Should We Feel Guilty for Not Buying Books in Bookstores?

I’m a guy who hates to shop, but for my whole life I’ve loved shopping in bookstores and record stores.  I gave up on record stores years ago, but I still shop at bookstores, but not as much as I used to.  Yesterday I visited my local indie bookstore and bought a hardback The Man Who Invented the Computer  by Jane Smiley just to support them.  I could have bought it at Amazon and saved $12 in discounts and taxes, but I thought I’d help my store and state.

Well, no good deed goes unpunished as my mother-in-law used to say.  I get home and read the reviews on Amazon and they aren’t good at all, including many claims of poor research, inaccuracies and even fraud and scandal.  Of 24 customer reviews 12 gave it 1 star, 5 people gave it 3 stars.  If I had been shopping at Amazon those reviews would have stopped me from buying the book.  Now this isn’t the fault of my bookstore, but it does point out a major advantage of shopping online.

The main reason to shop at a bookstore is to see books before you buy and allow yourself the pleasure of discovering something new and exciting.  But shopping at a store literally means judging a book by its cover.

I’m in three online book clubs and a hot topic in all of them are ebooks.  Some folks are pro, and others are definitely con.  But we all lament the disappearance of bookstores, and feel guilty that we buy books online or via those new fangled contraptions like Kindles, iPads and Nooks.  But I’m wondering if we really should feel guilty?

Quite a few club members, especially those living in small towns, say going to a bookstore is expensive and time consuming.  Others are housebound and feel online shopping and ebooks are a godsend.  Me, I like to study reviews before I buy.  And despite what everyone says about personal customer service, I’ve never met a sales clerk as knowledgeable as good reviewers.

Another thing to consider, among my bookworm friends who love shopping for books locally, many of them actually treasure the used bookstores and looking for good deals.

But I hate the idea of just letting bookstores disappear like record stores.  I’ve read that Germany protects bookstores from online sales and ebooks by outlawing discounting.  This makes books more expensive, but protects bookstores, publishers and authors.  I’ve also read that other countries have various ways of mandating price controls.  This is great for saving jobs and keeping businesses afloat, but it’s not very free market.  Should we reevaluate our ideas about free markets?  I don’t know.

What if online sellers had to sell books for the same price as local bookstores and charge the same sales tax, so books were equally priced no matter where you bought them.  I’d still say Amazon was a better place to shop because it’s so much more informative.

I’d also prefer buying used books online.  I bought three used books this week, The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd and I, robot – the illustrated screenplay by Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov.  I would have to shop for years before I would have even seen copies of any of those books in local used bookstores, but they were a few keystrokes away with ABE Books.  I also bought an ebook, Aegean Dreams by Dario Ciriello because it was only $5.99 on the Kindle, versus $14.44 for the trade paper at Amazon.

At the Classic Science Fiction Online Book Club, we’re voting on the books we’re going to read for the next six months, and one of the major considerations is availability and price.  Members are scattered all over the world, and few want to buy new copies.  Most of the books we’re nominating can be found at ABE Books for $4-5 used, including shipping, and some can be had as ebooks for $5-10, or new for $8-20.  Some of the members with ebook readers say they will buy the ebook edition if it’s priced closed to the used edition.  Others with good used bookstore nearby are finding copies for less than a dollar.  But see the trend?  New hardbacks and trade paper editions have to compete with online discounted books and used books, so it’s not just ebooks hurting new book sales.

One member found this list of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bookstores that include online and local bookstores.  There’s a huge variety of options for shopping online.  Some stores on the list do have a physical buildings to visit, but they also do business online.  How does an old fashion bookstore compete?

And maybe that’s the clue.  Maybe online is just a new kind of bookstore.

The times are changing and more and more people are seeing the wind is blowing in a new direction.  There’s a new documentary, Press Pause Play about how technology is impacting artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and other creative folk.  It’s scary to them because they don’t know how they can earn a living when the traditional methods of marketing their work are disappearing.

We are living in evolutionary times.  I’m turning 60 this year, and many of the people that I know lamenting the loss of bookstores are my age or older.  Have the young already forgotten bookstores?  Our nephew while giving directions to his apartment today said to turn past that building where you mail stuff.  Will concepts like the post office, book store, record store, phone booth, and video rental store even be known to the young in a few years?

It’s weird to be an anachronism in your own time.

JWH – 10/2/11

How Can Bookstores Compete with

Last year I had four large bookstores I could visit.  My favorite is Davis-Kidd Booksellers, a chain in Tennessee.  The other three are Borders, Barnes & Noble and Bookstar.  This year Bookstar closed, and the future of Borders is uncertain.  And the parent company of Davis-Kidd filed for bankruptcy, but luckily, the Memphis store was the robust one of the group and is continuing to operate. 

My wife and I were shopping at Davis-Kidd last night because I had gotten an email saying everything was 20% off March 18.   When we went to check-out we found the 20% only applied to its Members club, which costs $25 a year.  The book we were buying to read for our book club, The History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage was $15.95.  We had decided to buy it because of the sale, otherwise we thought $16 was too much for a paperback.  When we found out we weren’t going to get the sale price left the store without it.  The same book at Amazon for $10.56, or $8.61 for the Kindle edition.  We would have paid $13.60 for the book locally, but not full list.

Now I like supporting my local bookstores and buy a fair amount of books from them at full price, but mostly I buy their remaindered books.  Hardbacks have gotten too expensive to buy new at list price, so I enjoy getting a book I want when they are discounted.  We were disappointed to leave the store empty handed and annoyed that we had been enticed to a sale that we weren’t entitled to use.

This got me to thinking, how should local bookstores compete with Amazon?  Are bookstores failing because they charge full price when online retailers are always offering sales?  If the price of the book were the same I would probably always buy locally.  I will buy loads of books when they are for sale at remaindered prices.  But unless it’s something special I need immediately, or for a gift, I just won’t buy books at list price anymore.

The History of the World in 6 Glasses is also available for the Kindle for $8.61.  I have a Kindle but my wife doesn’t.  She does have an iPhone with the Kindle reader.  So we could save even more money by buying the Kindle edition.  By the way, if a married couple both want to read the book on a Kindle they have to buy two Kindles and register them to the same account.

Local bookstores have to compete with discounted books sold online and with emerging ebooks.  Competing will be tough, but I think it will still be possible.  Right now books best read on ebooks are words only books, especially fiction.  But nonfiction books with photos, diagrams, maps, etc. don’t work well on ebook readers.  Any book you just want to flip around and discover things randomly doesn’t work well as ebooks.

Bookstores will have the advantage on selling books you want to look at, and for selling books you don’t know you wanted to buy until you see them, either because of illustrations, or because you are just shopping for a sale like going through the remaindered titles.  But can bookstores make it without selling fiction?  Fiction is perfect for ebook readers, especially for hardcore bookworms that read one book after another.

Amazon has been selling used books for years and I often buy them over new books when shopping Amazon.  I’m thinking local bookstores should start selling used books, especially upscale collector editions.  Local bookstores have online stores beat when it comes to tactile browsing, and thus should succeed with books that are appealing as objects, like special editions, rare editions, or heavily illustrated books.

One of the books we read for our book club is Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.  It’s a history of shopping, sales and marketing, and one of the lessons is buyers don’t like to pay full retail, and yet bookstores try to compete with online stores by selling at full list price.  If they want to stay in business they will have to stop that practice.  Davis-Kidd got us in their store last night with the promise of 20% off, but it turned out to only be for their club members.  They need to make 20% off their standard price for everyone and see if they sell more books.  I know I’d buy far less books at if they did.

They also need to get more remaindered books – because that’s what keeps me shopping regularly at their store.  But if they also had a nice selection of used books that would get me shopping more often.  But it can’t be crappy books like you find at the library book sale.  They need to be beautiful books, in near mint condition, great dust jackets, something people would want to own for their physical beauty and collecting appeal.

Davis-Kidd and Borders also sell music, but they have full priced CDs which I won’t buy.  If they priced CDs closer to what Amazon, or even Target does I’d browse their selection every week.  Bookstores might also  consider selling LPs.  LPs are making a comeback and their large beautiful covers could be a big selling point.  If fact, music publishers who want to sell CDs should package them in collector picture books editions that sell in bookstores.

And I think the publishers should make special editions of new books that appeal to the visual buyer.  And they shouldn’t be $99, but priced for impulse buying.  I wouldn’t buy a $19 CD, but it it came with a beautiful book for $19 I would.  Ditto for DVD movies.  However, if they are expensive I’ll just shop Amazon looking for 40% discounts.

I love going to book and record stores, but I don’t buy like I used to.  Bookworms love bookstores, but if it came down to a choice between Amazon and Davis-Kidd, I’d take Amazon.  Amazon is actually far more helpful at selling books because of the customer reviews and other sales information at the site.  The assumption is human help is better than software, but it’s not.  Bookstores are great for browsing the visual and tactile qualities of books, for random impulse buying and instant need.  They need to capitalize on these functions.  Otherwise, books as a commodity are better marketed on the web.

JWH – 3/19/11