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The scariest comment for booksellers that I have ever heard….

May 29, 2010

Last weekend I was attending my first study weekend for an MBA course that I have just started. In amongst the teaching, case studies and introductions was a session with the librarian, who took us through how to use the Stirling University Library facilities. Being a distance learning course, he focussed on how we could access the libraries online books, and with a throw away comment,  he added….

“As as University we buy nearly a million pounds worth of books, journals and reference works each year, and we try and and buy as few actual physical books as possible, we aim to get as many as we can as e-books”.

Most of the other students smiled and nodded, but I sat there as if the world had stopped around me and thought, “my world of bookselling has truly changed irrevocably”.

The implications of this quite logical step for the university are profound. Not only are they not buying physical books, which undermines the logistics of a viable booktrade, they are training a generation to read in ways which will change the face of bookselling. This e-learning generation will learn to default to ipads, kindles & netbooks as their preferred reading method. I’m not saying they won’t read physical books, and that won’t buy the physical books from bricks’n’mortar stores, but I believe that the nature of books and bookselling is changing more rapidly than we ever thought it would or could. As an aside, this is as scary for internet retailers as physical stores, because their primary purpose is to move actual rather than digital product.

As an avid user of the internet, I’ve always known, deep down, how this will change bookselling, but the starkness and reality hit me hard in that simple throwaway comment.

Bookstores will have to be simply exceptional to thrive, they will have to offer their customers an experience they enjoy so much, that they will choose to forgo the ease and price of online reading. This “being exceptional” will be different for different retailers, but will probably include a surprising breadth & depth of stock, being a specialist store, have deep community and customer relationships with loyalty schemes, a local distinctive, and a staff that are totally passionate about their store and the books they sell. These will be the basics, with other things like coffee, college bookstores, and new expressions of bookselling, having seen a really busy little bookshop in a market hall today,

and a mobile bookshop in my own town,  so I believe new types of bookshops will appear.

So what is important to the book trade now is “content” and “the customer”, because the rest of the book supply chain is imploding.

and yes, I will still be buying an ipad this week.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 6:39 pm

    A fascsinating blog post, Steve, and one I will be passing on to my colleagues at Blackwell’s.

  2. May 31, 2010 9:33 am

    Thanks Steve, you’ve just confirmed what alot of us as bricks’n mortar booksellers have thought would happen. It is true a whole generation of young people are growing up with online learning through internet browsing, social networks and blogs. This will inevitably lead onto e-books with the right hardware, the new ipad looks like being the right platform to read.
    So we as booksellers need to be specialists in our field as Christian booksellers to reach out to a shrinking market fof people who still relish in the paper format of a book.

  3. May 31, 2010 10:35 am

    Good post Steve – I think ‘scary’ is certainly the right word. Events are moving on more quickly than it seems possible to plan for at present. These could be either very ‘exciting’ times or as you say, ‘scary’ times. Not sure which, but I guess it depends where you sit on the spectrum.

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