Can bookstores welcome the ebook customer?
July 9, 2011 | 1:01 pm
I’m writing this today from the coffee shop at a Borders, one of the superstore locations in the middle of the U.S. to survive the company’s recent bankruptcy and ensuing real estate culling. I was the first person in the store this morning, and in the past half hour nobody else has come in, which seems too bad: here are thousands upon thousands of books, comics, and magazines, and nobody to browse them.
John C. Malone, who wants to buy 70% of Barnes & Noble, told the New York Times earlier this week why he thinks bookstores still matter (emphasis mine):
“We believe that publishers like the existing physical bookstores, they like having a partner in distribution who lives and dies in the book business as opposed to just commoditizing it, which these other players do,” he said. “So I think you go into it with an edge in your relationship with the publishers.”
The thing that strikes me today about Borders, especially when compared to my recent visits to Barnes & Noble, is how little the company has warmly embraced ebooks. And I do mean “warmly,” not just setting up a little display and otherwise ignoring it, or worse, treating it as the enemy–both conditions apply to this Borders. If ebooks are a valid component of the book business, why do they barely register in a store that lives and dies by it?
I asked an employee if they had the Kobo Touch available, and he brought it out from the back. (He hadn’t had a chance to secure it to the display table yet.) We talked a little about ereaders. I told him I had a Kindle 3 and that I thought Nook and Kobo had finally trumped Amazon on the interface front.
That’s when he confessed, “I won’t buy an ereader at this point, I won’t even touch them. It’s a principle thing.” He was a really awesome, generous guy, but he was basically un-selling me on the device.
I don’t blame him for seeing sides and taking the one that more directly benefits him, especially after all the trouble his company has gone through. But it’s too bad that so many bookstores and booksellers remain grim at the idea of ebook sales. I mean, if I walked among the shelves here today and found a book I liked, I would want it in digital format, not print. I just don’t buy print books anymore. So why isn’t there an easy way for me to make that purchase right here in the store (without cheating and visiting Amazon on my smartphone)? Why can’t I bring the book to the register, tell the cashier I actually just want it as an ebook, pay for it it, and receive an email with a download link? Why am I, a potential customer, so problematic to sell to?
Or: why aren’t there more accessories for ebook devices for sale here today–cases, decals, lights, cards that represent warranty extension plans? I’m at a bookstore, and for all practical purposes my Kindle is my book. Maybe a competitor makes it, but that doesn’t mean Borders can’t sell accessories for it. It would be nice if everyone in this town who owns a Kindle thought of their local Borders, not Best Buy or any other brick and mortar store, as the place to shop for Kindle-related items. They might even buy some print books while in the store.
And maybe short-sighted executives are gumming up the purchase experience with overcomplicated DRM and proprietary platforms, but that doesn’t mean bookstores can’t create special kiosks or displays that feature titles from DRM-free, device-agnostic publishers, and sell digital copies of those books directly to shoppers, alongside print editions.
I love bookstores and want them to thrive. But I also want them to be relevant. I’ll probably buy something here before I leave today as a “get well soon” gesture for Borders, but right now I can honestly say there’s almost no reason for me–a heavy reader and frequent buyer of books–to ever step foot in one of its stores again. Amazon may have created the problem of the ebook customer, but it’s up to the bookstore to find a way to sell to him again.