Nathan Bransford posed an interesting question on his blog Wednesday. Prompted by the changes Borders was implementing, he asked which way the industry was headed.
The comments that followed fell into predictable categories: those waxing eloquent about the experience of visiting a bookstore, those who admit that they find the convenience of on-line shopping a plus, a few who acknowledge immediacy is important and the occasional mention of price. Several people commented that bookstores would always survive because they provide customer service.
Here are my predictions together with my reasons:
1) The niche market specializing in mysteries, sci-fi, children's books, etc. will move entirely to the Internet. Why? Geography and economics. Even when the store is located in a large city, where presumably there are enough customers interested in that niche, the buyer must travel to one location. There he finds that the store, burdened by bricks-and-mortar overhead, cannot match the deep discounts offered elsewhere by retailers doing larger volume business.
It makes more business sense for that bookseller to operate online from his home with much lower overhead and where his customers are only a click away. He can still offer his expertise and service, but now he isn't competing on price or geographic convenience. He's offering a home to the niche buyers. If he's smart, he'll provide an online community for those niche buyers (widely separated by space) to chat about books and authors
2) The big box stores like Wal-Mart will continue to skim the cream off the top by offering best-sellers at deep discounts. These stores can make a profit on a very narrow margin because of the enormous volume of their sales.
Wal-Mart is engaged in an aggressive expansion program, putting a store within a mile or two of every American consumer. Rather than expanding booksales to more English mid-list books, I predict Wal-Mart will concentrate on providing best-sellers in foreign languages--whatever language is predominate in the local population that immediately surrounds a specific store (Hispanic, Indian, Asian).
3) The large bookchains are going to have to re-invent themselves. People who sing the praises of browsing are not necessarily people who purchase books. They may buy a cappuccino while reading the latest issue of Vogue, but that doesn't necessarily translate into book sales.
I predict the large chains will begin to focus on book-related events for which a customer must pay--either by joining an exclusive club or by straight ticket sales. I'd probably be willing to pay $35 to $45 for a guaranteed seat to hear Lee Child or Jim Butcher speak, including an autographed copy of their newest releases.
Community will be the key word here. While I talked about virtual communities for niche markets above, here the focus will be on real communities for broader markets. The chains could help set up bookclubs or writing groups and provide space for those groups to meet. Writers would be willing to pay for workshops.
Eventually, the chain bookstores will move into the used market (as e-books grow in popularity).
4) The universe of electronic books will continue to grow, but that growth will be directly related to newer generations of e-reading devices coming on the market. As those devices become more sophisticated and less expensive, this market will explode.
Check back with me in two years, and we'll see how close I came to the mark.