There’s this thing that I do. We have a Borders in the next town over (it’s a very small town; we don’t deserve a big bookstore apparently), and I routinely drive over to browse the shelves, check out the new releases and window shop. It occurred to me today as I wandered the maze-like shelves that I hardly ever buy something in a real bookstore anymore. I bring a pen and notepad with me to jot down titles to a) get from the library or b) buy online. This got me meditating on how bookstores will survive in our increasingly digital world.
I don’t think they will —not, at least, in their current form. I mean, when it comes to making a choice on where to buy something, online almost always wins. For me, anyway. I was comparing prices on books between Borders and Amazon, and found an astonishing thing. The books were way more expensive in person than online – by a factor of five. So a book that Borders is asking $17 for I can get on Amazon for $11. This ratio of difference remains generally consistent – about a $4-7 difference. Hardcovers of only 150-200 pages run at a staggering $22 in Borders, but an asking price of $12 on Amazon. Why on earth would I be so stupid to get the book through Borders, then?
I’m not sure. The only real advantage to getting the book directly off a shelf is the physicality of the book. I can pick it up and look at it, rifle the pages, and I can walk out of the store with it immediately – no waiting for the book to be shipped. That’s basically it. And when considering the drawbacks, it’s a wonder Borders and physical bookstores haven’t tanked already. Here’s the drawbacks of buying in the store:
1. There have been countless other people pawing their way through your copy of the book, which results in damage to tight spines and crisp edges. (yeah, I look at that sort of thing. I’m weird. Sue me.)
2. Physical bookshelves limit my choices. I might go to the bookstore hoping to buy a few books I’d heard of somewhere else. But unless its Stephen King or James Patterson, odds are your books aren’t sitting there waiting for you. So you went to the store with the intention of buying one or two things, which they then don’t have, BUT you’re there to spend money, so you end up buying your fifth or sixth choice books. Has that ever happened to any of you? It happens to me all the time. Whereas, with Amazon I have a limitless selection of books, 90% of which would never find their way into a bookstore in the first place.
3. Physical bookstores incur more costs, which drives up their prices. So I can get one hardback for $22 bucks from Borders, or I can pay half that on Amazon, stick another book into my cart for $15 and qualify for super-saver shipping. So I get twice the produce for the same price, and pay no shipping.
To summarize this, I suppose when we walk into a bookstore what we’re really saying is, “I’d like to pay twice the money for less selections, all of which are more damaged from constant fingering.”
There are only two things that can happen in this situation. The bookstore can decrease its size, which will result in less stock. Less stock means that they must charge more per book to make their overhead. So decreasing the amount of books means increased pricing per book. That equals Amazon winning even more customers. The other option is to increase the selection of books and drop the price of each to compete with Amazon (and all online booksellers). This would be risky, since increasing stock also means cost increases. But lowered prices means more people buying. If the difference in price between a physical bookstore and online sellers was within a dollar or so, people would be much more likely to buy from the physical store. The advantage would be in the favor of the physical location; they get the book within a margin of the online price and they can start reading right away, and have a wider selection.
Will they do it? Probably not. It would, after all, make sense.