bookstoreI’d bookmarked several articles this week waxing philosophical about the fate of the bookstore, and it seems I am not the only one who noticed this trend: Laura Hazard Owen did a nice round-up for GigaOM summarizing the contributions from some main players.

Joseph Esposito, Mike Shatzkin and Seth Godin all approach the book issue from different vantage points (Esposito and Shatzkin are cunsultants, Godin is an author) but reach a few similar conclusions, about the move to e-books (inevitable, whether welcome or not) and the shift to purchasing online versus purchasing in stores. Godin seems a little more sentimental and hopes that the indie stores can make themselves relevant as community hubs and gift vendors.

But what all three of these articles missed is, for me, what turns out to be the central argument in this whole debate. The bookstores will fail not because of books but because of customers. And it’s the publishers they can blame for poaching them away.

Let me explain further.

Under the old ecosystem, the supply chain was clear: Publishers sold to the distributors, distributors sold to the bookstores, and then bookstores sold to the customers. And now? Publishers are struggling with a model where they at times have to deal with the customers directly. And in some cases, authors are selling to people directly without any middlemen at all!

We’ve been going through some Business 101 in my house lately because someone we know is starting a business, and one of the first questions we talked about was ‘Who is your ideal customer?’ If you can’t answer that question clearly, you won’t know who to market to, and you won’t know how to get that person snared in. This is the problem bookstores are having. The publishers are increasingly marketing to the reader directly. So where does that leave the bookstore now? In this new scenario, who, exactly, is their ideal customer?