I hope she’s right

I am one of those anxiously watching to see how battle for the retail book business is going to shake out. It’s hard to choose a favorite when the two combatants are Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’m not generally a big fan of large, national chains. I’d prefer to go with the little guy. But I have to admit that “books” is just too wide a category for any one small store to keep me happy. So I’d have to throw in with Barnes & Noble as the next best option, even though I do enjoy the ease of buying from Amazon.

But Virginia Postrel makes a strong point in her recent article on Bloomberg.com: Buying books is a serendipity experience, and something that online sellers have yet to really master:

Online discovery — including everything from Twitter recommendations to authors’ Pinterest boards to Amazon pages –is growing, but it hasn’t kept up with online sales. People still seem more likely to buy books if they’ve had a chance to flip through physical copies.     “Something is seriously missing with online retail discovery. It’s not working,” Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder and CEO of Codex told the Digital Book World Conference and Expo in January.

As someone who bought a four-book volume of Jane Austen when it caught my eye while in Barnes & Noble for something else entirely, I know the power of serendipity shopping. Postrel also feels that the “try-before-you-buy” aspect of physical bookstores is also an advantage Amazon can’t duplicate. She also offers her free advice on how the Barnes & Noble model can be tweaked to take advantage of these aspects. I can’t say I agree with her (for example, charging a “cover-charge” or membership), but at least she’s thinking. My greatest fear for the physical retail bookseller is that they will continue on with “more of the same” instead of innovating their way back into contention.

One innovative option I’ve heard before is to push development of “Print-On-Demand”, or POD. With this technology–currently available, though not yet “kiosk viable”–consumers can set a book, or select short stories/novellas to include in a book, and have it printed and bound right there. Many places do this online already; you choose and pay, they print it and ship it to you. POD would allow bookstores to “carry” a much broader inventory with less floor space, and the customer still can get instant gratification instead of waiting several days for Amazon to ship it.

POD is not yet ready for prime time, but it won’t take long. The question is whether or not Barnes & Noble will still be around by then. I certainly hope so. Nearly all of my best book-buying memories are from physical bookstores. I don’t get the same satisfaction from buying online. I haven’t met any authors through Amazon. I haven’t happened to be on Amazon one day when an author was there and do got my book signed. I haven’t had experiences where Amazon treats my children especially nicely, convincing me (and them) that a given author is the cat’s pajamas.

Books are so much more than blocks of wood to me. I appreciate that Amazon can find even the most obscure blocks of wood for me, but there is no doubt they are just blocks of wood to them. They’re largely blocks of wood to Barnes & Noble, too, but at least Barnes & Noble cares about my experience with that block of wood. And when I don’t know what particular block of wood I’m looking for, you can’t beat the ability to browse a shelf full of books to see what catches your eye.

In the Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble war I’m siding with Barnes & Noble. But it’s going to take much more than my support, unfortunately.

4 thoughts on “I hope she’s right”

    1. Emma now has a goal to save up enough to buy her own copy of The Lord of the Rings in hardback to make sure she has one before they stop printing books.

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