Sunday, November 23, 2008

Problem-Solving Sundays .... the future of Chain Bookstores

Who better than speculative fiction authors and a few romantics with their heads in the stars (and the warp drive) to set the world to rights?

So, I thought I'd float a trial balloon here.

Have you ever seen a problem, and had an idea for a fix, but no one to tell? Moreover, your idea wouldn't fit into any science fiction or fantasy work you have in progress? If so, please comment. I'm looking for some guest blogs to put up over December/January.

Bricks and Mortar Chain Bookstores

I'd like to sort out the bricks and mortar book chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble, Borders. They've become glorified warehouses with a few comfy chairs, a coffeeshop, and soft toys and confectionery. While it isn't impossible to find any book that ought to be in stock, many books might as well not be there. They're at ankle level, or you get a crick in your neck looking up; they're spine out and jammed together. If they're autographed, no one can tell.

Honestly, my local Borders Books is like a really bad website. A booklover has to know what he or she wants before he or she goes there, and the chances of being distracted or frustrated and leaving without buying are quite high.

My local library is much more welcoming. At least, I'm allowed to use the computers to help me find what I'm looking for.


Barnes and Noble,, Amazon (not that Amazon counts), Borders. Books-A-Million all have websites and online stores. Some offer book clubs. Some offer discussions and forums and book-related social networking. Some are well done, and some are not very easy to navigate.

The only problem with buying a book on the internet is that you have to wait until and while it ships, and you may have to pay postage (and even tax). The advantage of your local chain bookstore is that you don't pay postage, you get your book immediately as long as it is in stock, and you can read as much of it as you wish to make sure you've a good chance of enjoying it.

So here is what I envisage as the future of chain bookstores:

Barnes and Noble (et alia) as a book-related internet cafe! (Warehouse attached).

I foresee lots of chained-down, but free-to-use computers all around the perimeter, and in a central reservation, too. I mean LOTS!

Booklovers would go to a comfy captain's chair, log in with their Barnes and Noble card number (or not), check their own emails (because we all do, don't we?), then migrate to the B&N bookclub and bookstore online...

Or, they'd simply type in the name of their favorite author, or the title of the book they want, and call up covers, back cover blurb, first chapter, last page, author's blog, author's website, author's booklist, book-trailers, reviews... all that useful stuff.

Of course, this could be done from home, too, in the same way that we can buy a flash drive at a compelling price online from Circuit City, then drive fifteen miles to the nearest participating store to pick it up.

Books could be sorted by subgenre. Award-winning, humorous futuristic Romances with plus-size psychic heroines (such as Insufficient Mating Material) could be virtually "shelved" in all six categories.

Book store patrons would choose, click, discover where the book was shelved (or else, they'd order it from the comfort of where they were sitting and a bookseller would fetch it from the stacks and have it waiting at checkout), pay online, then maybe finish their beverage, check their email again; pick up their purchase, and leave.

Local authors might take advantage of the facilities and actually write in the bookstores. (And be available to autograph books on site). Virtual signings could be a snap.

Anyone with a power outage or ISP downtime (or unpaid cable bill) could use the bookstore computers. What a service!

It could take book related social networking to a new level. Hey, the bookstore might replace the bar, though nothing could ever replace Linnea Sinclair's Intergalactic Bar and Grille.

What do you think?
What's your beef? And what's your solution?

Rowena Cherry


  1. Here, far below, is a link to a blog entry from a publishing insider describing what's going on (faster than we can get news) inside book distribution.

    This post does not discuss how publishers operate almost entirely on borrowed money, on credit, which is now not available at prices a low-margin business can pay. There's a lot more going on than just October returns.

    The comments are interesting - mostly by book-buyers who don't seem to understand how RARE a breed they are.

    Here's a comment from a publishing insider:

    Like the U.S. auto industry, I'm sorry to say the traditional publishing industry as we know it IS in danger of collapse, but only if it continues to cling to its obsolete ways.

    Andrew Chapman


    Note also all the blogs that linked TO this blog -- and they have a lot to say countering this information and/or adding to it.

    The world is changing FAST and the fiction delivery system is changing even faster.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. I worked for B & N about ten years ago. At the time they said that the future of brick & mortar stores was a few brand name best sellers, misc merchandise, and a cafe with terminals where people would shop for books that would be printed on demand, in the bookstore's back room when a shopper ordered one. They though that would happen in about five or six years. I'm still waiting

  3. Mfitz,

    Thank you for your comment. It seems that I make a habit of independently thinking of things that others have already thought of!

    I don't think POD in the back room is viable, and I very much doubt that a booklover would wait that long for a book. Imagine the hot glue! LOL. That really puts a new spin on "hot off the press."

    As an author, I'd be very concerned about individual bookstores having the right to POD my book. It's bad enough that Amazon can. Imagine the trust. Imagine the record keeping!

    Now, if the individual store could upload a book to an e-reader, that might make sense...


  4. Rowena,

    The vision of the bookstore with a book printer in the back room is actually an interesting problem in Worldbuilding.

    It is founded on assumptions. And one big assumption is that readers will never change their media usage.

    We've all seen that statement against e-books, "But I love the smell of old books." The feel of a "book" is a sensory CUE that says PLEASURE.

    But it's not that way for those raised in the electronic era. For them, "books" are words on a screen WITH COLORED MOVING PICTURES AND SOUND.

    "Books" you can set on your ipod and have them "read aloud" to you while you drive or work.

    So the vision of POD machines in the back room was based on the idea that READERS want to hold PAPER.

    Those who want paper are dying off (too fast to suit me) -- and those who want SCREENS (with colored moving pictures) are a burgeoning mass. (hence the popularity of the new teen vamp movie)

    And many libraries already have download kiosks where you can "borrow" an e-book for free -- and the file expires in a couple weeks like a library book.

    If you are going to do futurology using human beings, you have to figure on the nearly infinite flexibility of YOUNG people and the total inflexibility of OLD people.

    As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. (yeah, I love cliches)

    So we are fast approaching a point where the mechanism of paper-book delivery is too cumbersome and expensive for the shrinking market of buyers who demand paper.

    It's also unethical. Paper is not "green" enough, and transporting it is really black.

    Forces are lining up against printed books. This recession may not see the END of the printed book, but it will set up conditions to make paper publishing more vulnerable to the next tidal wave.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Jacqueline said:

    "So we are fast approaching a point where the mechanism of paper-book delivery is too cumbersome and expensive for the shrinking market of buyers who demand paper."

    I wouldn't be so demanding about paper if I had confidence in the durability of electronic books. I'm building a personal library here, darn it, and I want to still be able to use it in 20 years.

  6. Mary K

    Yes, absolutely -- building a library for your grandchildren at least - if not great-grandchildren!

    As I said in other comments, there is a massive disconnect between the purposes of industry moguls and end-users.

    We see it in our antiquated automotive industry, in publishing, and in TECH too.

    "They" want speedy change, turnover, buy a new blackberry every 2 years, -- techies see data as ephemeral.

    "We" want to reap the reward of our investment over 50, 100, 3,000 years! We want everything we buy to last a very long time -- the more expensive it is the longer it has to last, and NOT become obsolete, not become unreadable.

    We are writers. Our words are for the ages. "File Type Unknown" is not acceptable!

    We are at cross purposes with the facilitators of our medium of delivery.

    Turbulent meltdown times like these provide the opportunity to fix that.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  7. From today's headline statistics:

    Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending plunged by 1 percent in October, even worse than the 0.9 percent decline that had been expected. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg