with a backpack full of books! (I carry so many just in case I feel the need to read a certain book. Having said that, I did spend a lot of money buying ebooks that I already owned on the shelf)

  2. There are some great ideas in your post. I have an e-book reader and I love it.
    I would add that publishers should make the most of what makes a physical book different to an ebook.
    I saw some children's books from the Victorian era that I imagine would have been expensive to produce and therefore to buy. But they were works of art, I had to restrain myself (given their age and possible fragility) from touching them too much. The illustrations were wonderful in their own right, the paper and bindings of high quality and the whole thing lovingly put together. To produce that kind of book today might put it out of reach price-wise for many people but perhaps that is where libraries (in addition to bookshops) might come in.

  3. So right, Amanda. When I saw the hardback of A Monster Calls with Jim Kay's amazing illustrations I realized that digital is going to push print publishing into higher realms. Print is not disposable or deletable and perhaps this is where it's going. Back to the illuminated manuscript!

    1. I meant to mention Tall Story - the hardback is beautiful and very strokeable. I've seen elsewhere that David Fickling uses the term DidgyFizzy (I think I got that right!) perhaps to stress the equal importance of digital and physical formats for books.

  4. I do love bookshops but I also find them a bit overwhelming - so much choice! I tend to go for recommendations anyway so buying online is simpler for me, especially as my nearest bookshop is half an hour away and I avoid shopping if at all possible.
    But I used to love Borders, the sort of bookshop that you can stay in, have a cup of coffee and sit with a pile of books and browse them - a relaxed book experience, not a frantic shopping experience. Waterstones ordering annoys me - yes you can order the book in store but you have to pick it up in store, this adds £5 travel expenses to the cost of the book, so the solution is - go home and order it from Amazon. Why can't Waterstones just deliver it to me? Do they still do it that way?
    What about offering a delivery service so you don't have to carry piles of books if you don't want to?
    What about more events, not just signings - give the readers a reason to go to the book shop.
    And knowledgeable staff is vital.
    Will now read the other articles, where they've probably made all of my suggestions already.

    1. Yeah - when you read the article about children's booksellers you'll realize they're practically events organizers as well!

  5. I agree that bookshops need to do something to add to the customer experience if they want to compete with the internet. But I think Amazon's "People who bought this also bought that feature" is excellent. It's helped me find the most amazing books - books I would never have found in a bricks and mortar shop because they wouldn't normally be in stock. It's also the feature I miss most in bookshops, especially when the book I had in mind is out of stock.

    1. I'm not dissing it - it's a great feature. But it offers more of the same and I was reflecting on how the experience of a bookshop is much wider and surprising.

  6. Reading the replies - it's clear that booksellers have a big fight on their hands. How will they ever compete with the ease and convenience of the ebook? And what about us book lovers? Is it really that easy for us to turn our backs on print? Here's a Techland article from someeone who claims to have come to terms with 'the feeling of betraying the world of physical books that have been such a big part of my life for 50 years'. All very well, but it's not going to help the survival of the bookshop.

  7. Such an interesting discussion and great points made!

    I'm also a recent convert to Kindle (for the iPad). But for me, what's also driving me to e-books is the fact that I can get books in English without having to pay for shipping - not to mention not having to wait for the delivery. Having lived abroad for the past 17 years (in non-English speaking countries) I have generally relied on poorly-stocked local libraries or (painfully) paid the high prices at local bookshops or delivery from Amazon. So e-books represent a nice cost-savings for me. And, after so many international moves, I finally had to get rid of nearly half of my books.

    Yet, while I love these advantages, I feel guilty -- contributing to the demise of books (and book stores) which I so love and watching my bookshelves dwindle. It's no wonder that bookstores are shape-shifting into cafes and giftshops in an effort to retain store traffic.

    1. I don't think the argument is about ebooks or print books any longer. And I think bookshops should be looking at how they can retail ebooks onsite by adding value - and the main value I myself experience in a bookshop are serendipitous encounters with books that I could not possibly otherwise discover via the Amazon algorithms which are based on my usage. I'm surprised this Christmas not to find bookshops selling ebook tokens within mini-taster versions.

  8. I think the digital book has its place no doubt. But i also feel from what i have seen, it suits the books that people may only read once, or aren't that overly interested in keeping for a long time. (could totally be wrong though!).
    But if you want to buy a book, wrap it and give as a gift, have the author sign it, or inscribe it (by you or the author), have as a collectable, place on the shelf for future generations (especially true of rare, collectable books), then i think the old paper book is the way!
    You can't really do that on digital copies?

    I know postage is a downer, but it is part of the convenience online, so you either drive and pay petrol and time, or you do it online and pay someone else to deliver for you, it is a cost no-one wants to pay, but it is there unfortunately one way or another.

    Our sites specialize in Australian History subjects, and only sell paper books, with no intention of going digital. Maybe in the future we will be one of few on a deserted island of paper-booksellers only, but that is OK.

    As you mentioned, when you walk into a bookstore, you get a feeling when walking around, you can't get digitally ( i don't think!).


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