Changing Reading Habits, Changing Bookstores, or How Soon is Now?

August 4th, 2009 · 18 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

If you are a regular reader of Shelf Awareness (and if you’re not, you should be!), you know about the steady drumbeat of bookstores closing. You also know about the rising chorus from booksellers who are changing, adapting, growing, and understanding their place in the larger community.

I am really lucky: I have two branches of an independent bookstore within comfortable distance of my house (the venerable Vromans). Sprinkled throughout my neighborhood are specialist bookstores. One is devoted to theology, one is devoted to cookbooks. Once upon a time, we had two stores focused on mystery and crime fiction, they merged into one. I don’t know what happened to them — they disappeared during our remodel, something we didn’t realize until we moved back into the house.

What all these bookstores have in common is community. Vromans, of course, serves the larger Pasadena (and beyond) community. It sucks us in with a mix of books, events, gifts, and location. The main store is part of a vibrant neighborhood, appealing to different audiences in different ways. The niche stores appeal to very specific audiences (note: walking by a cookbook store when hungry frequently has the unintended consequence of a meal at the Lebanese restaurant next. It’s like they planned it!).

Last week, Bowker released what was billed as a first consumer-focused research report for the book industry. Did your eyebrows go up when you read that? The first? Like, uh, has anybody ever thought to figure out what the people want before this? The mind boggles.

In addition to noting such things as women buying the majority of books, the survey notes that men account for 55% of ebook purchases (this makes sense once you factor in non-fiction). The survey also notes that ebooks and ereaders are growing trends, “bright spots” in the industry.

Following that report (a mere $999!) came a Forrester study on the changing demographics of ebook readers. While I take offense at the “less tech optimistic” notion (mostly because I Have No Idea What That Means!), it points to something I’ve been saying, well, forever: the digital customer is female.

So let’s put these two things together: women buy a whopping 65% of the books sold in the United States (according to Bowker), and women are a rising force in the ebook market, where they already comprise 45% of purchases (Bowker and Forrester). These two trends will have a huge impact on bookstores. Especially independent bookstores.

Let me explain this a bit more. A good portion of that 65% encompasses genre fiction, yet independent bookstores have not traditionally embraced genre fiction, particularly romance. I’ve been impressed recently by those booksellers who have listened to readers and are working to accommodate a large book-buying audience. Think about it: doesn’t it make sense to entice these customers.

(If Vromans were ever to ask me, I’d note that their romance section is, to use a technical term, “meh”. Just enough to say they have the books, not enough to make the average consumer go out of her way to make a purchase.)

But appealing to this customer is more than increasing shelf space. It’s about giving the customer the format they want. Ebook sales are rising. Ereader adoption is rising. The bricks-and-mortar booksellers of the world may not realize it, but they have the potential to grab this market in a unique way: by offering serious and real competition to Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Let’s take the former first. As an online only store, Amazon loses on the customer contact perspective. As a retailer who has tied its ebook market to a single device, they lose on the flexibility issue. They win on price.

Barnes & Noble has the physical retail presence that Amazon doesn’t have, but it also loses on the device point. While the Plastic Logic reader is nice, it’s not a competitor for either the Kindle or the Sony Reader. B&N also doesn’t have the direct customer service feel you get at an independent bookstore. Like Amazon, though, they win on price.

Independent booksellers can come from behind in a few ways. But they’re going to need the book publishers to step up to the plate. In his recent article “A Fix on Anything” , Brian O’Leary notes that publishers have been weak when it comes to technical and managerial innovation, failing to own or promote changes in the marketplace. Right now is the time to affect serious change.

Where can booksellers lead? Customer service — there is a huge difference between poking around the Amazon website, hoping to stumble across something interesting, and behind hand-sold books by smart people. Adding digital to the mix just increases the possibility for sales (along with access to reasonably rapid, reasonably priced print-to-order capability — if the book needs to be mailed, the customer has shown he or she can wait a day or two). Portable formats are key here: the bookstores need to offer formats that can be loaded on a variety of devices.

Whether my purchase is made in-store via a kiosk/download/email or via the store’s website, I need to be able to read it. On my Kindle. On my Sony Reader. On my iPhone. On one of the devices I am sure to purchase in the near future, especially if the Apple tablet really happens and the husband falls prey to my (anticipated-to-be) endless whining until I get one.

And yes, booksellers are going to need a way to compete on the price. I’m sorry, but the competition is not the store down the street. The competition is global and easily accessible. I realize there is a fantasy in the industry about prices going up, but I’m not sure how this can be accomplished. So far, it’s not working, and unless the trend toward heavy discounts for print books suddenly abates, it’s going to be ever-harder to spin higher ebook prices.

Our collective move toward consuming digital media does not necessarily mean physical spaces will disappear. Even some stores who fail to innovate with the times (I’m thinking my local used cookbook store won’t be a digital leader!) will survive, if only because they serve a specific type of customer. Those who thrive and grow, however, will be the retailers who understand how to serve a customer who, increasingly, includes digital shopping, digital discovery, and digital consumption in their lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about change this year, and one thing is clear: it’s never good for an industry when the customer changes faster than the business model. Yet that’s what we’re seeing. Five years from now is not a reasonable timeline for change. Yesterday? Far better, especially if you’re one who believes that bookstores are important to our future!

File Under: The Future of Publishing

18 responses so far ↓

  • Jodi Schneider // Aug 5, 2009 at 5:30 am

    “While the Plastic Logic reader is nice, it’s not a competitor for either the Kindle or the Sony Reader.” Still haven’t seen a Plastic Logic reader (though I’m anxious to). I hope you’ll say more about this sometime. Is it the lack of one-click buying? Or…?

  • Rich Rennicks // Aug 5, 2009 at 5:33 am

    “it’s never good for an industry when the customer changes faster than the business model”

    You said it! I’m always hearing bookstores owners & managers make some joke about asking their younger staff members about ereaders & digital content, but those younger staff members are the ones who typically move on the fastest, and any interest or knowledge they have in digital content use is then lost or willfully ignored. That’s not the whole reason we’re slow to change as an industry, but it’s a contributing factor.

  • Ann Kingman // Aug 5, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Wow, Kassia, a so many things to think about, all crammed into one post!

    Genre fiction in bookstores: this is, of course, not a new problem, and it’s a self-sustaining death spiral. I would speculate that a large number of bookstore employees come from its customer base. If a store doesn’t have a good romance, scifi, or mystery section, the customers won’t come. And if the customers aren’t there, the potential employee pool is limited to those who don’t read in those genres. And not having employees who know the genres lead to lackluster sections.

    I do know of several stores who have experimente, especially with romance. They bring in titles. And the titles don’t sell. Why? First of all, because nobody who wanted those books knew that the store was now carrying them. People won’t know unless they are told.

    I’m hoping that many of these limitations can be overcome with the ease that stores can now communicate electronically with their customers *and* potential customers. Stores can reach out to genre aficionados to help choose the right books for the sections. Those aficionados can help spread the word that the store is serious in its dedication to said genre. And then word can spread, the store can leverage the community expertise and also recruit staff with knowledge in those area.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I agree with the death spiral, but I think (I know!) there are some really smart, creative booksellers out there. They’re the ones looking at their product mix, thinking, “Well, how can we reach out to new customers?” And your point about talking, talking, talking (in person, electronically, whatever works) is the key. I am inspired by the booksellers I’ve met over the past year or so (ah, Twitter, you are my best friend!), and whenever someone moans about the death of the bookstore, I think of the people I know who are getting it and making it happen. I don’t think this is a young person-old person thing; I think it’s a smart person thing.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Rich — Interesting thought about younger people moving on faster. I am not one who believes that techno-savvy is limited to the young. We see the adoption of and use of technology by all age groups. We joke around here that quite often the move is motivated by the need to accomplish a specific task or goal, but, hey, isn’t that what we all do?

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Jody — I’ve only seen the working prototype/model, but my biggest issue is the size. It’s more along the lines of a sheet of standard paper (maybe a little larger). Now I carry a huge purse plus bag on a regular basis, but size-wise, this seems awkward to me. I think it will be great in specific applications (business, education), but it’s a bit large for consumers. At least in my opinion.

  • Rich Rennicks // Aug 5, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Good points, Ann.

    Poor SF/F sections are a even bigger missed opportunity now that many stores are building up their graphic novel sections. There’s a lot of cross-over readers in that community, but poor selection in SF/F just makes them go elsewhere.

    With the current popularity of “paranormal romances” (which can include everything from Twilight to True Blood to the new Sophie Kinsella novel, Twenties Girl, to the Time Traveller’s Wife) it should be clear that romance appeals far beyond its section.

    Now that we’re at this point where so many books appear to slip between categories, I wonder if the old labels themselves are part of the problem?

  • J // Aug 5, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I am not disagreeing with you, but I do think one weak point in many of these discussions is the information gathering and buying habits of the sovereign consumer today. I don’t think publishers or independents are paying enough attention to the process in which a consumer goes about buying a book (regardless of format).

    I certainly never rely on what any salesperson tells me, smart or no (that could be a gender thing), but by the time I do go into a shop, I know what I want–I’ve done my homework.

    People are much more independent and self-reliant when it comes to discovering new products, with the sources for the information continues to expand (facebook, blogs, twitter, etc.), and they are more in the habit of relying on a multitude of communities to make their buying decisions. Where digital makes its mark is how seamlessly it can connect to the virtual communities, which are by and large supplanting the real world ones.

    So the tools that pave the way to that discovery is key. I think this is where there can be innovations and where the war is really fought–‘findability’ and those that make it easier to find what you want or even what your didn’t know you wanted, and get it moments later.

  • John Mesjak // Aug 5, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Great points, Kassia. I’ve been talking with some of my indie booksellers who are very eager to have some solution for ebooks in their stores.

    Two hurdles that stand in the way of a glorious future of ebooks served up in all formats by indie bookstores to their customers:
    1. Indie bookstores are, obviously, many independent stores. No one store will be able to mount a serious challenge to Amazon’s Kindle or B&N’s Plastic Reader. ABA has shown itself to be … on the slow side, shall we say … when it comes to embracing new technologies. Also, their pace at rolling out the Drupal hosted Indiebound sites for bookstores seems to be dragging.
    2. If I may paint them all with a very broad brush, I’ll say that most publishers seem to be terrified of piracy, and their dependency on DRM and limited choices in ebook formats seems to be holding back readily available downloads for sale by indie booksellers.

    I’d be much happier buying book/ebook combos if they were offered by publishers.

    I’d also like to not be screwed by publishers the way I’ve been screwed over the years by record labels: buy the vinyl! buy the CD! now buy the digital download!

    I’d like to see an option to download a legally licensed .zip file with multiple file formats: Kindle format, epub, pdf, etc. I bought the book. Why should it matter WHICH of my various devices I read it on?

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    John — You certainly hit a key point. I’ve had conversations with ABA people as well, and while I love them, they cannot dawdle on rolling out an ebook option for customers (my recommendation re: devices would be the Sony Reader, especially now that lower-priced units are being rolled out, because it’s the most format-flexible; plus, it can be linked easily to an in-store terminal/kiosk for direct downloads). I am going to be more strident in the future (I suspect!) about this because, frankly, ebooks are not new technology. And I do believe publishers must stop pretending the world they’ve lived in for decades will exist in the same manner tomorrow. It’s not helping booksellers or consumers!

    (I am going to keep my fingers quiet about the Drupal thing.)

    Publishers *are* terrified by piracy, but authors are also pushing the need for DRM (this is understandable if you’ve, as I’m sure you have!, paid attention to the constant fear mongering of the past decade; it’s hard to undo the message). However, as much as it’s employed, it simply doesn’t work. I really, really wish publishers would listen to real consumers on this point. I will not buy direct from at least one favorite publisher due to the DRM being employed (plus the fact that I have a hate-hate relationship with Adobe Digital Editions). In some ways, I’m being forced to shop at Amazon for these books. The other option, of course, being not buying them at all.

    I know of at least onepublisher who is looking at the multi-format bundles, and I think this is the great opportunity small press has over larger publishers. But that’s another post for another day!

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Justin — I don’t disagree with your assessment of consumer behavior. We come to new things in multiple ways. However — and I know I’m not just speaking for myself — there are consumers who need to be guided toward purchases because they don’t know exactly what it is they want, and then there are add-on consumers, people who can be talked into additional purchases (now I’m not saying that a good salesperson can get me to buy something I didn’t know I wanted, but, well, I don’t have to. History speaks for itself.). The key, in my mind, is making it easy no matter the direction taken by the consumer.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Rich/Ann — The SF/F argument is also well-taken! The genre customer is both willing to extend beyond the label and reads outside the genre. Win. Win. Labels are good, of course, and they make things easier to shelve, but sometimes mixing up the shelves leads to a different kind of discovery.

  • Anonymous // Aug 5, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    “Last week, Bowker released what was billed as a first consumer-focused research report for the book industry. Did your eyebrows go up when you read that? The first? Like, uh, has anybody ever thought to figure out what the people want before this? The mind boggles.”

    See, I told you! I wasn’t kidding. They don’t do market research, demographics, etc.

    I won’t be at all surprised if it’s the small presses who move the e-market along into the multi-format model, whereupon the bigger publishers, retailers and such will jump on. Where upon prices should fall. And yes, it should happen tomorrow, but it won’t. The magazines will move faster than the books.

  • KatG // Aug 5, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Oops, sorry, ended up Anonymous by accident. That’s my post above.

  • RKB // Aug 6, 2009 at 6:20 am

    I refuse to buy DRM ebooks.

    I also thought this was an interesting article about piracy and copyright.

  • Caitlin O'Sullivan // Aug 12, 2009 at 10:10 am

    KatG and Kassia – I also think the lack of research on readers is absolutely jaw-dropping. I wonder why this is – all I can think of is that either a) publishers don’t recognize that as their customer base grows, it’s more difficult to understand what that base wants or b) they’re scared of the cost of research/have no idea how to research what readers want.

    Do publishers honestly believe that they know what readers want, and they don’t need to ask the readers themselves? Anyone know?

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