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It’s going to happen slowly, and then it’s going to happen very quickly. It has already started – the rate at which independent bookstores have shuttered over the years is not publicized, but we know they’ve been an endangered species since the 1990s, when Borders and Barnes & Noble began their rapid superstore expansion.

Borders is suffering a lingering death, but there’s little doubt among industry pundits that its lifespan is seriously limited. (Please prove them wrong, please prove them wrong!!!) This will be a much bigger deal than anybody’s anticipating.


Because Barnes & Noble is not going to pick up all those locations. And if a huge chain like Borders can’t survive, what indie bookstore in its right mind is going to open in those locations?

There will be fewer brick and mortar bookstores. By a factor of a lot. Possibly a third of bookstores in the US will close when Borders is finished with its death spiral and Barnes & Noble and successful independents have picked up what business makes sense in those locations. But for that newly-deprived third of bookstore customers? Where will they get their books?

Two places: the library and the internet.

Libraries are themselves rather limited in this way: waiting lists for popular books. (This includes ebooks.) If you really must own a book right now, the best way to get it is online.

So in approximately a third of areas previously served by large chains, customers will become quickly accustomed to ordering books online.

How long do you think it will be before they realize that if they order ebooks, they don’t have to wait even 24 hours before they get what they want? How long do you think it will be before instant gratification means that suddenly these underserved areas are hotbeds of ebook consumption?

We’ve seen this sort of leapfrogging happen in underdeveloped areas before – that is why residents of certain African and Asian countries are so wedded to their cell phones; they skipped the land-line process altogether.

We’ve seen it happen in the music industry as well – when was the last time you went into a store where the primary stock was CDs? A Virgin or an HMV or a Tower? Or, heaven help you, your local indie music store?

We are seeing it happen in video. I live in New York City – there used to be video stores every few blocks, staffed by amazing kids from NYU or Columbia; those Quentin Tarantino-breeding environments are gone. We get our movies from Netflix. We get our movies on demand from Time-Warner. We get our movies streamed through our laptops directly to our TVs.

That leapfrogging in the book business is going to happen primarily in rural and suburban areas where intellectual life was always underserved. That is where it will start. And once that convenience of immediate delivery of digital books is realized, it is only a matter of time before we see that the bookstores we treasure have to offer more than just books if they want to attract customers. Books are commodities – and they will become increasingly more commoditized as Google Editions launches, as Kobo develops device-independent platforms, as Overdrive adds more titles to its Content Reserve service.

The bookstores that will be successful in that environment will be shops that sell deep inventory in specific areas (such as the spiritual/inspirational Breathe Books, staffed by the amazing Jenn Northington, aka @JennIRL on Twitter) and can provide a rich experience (offering CDs, videos, other media within those areas), or shops that have deep ties to their communities – that offer afterschool programs, sports events, matchmaking services (if you doubt me, look at WORD Bookstore’s Lonely Hearts board, or follow @bookavore on Twitter), or other beyond-the-book activities. Because when a book becomes commoditized, what becomes important – and NOT a commodity – is the conversation AROUND the book. The community of readers. And if brick and mortar bookstores can tap that community, engender those conversations in ways the community finds valuable…then their community will support them.

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  1. Hi! First time commenter.

    Random thoughts:

    Barnes & Noble, Borders…pretty much all brick-and-mortar exclusively-book stores are already pretty much in more populated areas like cities and suburbs.

    In rural areas I’ll bet places like Wal-Mart pick up way more of the local book sales when B&M bookstores go.

    Libraries are on the way out also…in urban AND rural areas.

    Just because a higher percentage of book purchases are eBooks doesn’t mean overall book buying, book sales or reading is going up. Every passing day brings another attention-wanting distraction that will take people’s attention away from books.

    Arts funding and the liberal arts of public education are all being cut all over the place. This makes me think people will be less able to enjoy reading.

    What if people just leap right over all paid paper books and ebooks and just go straight to free (probably ad or no-privacy-supported) Web based writing, games, news etc?

    I agree hat places that could thrive could be places to hang out…that also sell books, etc, but not as their main money-maker.

    Chris Kubica

    Comment by Chris Kubica — June 7, 2010 @ 12:33 am

  2. Hi, Chris – thank you so much for commenting!

    I think you’re right about Wal-Mart. They’re already all over the rural areas. And they have a limited amount of shelf space they can allot to books, so the selection will be wretched, of course. And yes, library funds are disappearing, as are the libraries themselves.

    Overall book buying has been static for the last couple of years. “Flat is the new up” was the mantra at Making Information Pay a year ago.

    There are some interesting experiments brewing regarding web-based writing, and there will have to be subscription or other models built around access to that. The great thing about libraries, of course, is that they offer things “for free” to the end-user…we all pay in taxes, but during the user experience itself, it seems free.

    Hats for everyone! And also books. (Yes, I also agree it will pretty much be in that order.)

    Comment by Laura Dawson — June 8, 2010 @ 2:36 am

  3. Flat is the new up. LOL.

    1) Sorry I was sort of a downer in the comments. :)

    2) I can’t believe you made fun of my typo about hats.

    3) I’d be interested in your take on MY little startup idea, http://www.neverendmedia.com…subscription eBooks AS social media.


    Comment by Chris Kubica — June 8, 2010 @ 3:08 am

  4. [...] Esther Newberg, EVP, International Creative Management, noted that “word of mouth still means something.” In my humble opinion, word of mouth is everything. Not addressed by this particular panel was that how word of mouth has dramatically shifted from booksellers to readers. Putting aside the notion of electronically receiving a galley via NetGalley, I’m sure I’m not alone when I head over to GetGlue or GoodReads, and reach out to my friends on Facebook or Twitter. (I live in a town without a good bookstore, which is increasingly more common.) [...]

    Pingback by BEA 2010: Chaotic, Hopeful, and Worthwhile | Digital Book World — June 28, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  5. [...] no mistake, Borders is still in trouble. But the state of Borders has nothing to do with B&N’s pondering as to whether or not to sell [...]

    Pingback by Move Along Folks, Nothing To See Here « Publishing Industry Consultant – Where books and technology meet. — August 5, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  6. Laura,

    One possibility this doesn’t address is that in some of these locations smaller independent bookstores with either a) managed to hold on when borders moved in or b) move into other nearby locations might do well with smaller operations less overhead etc.

    This will, of course, never make up the lost shelf space, even if smaller stores thrive in EVERY location Borders closes in (unlikely, very unlikely), but …

    On the rest of it, totally with you!

    Comment by Eoin Purcell — January 4, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

  7. Laura,

    An interesting post and certainly the outlying communities and rural communities that don’t boast the sufficient population densities to afford luxuries like big box booksellers will always find ways to get books or information.

    What you’re describing is actually the obsolescence of the traditional book industry distribution chain while also acknowledging the new attitudes in consumer behavior.

    Basically, I think that the box bookstore model is doomed to the tarpits and that the average consumer couldn’t really care less.

    Leapfrogging will happen because it suits the consumer’s preferred method of acquiring content. The more hurdles in their way the more they’ll just bypass us all together.

    What you haven’t mentioned is the ultimate leapfrogging – P2P file sharing.

    Not only are all of the traditional publishing distribution channels bypassed but also the monetary ones.

    Here’s an excellent article on this kind of leapfrogging as it happened in music and film from the CEO of Big Champagne.

    This isn’t about territorial rights or brick and mortar, really. The web creates the ultimate leapfrogging opportunity – and it’s not just kids doing it:

    “…the reason I single out the European cities is because that’s where people are forced to wait a long time to see content legally. In the digital world, we don’t want to wait three months, six months. We’re just not accepting that anymore…we want it all, we want it right now and even Mom and Pa Kettle are getting to the point where they say if it’s not on, let’s just fire up the computer and watch it. If they want me to wait six months, I’ve got other options. And people don’t really have a conscious or qualms about that, or at least it’s mitigated by their feeling that they are entitled to keep up with the Jones’. It is the Twitter, real-time Internet expectations.”

    Read more: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-10383572-261.html#ixzz1A6hiDIC2

    Comment by Sean Cranbury — January 4, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

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