Bookstores, Nook, Video
Someone has figured out how to help readers find new authors. They’re called Amazon.com. If Barnes & Noble is so vital and valued by readers, then why aren’t they doing better? I think it’s because it’s a digital world now and brick & mortar belongs to the past. Barnes & Noble is valued more by legacy publishing than by anyone else, and when it falls, their power and influence will be half of what it is now.
Amazon is useless if you don’t already know what you want.
Then it’s odd that so many people manage to find things there. Best Seller lists, Popularity lists, and Also Bought lists actually make something that would suit your tastes easier to find than wandering a physical bookstore.
Or buy a few books from Amazon and start receiving tailored personal recommendations in your email inbox, including books you’ll never find in a Barnes & Noble.
I wonder what start ups are working on the discoverability problem. I’d definitely like to keep up with them.
I’m tired of this myth that readers “discover” new authors or books in bookstores. What they discover is what the most powerful publishers with deep pockets paid for them to “discover” on the front tables where space is sold. Like, I “discovered” Coca-Cola by watching television commercials as a kid. After browsing the front tables, does anybody really pull out books, spine by spine, in the backshelves to discover new authors? Life is too short. My recent hours spent in bookstores failed to produce that mythical ‘handseller” who would know my tastes and produce new treasures.
Kill this hoary fable, please.
I’d like to see alternatives to Goodreads enhance the discoverability competition. Library Thing should be encouraged to improve the look and user-friendliness of its site. Its readers seem thoughtful and articulate and they deserve a better platform.
Finally, more alternative readers’ platforms geared to narrower book tastes should be built up, rather like independent specialized bookstores.
I don’t look at those front tables in bookstores, but then I don’t go to bookstores much any more. Way back in the day, when the books were displayed cover out on wire racks, I would discover new authors. Then things changed. There were several years when I went to Barnes & Noble and left the store empty-handed! I just couldn’t find anything anymore. Took me a while to realize that a trip to the bookstore had become pointless.
Someone posted yesterday or the day before an interview with Neil Gaiman where he explained how people discover authors (within the initial context of piracy):
“When I do a big talk now on these kinds of subjects and people ask “What about the sales you are losing by having stuff floating out there?” I started asking the audience to raise their hands for one question — Do you have a favorite author?
And they say yes and I say good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book put up your hand.
Then anybody who discovered their favorite author by walking into a book story and buying a book. And it’s probably about 5-10%, if that, of the people who discovered their favorite author who is the person they buy everything of and they buy the hardbacks.”
Plus, there was this blog post on ThePassiveVoice from October:
“Two years ago, 35% of book purchases were made because readers found out about a book in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the single-largest site of discovery. This year, that figure has dropped to 17%, a reflection both of the closing of Borders and the rise of e-readers. In the same period, personal recommendations grew the most, to 22% from 14%. Some three-quarters of personal recommendations are made in person, while the rest come by e-mail (8%), phone (7%), Facebook (4%) and other social networks (3%).”
And here was an article from 2 years ago by Kris Rusch:
Where personal recommendation and author reputation were far and away the biggest reasons people “discover” a book.
Nice analysis, Matthew. Appreciate the links!
Already many of us don’t have a physical bookstore conveniently close by. The nearest one to me is 50 minutes, according to google maps, and that is if there is no traffic. There is another in the opposite direction 55 minutes away, but less traffic. In case you think I’m out in the middle of nowhere, I’m actually just west and midpoint of the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.
I won’t say I don’t miss browsing bookstores, because I do, but I also miss the Five&Dime that was a block from my grandma’s house. There was a whole wall of candy there!
“After browsing the front tables, does anybody really pull out books, spine by spine, in the backshelves to discover new authors?”
Yes, they do. I discovered more and better books by browsing bookstores pre-internet than I have post-internet and Amazon.com.
Me too, Peter.
Me three. I miss the pleasure of searching for new books I didn’t know exist.
To paraphrase what Charles Darwin’s granddaughter once said about trying to learn about sex from an encyclopedia, it’s impossible to learn about books one knows nothing about thru a search engine. Hands on experience is always more satisfying — in both cases.
If you can’t find new books that you didn’t know existed at Amazon, honestly, you’re not trying very hard. You might try the Hot New Releases listing. Ta Da! Or look on the Also Bought lists for novels you enjoyed. The chances are you’ll find something there. It’s more likely than wandering a bookstore pulling random books off the shelf.
“To paraphrase what Charles Darwin’s granddaughter once said about trying to learn about sex from an encyclopedia, it’s impossible to learn about books one knows nothing about thru a search engine.”
Many of us have figured it out.
I’ve never discovered books from browsing bookshelves. I’ve tried. But I’m honestly not willing to risk the kind of money that bookstores ask for print books on the unknown and I’ve never been so captivated by a title or cover or blurb that I felt compelled to go against that principle.
Before my Kindle, I always chose books based on personal recommendation or word of mouth. Those two methods have generally done well by me.
Post Kindle, I actually do spend time just browsing the fantasy lists and end up buying things that look promising. Being able to see reviews or google a book to get people’s opinions and experiences with it is so much more useful than being able to take it off the shelf and hold it in your hand.
I browse bookstore shelves, too, and scan authors and titles on “spine out” books. In fact, I probably spend more time browsing shelves than scanning the tables, since the tables rarely have what I like anyway. I found some good new authors and books that way, too.
Right because obscure new authors are promo’ed so well by traditional publishers and bookstores. The books they are pushing to be bestsellers, sure, those are on the endtables. The other books are not even in the back room, they’re in warehouses ready to be shipped to the pulpers. Let’s try to be reality based.
“Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, tradpub never made a fool of you. You used to be too wise. Hey there, you on that high-flying cloud, though they won’t throw a crumb to you, you think some day they’ll come to you…” –apologies to Jerry Ross and Richard Adler
The idea that new author discovery is a critical function of bookstores today is nonsense–it happens, but by all accounts it doesn’t seem to be the primary method and I wonder if it ever was.
But I still worry too about the diminishing number of bookstores. Exposure matters. As a comic book fan since childhood I’ve seen the industry contract primarily through their loss of exposure. The racks in every convenience store and supermarket were part of my childhood and led to lots and lots of kids browsing comics, and some of them getting interested. The average age of a comic reader was probably 13-14. Then the direct market took off and the publishers saw the higher profit margins there and killed off the mass channel. Far less exposure. The average age of comics fans has been climbing ever since. I’ve become close friends with the owner of the local shop over the years and I talk to him about the business. He says his typical customer is over 30 now–the last generation exposed via the mass market. And his next biggest group is those customers’s children. Exposure. But very few random kids like how he and I and most of those other 30+ year olds got hooked.
Books are more engrained in our culture than comics, but losing mass market exposure is not a good trend. B&N is just a piece in the puzzle, but what if books are so unprofitable on shelves that target and costco and walmart get out of the business too? Existing readers can make the transition, but how well will a primarily online business do at picking up new replacement customers?
Still, “worry” is probably a bit strong. It’s more of a minor concern for the long term.
My belief is that the big loosers, if Barnes & Noble closes down (or scales back, as it follows its announced plan) are the traditional publishers. It is they who pay the freight to be on the front tables, anyway, and they do that because it does, in fact, cause discovery of… their books–and because their near-lock on bookstore sales is a key attractor for writers to keep them following the lock-step submissions path. It is not the reader who needs this particular form of discovery (though in a real sense we will certainly miss access to bookstores, emblems that they are of our culture, diversion that they are from the humdrum of our lives). It is the traditional publishers who desparately need this showroom space. The question is, will the traditional publishers miss it enough to intervene and save B&N–or not? Are they willing to make a sub-optimal investment to keep it going? Do they think they can come up with a plan to save it and make up for its dismal performance in other portions of their conglomerate structures? Or by transforming it into a better and more effective retail operation (while keeping sufficient emphasis on books and their subsidiary products)? It is a matter of price and long term strategy for major corporations who are very much in the business of selling and using subsidiary (soon to be recognized as primary) entertainment rights, and who do not want too much self-publishing leakage from the pipeline.
Some very good questions.
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