TeleRead posted earlier about an idea that was floated by Victoria Barnsley, a HarperCollins CEO, during a recent NPR interview: the idea of charging people for the privilege of browsing in bookstores. The idea was that they’d pay to browse, and then go home and order online from the vendor of their choosing.

The analogy Barnsley gave with this was that of a high-end clothing store—say, for wedding dresses—charging a nominal trying fee that is taken out of the cost of your purchase. But I think that analogy is a faulty one, and I think the true analogy demonstrates why ‘pay to browse’ will never work for bookstores.

Think of it this way: You can’t copyright ideas, right? You can only copyright specific expressions of them. So, I can talk as freely as I wish here on TeleRead about boys who are sent away to boarding schools to learn to be wizards, and JK Rowling can’t say boo. But if you readers want to read a Harry Potter book specifically, you have to get that from an authorized source.

So, to bring this back to the bookstores, here’s why it won’t work: Because the bookstore is the Harry Potter book. And the Internet is the general idea. People won’t pay to ‘browse,’ because they can do that online already.

No Stephen King fan isn’t going to know that a new book is out, regardless of whether he lives near a bookstore or not. He can discover that from the Amazon or Kobo new releases page, or from Goodreads, or Fantastic Fiction’s Stephen King page (which, like all their author pages, lists both published and upcoming releases), or from word of mouth from fellow Stephen King fans he might know. Of course, if this fan then wanted to buy the book, he’d have to go to a store for that. But he can do that online just as easily, too.

Now, granted, there will be some fans who value the ambiance of the bookstore, or have a relationship with the staff there, or it’s on their way home, or whatever. The specific expression of the general concept of ‘a bookstore’ that a consumer chooses may be a brick-and-mortar venue. But that won’t be the case for everyone. And the brick-and-mortar bookstore shouldn’t fool itself into thinking that consumers are choosing it because they wouldn’t otherwise learn about a particular book.


  1. I never buy paper books any more, only ebooks. However, I still go to my local big box book store, about once a month, to look for books that I might like to buy. I am not, however, looking for best sellers or recent releases by authors that are already on my “buy” list. As you say, I already know about these books.

    I go to the bricks and mortar store to look for new books by authors I have never heard of. For example, I discovered Carrie Vaughn (Kitty And The Midnight Hour) and Naomi Novik (His Majesty’s Dragon) at the bookstore, and then I went home and bought them as ebooks, online. These authors are better known now, but at the time that their first books came out, I had never heard of them.

    So far, I have not found an online way to replicate browsing the shelves in a bookstore and picking out something new and surprising because of the cover or the title. When I find such a system online, I will use it. Until then, I will continue to go to physical bookstores to look at the books. And yes, I am willing to pay a nominal amount to do this.

    (Actually, that would be a good topic to explore here at Teleread. Which book recommendation services do you and other people use to find new authors that you have never heard of before?)

    In reading the comments on the earlier post, however, it seems that I am in the very small minority. Most people (or at least most Teleread people) won’t pay for the privilege of showrooming in bookstores. The idea, therefore, is doomed to failure because: it would cost a lot to implement (collecting money at the door, etc,); it would drive away many spontaneous customers, who might for example duck into a bookstore to avoid a rain shower but who would buy a book; and it would really annoy the store’s regular customers.

  2. Cross posting this from the other thread and expanding comments.

    This does already work at least in the US. Sams Clubs, Costco and other warehouse type stores have memberships. You pay for the privilege to go in and browse. If you buy something you typically save enough in price to make up the cost of the membership fee.

    Turning this focus to the book world you would need to be a bigger store with thin but broad inventory. Provide kiosks or Wi-Fi for customers to buy the ebook from your own portal (even if only an Amazon Affiliate type of setup) as well as shipping on physical purchases to those who need it. Refund the membership fee once purchases are over X dollars.

    The point that we both agree on is that it is the staff that makes or breaks the idea. With the right people to manage inventory or be able to provide assistance or recommendations as needed it would be worth it to pay to visit and get help.

    Of course you can do almost all of this for free right now at your local public library. But with our funding being in peril every budget the private sector could pick up on this and make it work.

    For finding new reading material I use three of the four options available to me on a regular basis.

    Amazon recommendations based on previous purchases
    Goodreads recommendations by people I am connected with there
    Following up on links posted in discussion threads (found a book on ebook design this morning that way here on Teleread)

    The last one that I almost never actually use is my own job. I work in a library but I have so much reading material available to me I tend to be the one recommending to others rather than receiving from them.


  3. The reason stores like Costco work though is the discount on all goods sold is so significant that the fee is worth it. The margin on books is small enough already that I don’t see them being able to offer that. Personally, I get recommendation from Amazon and Goodreads, and also from perusing the new releases at the library or bookstore websites. When I do go into a physical bookstore, it’s more because I am killing time on my way somewhere (it’s right by the subway; I have an app that tells me when the bus will be there, so if it is going to be a long wait, I’ll go to the plaza for a bit). Sometimes I do discover new books in there, but I am as likely to discover them online these days.

  4. Oh, there is no real question of this brain-dead idea ever being implemented.
    Simply put: the core reason why bookstores are under stress is that they are facing declining customer traffic, leading to reduced sales.
    Anything that in any way restricts and reduces traffic will be de-facto suicide.
    Calling it a cover charge, book club, or whatever isn’t going to make a difference; any kind of friction at the entrance to a bookstore will be met with a shrug and a trip to Costco, Walmart, or the nearest PC, Tablet, or smartphone screen.

    One more time, people: there is no meaningful shortage of channels for pbook buyers. What we are seeing is a growing shortage of mass-market buyers.
    All the angsting over lost shelf-space or showrooming is just nostalgic pining for an age 20 years gone.

    The entire B&N chain could vanish tomorrow and the publishing world would roll merrily along. There might even be dancing in the streets in front of the 5000 indie bookstores. 😉

  5. You are looking at this only from the standpoint of fiction/casual reading.

    As a software engineer, technical books are a necessity. Very often, I have needed to figure out how to do a very specific thing in a lot of detail and web research isn’t enough. Trying to find the exact book that addresses the specific problem I need to solve is tricky and often can only be done by looking at a book hands on. Seeing a table of contents and a sample chapter won’t cut it. I need to look at a specific chapter and see the types of coding examples that are offered to know whether the book will just gloss over what I need to know or will cover it in detail. Because technical books are also very expensive, I can’t just buy a bunch of books hoping that one will cover it. I need hands on experience. Also, because technical books are expensive, they also tend to be the type of books people browse for at brick and mortar stores but buy online at the cheapest price they can find.

    Buy and return until I find something that works would take too long and probably put me on a suspicious purchasing behavior list, not to mention be a pain. Libraries don’t often have the latest editions of technical books available (they are so many and they all go out of date extremely quickly) – although maybe they could adapt themselves to fill this need.

    I assume professionals in other fields also have this need to examine a book in person before deciding if it meets their needs. The pay to browse idea may not fly with fiction readers – myself included. But if it caters to a technical and professional crowd, it might have appeal. I do know that if bookstores went away, while my fiction reading wouldn’t be disrupted, my professional habits would be thrown into turmoil.

  6. The problem is, mass market fiction is what pays the bills at the big bookstore chains that everybody frets about.
    Without mass market fiction the store won’t be open for the specialty buyers of technical books or the coffee table books or the art books or all the other unique niches that might require “hands-on inspection”.
    Anything that reduces mass market sales is poison.

  7. February 13, 9:50 pm
    The Idea will not work! I’m an author/Publisher/self-Publisher: this idea is a hard-sell to an author, as I have read all the legal documents – agreements
    and such!
    My work,
    can not have – advertisement that is “unsuited” on any page or Chapter of my work!
    You the reader – will not buy my e-book with an ‘ad’ (AD’S) on a page or chapter that is discerning, deceitful, or otherwise unappropriated to the content of my work!
    They say the E-Book is FREE , only when you are a “member to Download Books” at
    the same time they say that they will extract your library of e-books already stored on your computer to see what you are interested to read and to top that off they want you to agree to let them pass that information on to a (third – party) place a cookie on your Browser, track each page you read and what ad or ad’s you would click on in order to charge ( advertising – clients ) and when all is registered a Fee to the advertiser…
    will apply based on your click ( The Author will receive 3 cents per Chapter where an AD was clicked – Now that is some trick of a click? Not to
    mention the accurate book-keeping for all this and to accurately tally it all per book. Hum personally I would not sign that “Contract”

  8. I don’t think that the pay to browse approach will work either… but not because of the internet. I think it’s hard enough for B&N and other bookstores to get people into the stores already. Having a fee at the door makes it that much harder which, ultimately, defeats the purpose. That said, I think there’s a real problem. I’ve certainly gone to my local B&N, spotted a book, then went home and requested it from the library. B&N provided me a service, at a cost to them, yet received no compensation. While I haven’t figured out the answer (other than trying to buy stuff at my local B&N), I certainly recognize that there is a problem here. It’s easier to discover books I want to read by browsing the bookshelf at B&N than going to say Amazon (let alone the library website), yet once discovered, it’s often easier to buy somewhere else. If we pretend this isn’t a problem and don’t look for a solution, there won’t be any B&Ns for us to browse in (free or not) and readers and reading both suffer (Note: as a small publisher, my books don’t make the shelves of B&N. Discoverability is a huge problem for me and my authors and I’d love to find better discoverability solutions. That said, I think local bookstores are a wonderful thing and would hate to see them vanish).

    Rob Preece

  9. @Rob Preece: There is such a thing as a cost of business.
    (Not that shelf browsing costs them anything.)
    B&M stores are public places and as public places they get all sorts of… shall we say, non-standard behavior, from people popping in for a quick drink of water from the water cooler to an emergency bathroom stop to just plain killing time til the movie at the multiplex starts. (This being a family website I’ll not mention the more extreme stuff that can and does happen.)
    Entering a retail establishment does not entail an obligation to buy. You don’t even have to intend to buy. Window shopping and fantasizing is perfectly acceptable behavior everywhere but the snottiest of establishments.
    So you don’t have to feel guilty for browsing without buying.
    Now, if you were tying up a sales person trying to get pre-purchase support that’s a slightly different story. But even there you shouldn’t feel obligated to buy anything. Even at a used car dealer. 🙂

  10. Comparing browsing to how Costco and Sam’s Club run their memberships doesn’t work where I live. You can browse all you want at both places. Showing your card at the door just means the entry person won’t show you where the Customer Service station is to sign up. Just tell them you want to browse in order to see if you want a membership, and you’re free to go in and browse all you want.

    It’s only if you want to buy something that you need to get the membership card. Been there, decided not to bother with one and get a membership to the other. Let that membership lapse, re-browsed a few years later, and decided not worth the bother. Browsing is free.

    I wouldn’t pay to browse anywhere unless I could be certain I’d see something I couldn’t see anywhere else. The problem with BAM and B&N right now is that they carry the exact same stuff, such as recent releases and best sellers. I already know about those, I want to see some backlist stuff I haven’t seen before. I want to be able to get a whole series at once. I want to see books, only books, and lots of them in a way I can’t find anywhere else.

    I don’t want to go in and browse a small store that will only carry what everyone else is carrying, let alone pay a fee to find that out.

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