Some half-formed thoughts on one future for bookselling

Clay Shirky's essay on the past and future of bookselling is provocative. I think he really nails something with his taxonomy of the reasons that people worry about bookstores, but I'm not sure I buy his conclusion -- that bookselling might be best served on an NPR/nonprofit model.
In my experience, people make this argument for one of three reasons.

This first is that some people simply dislike change. For this group, the conviction that the world is getting worse merely attaches to whatever seems to be changing. These people will be complaining about kids today and their baggy pants and their online bookstores 'til the day they die.

A second group genuinely believes it's still the 1990s somewhere. They imagine that the only outlets for books between Midtown and the Mission are Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble, that few people in Nebraska have ever heard of Amazon, that countless avid readers have money for books but don't own a computer. This group believes, in other words, that book buying is a widespread activity while internet access is for elites, the opposite of the actual case.

A third group, though, is making the 'access to literature' argument without much real commitment to its truth or falsehood, because they aren't actually worried about access to literature, they are worried about bookstores in and of themselves. This is a form of Burkean conservatism, in which the value built up over centuries in the existence of bookstores should be preserved, even though their previous function as the principal link between writers and readers is being displaced.

I have been a bookseller for most of my life, off and on (I directly sell over 25,000 books a year through reviews on this site, which makes me a fairly large independent bookstore all on my own). I've worked in big, small, chain and specialist stores. I also obsessively check out bookstores, dragging my family into them wherever I go.

I think that Clay's probably right that the most traditionally profitable sector of bookselling -- mass-produced bestsellers -- is going to keep on migrating onto the web (that's where I get most of my mass-produced bestsellers, certainly). But I also think that there's something to be said for physical street-level stores de-emphasizing those products in favor of the simultaneous pursuit of the top- and bottom-end of the markets.

On the bottom-end of the market, there's the Espresso book printer, as currently in operation in the wonderful Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. This thing will print any public domain book that Google has scanned, in about 4 minutes, for $8. The margins are usually pretty good (they're lower on longer books, and a fat-enough book could be a money-loser, of course). And there are no warehousing, ordering, shelving or other expenses associated with them. Also, it's unlikely that we'll have them in our houses anytime soon (though we may get them at the library and community center).

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it's one of the most exciting bookstore sections I've browsed in years. And even so, there's lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there's plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions -- say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions' illustrations and selling them through the store's printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.

Of course, most of the mass-produced catalog will probably end up in the print-on-demand catalog some day, and stores will be able to fill those orders, too. But if you already know what book you want, why bother going to a store? (Unless you're in too much of a hurry to wait for the mail).

On the other hand, there's plenty of ways that a physical store could offer added value on mass-market titles: localized covers, signed books, high production-value gift editions, a point-of-sale "donate to our neighborhood schools" kiosk that lets you print a book on the spot for a classroom that's requested it...

At the other end of the scale, the high-end, there's the book-as-object phenomenon. Taschen and a few other art-book publishers have figured out how to make a market out of this, and what's more, they've aggressively pursued non-bookstore retail channels (Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, etc) where the margins are lower, but the foot-traffic is much, much higher.

So yes, there's something really beautiful, and commercially compelling about a shelf or table full of books that are themselves beautiful -- beautifully made, beautifully presented. But what if there were more to it? What about hand-made books? Limited runs? The kind of thing that you mostly see today on the web (because the audience is spread too thin for physical retail to make sense), where they show poorly and make a less compelling case. Books in crazy trim sizes -- huge books like the Little Nemo treasuries, or even the gargantuan Bhutan book.

These are very expensive to inventory, and that suggests that they should probably be consigned, rather than sold (indeed, booksellers could serve as fulfillers for direct orders taken over the Web, since they're apt to be closer to the customer).

Both of these ends of the market are ripe for heavy localization, curated to suit local tastes and aesthetics. They can feature local artists, local choices, in a million ways, and serve as creative hubs for their communities. And both these ends of the market have good, healthy margins and (with the right consignment model) are also cheap to stock.

In that world, booksellers become a lot more like bloggers who specialize in all things bookish -- wunderkammerers who stock exactly the right book for the right people in the right neighborhood.

Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization


  1. Cool. I’ll have to go down to the Harvard Bookstore and see this book printing machine! Sorry I missed your signing Cory, but I don’t really like crowds.

  2. While I don’t think that the bookstore is going away, I do see changes coming, and fast. Locally, the one chain that is doing well(ish) is Books-a-Million, which was founded in Alabama and therefore has a pretty good finger on what Southern readers prefer. They tend to be a bit more conservative than, say, Barnes and Noble, the other local chain that has recently trimmed back their stores (the one less than a kilometer from my flat was closed during the spring). We have one Borders, and the last time I was there it appeared to be dying.
    BAM knows its clientele and caters to them very well. Borders, on the other hand, seems to be succumbing.
    The used bookstore, though, seems to be thriving right now. This is going to sound like a plug, and if it is, so be it, but here in Jacksonville we have a used bookseller known as Chamblin’s. Their main store is huge, the size of a Barnes & Noble, in fact. It is rough hewn, make no mistake, but the emphasis is solely on the media, the books, audio and video they sell. They recently expanded to a store downtown that I believe even has a cafe (haven’t been there yet).
    If the bookstore is to survive, it will probably be more like the latter, specialized and used book dealer than the national chain. If the national chain is to survive at all, they had better start with a top-down reevaluation of their mission.

  3. The problem with buying books online is that online shopping is geared around search. If you know what you want, or have some vague idea what you want, then it works well. If you are looking for something that you don’t know what it is (a gift for someone, or you just want to browse for yourself to see what’s available), then it really sucks.

    The future of retail booksellers is in supporting what online bookesllers do not and cannot do well: book browsing, the ability to look at a variety of related titles and pick them off the shelf, flip through them, and buy the one that strikes your fancy. That means book sellers will have a much smaller market, and I agree that chain stores that only stock what everyone is buying this month are doomed.

    But it also means that stores based on POD technology like Expresso are not going to do well. Why bother going to a store to search a catalog that you could search online just as well?

    There is a future for traditional bookstores, and that’s a future of selling to people who want to buy something new, something they haven’t seen or heard of before, by someone they’ve never read anything by before. Which means large corporate bookstores are pretty much doomed, but boutique independent shops will always be around.

  4. Back in 1989 I was promised that book stores would have book printing machines that would pump out books in no time flat… like peace in the middle east, the zombie apocalypse, and other cool shit this never manifested.

    So, publishers ship a bunch of books to a store… if they dont sell they get shipped back. Sometimes only the covers are shipped back and the books destroyed. If one doesnt have their hands on the pulse of the fickle public and have precognition it becomes a guessing game that is going to be lose/lose every time.

    I like book stores. They are just awesome places to browse. The smell of the paper, the feel of the books, the random social interactions… You can see the books in a way you cant see them online currently. But the reality is this… The selection is always finite. Browsing a finite selection blows. Should I risk the trip only to have them not have anything on/by the subject/author, or the specific title? Why would I special order it from the bookstore and no online? Booksellers used to be great sources of information on what was available. Heh, they were mostly the only game in town. Now we have the interwebz, and it knows a lot more than the booksellers could ever reasonably know.

    And now… We are at the dawning of electronic books…

    I see little hope for the traditional book seller.

    1. “The selection is always finite. Browsing a finite selection blows.”

      as borges (and cantor elsewhere) noted in “the library of babel” browsing an infinite selection is also a bit of a downer, so you’re a bit screwed.

  5. +1 for #3 I deeply miss Compendium in Camden. A good slice of my library came from random browsing in there. If we can’t have physical browsing then we need to have better book “DJ”s to suggest new titles. Much as I like it’s not doing for me what does for music in finding things I might like. And Amazon’s recommendation engine continues to suck.

    The other thing that really bugs me about the book industry is just how much copyright they hold onto and keep from the market. I’ve still got gaps in my 70s, 80s and 90s cyberpunk collection but it’s now impossible to obtain way too many books directly because they are more or less permanently out of print. Why isn’t John Brunner’s “The Sheep look up”, Bruce Sterling’s “Islands in the Stream”, Rudy Ruckers “Software”, Lewis Shiner’s “Deserted Cities of the Heart” or Paul DiFilippo’s “Ciphers” available off the shelf from Amazon? Never mind “Dad’s Nuke”. Perhaps what we really need is for Amazon to take over book production as well as book shipping.

    Just maybe print on demand in combination with better recommendation engines and human recommendations will keep the industry going. It won’t completely fill the gap left when all the bookstores die out but it may go most of the way there. And please guys, get on with it. We’ve got the technology now.

  6. I just can’t imagine bookstores going anywhere. Like libraries, the Internet has made them more important rather than obsolete.

  7. I love the idea of an employee shelving “weird and cool titles in the public domain” that they’ve found and printed. What a great confluence of online bounty and offline serendipity.

  8. I don’t think liking shopping makes you a burkean conservative, you just like shopping.

    didn’t know compendium closed, that’s really sad, it was the best bookstore by far in london. skoobs seems to have moved too, meh, modern life is rubbish.

  9. I can spend hours in a good bookstore. Just browsing, reading the odd page here and there, picking up books by authors I have never heard of and in the end usually walking out with 4 or 5 titles. (As an aside, this is the way I disovered your books, Cory)

    For me, the ideal bookstore is a combines a good used selection, for those out-of-print titles, with a good selection of in-print books in a few specific genres (no sense trying to be a Chapters / Barnes & Noble superstore, pick what you want to be be good at and work hard a being very, very good at it).

    Hire staff who live and breathe books.

    Some comfy seats and a coffee counter don’t hurt.

    I think bookstores will continue to serve a niche market, much the way vinyl hangs on. The superstores will die.

    Not sure exactly what this will do to the publishing industry but not all will survive.

  10. I agree with Glaurung_quena that browsing is an important feature of physical as opposed to electronic bookstores and I think a great physical bookstore would offer you a choice.

    That is, in addition to serving as a warehouse for the in-your-hand physical books, those physical books might also be the display models for electronic books you could purchase. Browse physical item in-store; purchase electronic copies using an in-store/at-home computer.

    Pretty please?

    1. isn’t that Borders now? the prob. for me is, sure it’s cool and all, but a smaller store like Modern Times on valencia isn’t going to be with the modern times anytime soon.

  11. Don’t forget the fourth group…Those for whom the “change=always good” equation is an unassailable constant. You know, the group that loves to write articles ridiculing the other three groups.

  12. Speaking as a hardcore researcher…

    I think what people miss about bookstores is the same thing they miss about libraries:

    1. That the tactile experience is important in numerous different ways. First is the ability to not only freely browse the book, but to instantly access related and non targeted material by just the organization of that material alone (this provides an instant method of brainstorming). Second the value and authority of the material can be instantly recognized much like secured transactions recognizes valid instruments (although there may be fraud, the overall picture of the source instantly comparable to others in a multithreaded environment like reality provides some measure of comparative quality). Third physical books have a very small hurdle to overcome (if intellegently indexed etc.) to achieve a self expanding analytical display thus allowing hundreds of differing opinions to be compared and most important for the USER to select the relevant passages that may contradict. Trust me, I have worked with some of the most sophisticated search systems out of there and the major limitation is how the user interfaces with the machine and if the machine can read the intent of the user (no it can’t = phone support).

    2. There is a fundamental win-win situation in a physical presence. Let us ignore that it not only allows the education of the buyer, but also allows exposure of the buyer to relevant material. It also prevents fraud via inspection. There simply is no way to view a book electronically as completely as a physical book. With a physical book you limit the amount of faith you put into a publisher because you can inspect the item. Case in point how many of us would buy shoes online if we couldn’t inspect them or even if we could we bought them as is without redress (the ability to fix a situation is a source of Zappos success since it models the physical world). However If you need to depend on a book or shoes for that matter you have to be secure that you hold basic property rights in it and that it is accessible. This is perhaps 5the greatest advantage of a physical book, they exist and will be accessible for years based on little initial outlay of effort. If properly made they are extremely long lived – remember that a hundred years is nothing to a physical book (see Moreover during this time they require only basic literacy to read. Bookstores one up this one by actually being a ble to instantly gratify your needs in most instances.

    3. The physical presence of stores lets us hold them accountable. The physical presence of books lets us not only own them, but also stops people from taking away what we own rights or licenses irrespective (thus no “1984”), and perhaps more importantly stops others from determining what information we can access or if we have accessed the information.

  13. I directly sell over 25,000 books a year through reviews on this site, which makes me a fairly large independent bookstore all on my own

    Except that it really doesn’t. I mean, kudos to you for helping to sell the books and bringing attention to books and authors that people would normally miss (I’ve read at least 10 books based on your reviews), but you’re not putting yourself at risk by stocking these titles in a bookstore and hoping that people come in and buy them. Independent bookstores are a volatile business, where people have to take large risks in going up against the larger stores that can afford to offer huge discounts based on bulk stock, and hope to also appeal to the demographic of people who normally frequent independent bookstores. Offering up reviews and drawing people to a place where they can buy books does not make a person a bookseller.

  14. This seems simple to me. Whenever you have a special technology or product, it many times starts off in its own speciality store, them is absorbed into a bigger store (for many logical and convenient reasons – better cost, better availability, etc).

    Example – we used to have stereo stores in the 70’s? ever seen one of those anymore? all you see are a few higher end luxury stores here and there, but mostly things end up in bestbuy. Similarly, we used to have tons of record stores, yet now, other than few that cater to used CDs, or to the hipster set in and around universities and big cities, all music is either online or at Bestbuy/walmart. Similarly, we used to have tons of movie outlets (remember the VHS/DVD)? now those are mostly all gone but for some local shops surviving in very local settings, blockbuster (which is in trouble). and redbox (catering again to the fast budget set – redbox means the end of the big chain specialty type blockbuster store once they are able to download and burn the dvd for you in 5 minutes….getting rid of their limited stock problem)…all other movies are at bestbuy or walmart or available through digital download thru Payperview or netflix. the list goes on (for example, no more mom-and-pop drugstores…only super chains, who themselves are being rivaled by Walmart). Even food chaines – we have local necessity convenience stores and speciality stores (think trader joes) thriving, while your normal megamart boxes are being threatned again by the former, and by target/walmart.

    So what about books? look – bottom line will be: (1) quick conveninece locations where you can grab a magazine or book on the go (like for my daily commute on the train) – this includes the old-fashioned newstand, and also the newer (and in my opinion, better, redbox model – but I bet redbox-like print-on-demand boxes start popping up – I’d kill to be able to print out any book I wanted from Amazon and have it in my hand in the size/style I want ready to go for my commute home through Penn station (example – I was desperately in need of a small book to fit in my coat pocket for my commute home last night – I was rushing for the train, and when I stopped for 10 min at barnes and nobles on 53rd and 3rd, I couldn’t find a book that I wanted to read that was small enough…so I downloaded a podcast of one of Cory’s stories for free and listened to that instead (I rowboat was really good by the way) (2) I think digital books are going to be huge – but I think the iphone and ereaders will split the market [or merge) – either way, its a good thing. if you’ve spent any time reading something like this (I’ve even read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom on my blackberry via the “Dailylit” site (which is an awesome services and site, but the blackberry itself isn’t the best for my eyes – looking forward to getting an iphone soon)] – it is just fine , and the convenience outweights having to also carry around a big book.; and (3) barnes and nobles type book sellers will go away (in fact, they are already morphing) – and all-media-centric places will predominate – (barnes and nobles carries music and movies too — makes sense bcuz, in this day and age, all media really spills over onto all others..they should really all be in the same places, I don’t want to go to 3 different stores)…so then walmart, bestbuy, morphed barnes&nobles and others will carry all media, and (4) lastly, there will always be a small but steady demand for places with specialty books, collector’s items, and used books.

    how am I doing? any thoughts on how I went wrong?

    also – a final shot against paper-book-fetishists….read Cory’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for a starting analogy – it details a society where people, when they die, are copied into new bodies (note – NOT “directly downloaded” but copied, as akin to the dreaded Star Trek Transporter). This was disquieting to many, as this new copy isn’t really you at all, so it isn’t actually eternal life, just eternal reproduction. There were many people in the early days of this technological revolution that didn’t like this concept (also, Doctor McCoy didn’t like transporters much either, remember?) – but, and here is the big but – everyone who didn’t like or believe in this new technology eventually died off (also, where would star trek be without them right?). Natch.

    Similarly here – I think eventually all the paper-made tree-killing book lovers will eventually just die off. If you think about it – it really is just a waste of material and production for most books/writing. Digital FTW!

  15. I’m so excited about the Espresso book machine. My local indie bookstore (Village Books in Bellingham) has one, and they’re using it, in addition to the Google deal, to start their own micropress selling previously out of print books on local history.

  16. Since we’re talking about bookstores and such, you guys might want to check out LibraryThing’s Local Book Search, which tells you which of your local bookstores and libraries (might) have a particular book you’re looking for. It includes independent bookstores (where such data has been made available).

    It’s still a bit rough, but it’s kinda neat.

    Here’s the page for Freakanomics:

  17. There was a great quote in the industry newsletter Shelf Awareness yesterday:

    “Contrary to popular belief–or at least to those dullards who swear by Amazon–shopping for books is like shopping for clothes, or a husband: sometimes you don’t know what you want until you see it, and this is where a good store comes in. When I woke up last Friday morning I had not even heard of a book called Women Who Read Are Dangerous but later that same day I made a trip to a new shop, Lutyens & Rubinstein in west London, and there it was, sitting in the window, calling out to me at the top of its voice.”–Rachel Cooke in the Guardian

  18. I heard Tom Wolfe say, while promoting Charlotte Simmons, that in “twenty five years the novel would be dead.” My first thought was::No, sir, you will be dead. The novel will be alive and well. I generally don’t pay much attention to people who predict the future. I also collect books. When I purchase a hard cover book I make sure it is a first printing. The past few years I have been getting my ‘firsts’ signed in an effort to insure them against the rapid depreciation they experienced as a collectible once I walked out the bookstore door. At $25-30 per book nowadays, I have to justify, or rationalize, spending that much money. Getting a book signed helps me to perpetuate the delusion that maybe the book will retain somewhat close to that value. Occasionally, a book actually appreciates in value when signed. Over time most don’t. At a recent signing, I had some older books by the author. He made a comment about signed books on the internet. I told him I was an English Major. “We don’t sell our books.” I replied. Startled, a big smile came across his face and he gladly signed all my books. With Amazon you won’t always get a first printing. In a bookstore you can be sure

  19. poo poo on all those authors saying the novel is dead.

    video games (or insert other new media activity – internet surfing, etc) haven’t killed movies or tv – just moved them over as a smaller total percentage of our time. TV didn’t kill radio. and in fact, with podcasts, spoken word has come back. when I hear a great voice actor read something, its a true value-added pleasure (and I don’t want to see their face while they read it either) so cheap 1080p video snippets from youtube/itunes won’t kill off podcasts either –

    so – similarly, books will just be moved over to a smaller percentage of total entertainment time. they won’t die. maybe, rather than novels dying, maybe short stories will come back so we can quickly read them on our cell phones and digital devices. I’d rather do that than buy them in some cheap paper zine form.

    maybe when we finally get the holodeck, other media will die a little – but then again, don’t people living in the 24th century Federation still have movie night every few episodes??

  20. Like others have said, I think bookstores will survive, but they’ll serve a somewhat smaller market. If you’re stocking primarily best sellers or mass market, then you’re probably in trouble. I have a Borders across the street from my office, and on occasion I will run in to look for a title. Usually I can’t even find upper-mid-list titles, let alone something more obscure, and for what’s left, I could get anywhere (Amazon, Walmart, wherever), probably cheaper.

    One of the booksellers I frequent has a pretty good deal. (For those in the Boston metro area, this is my shout out for Newtonville Books. Woot!) They have a signed first edition club (among other clubs) that features a choice of two or more signed FECs each month. Membership gets you rewards, like general discounts, and unless you prefer to have the books shipped to you, it brings you into the store at least once a month. As a booklover, it’s common for me to take more than one selection and to pick up something while I’m there, and I suspect that other club members probably have similar habits. Voila, steady revenue.

    As far as eBooks, I’m curious to see how this will go. My unconfirmed suspicion is that most of the market for eBooks right now is for fairly heavy readers and book enthusiasts, in which case the death of print might not be as sudden as some have hypothesized. But who knows? As a publishing colleague once told me, “The thing with books is that they’re a pretty good technology, so they haven’t succumbed to rapid format change like music media.”

    I work in textbooks, not trade, but I also had this thought: Our industry keeps going more and more digital, based on the assumption that’s what the market really wants. But I’m not sure, for a couple of reasons. I don’t know if the chronically under-funded U.S. schools really have the cash for the technology infrastructure demanded. I’m sure some schools are really well equipped, but what percentage? Is it even as high as 50%? On top of that, our digital offerings usually involve access for some given time period, like 3 years, and even if it’s not limited, who’s to say that the content will still be at the same site in the same way 3 years from now? Publishers have been buying and selling each other like hotcakes for a while, which doesn’t lead to a lot of stability. And if I can only afford to get books every 5 years, am I going to get a digital subscription for 3, or get paper books that I can keep until the kids completely destroy them?

  21. on the subject of digital downloads. Does anyone else also think its currently too expensive?? $10 for a kindle book is too freaking much. If songs are 99 cents, and tv shows are $1.99, movies are $2.99 or so (I think?), then books should really bo no more that $2.99 to 4.99. At $5 or less, I’d buy a sh_tload of digital books. at $10, I probably won’t buy a single one. I could understand slightly more for audio books (due to the value -added voice actor)…maybe $7.99-$9.99. I hear arguments from the book industry that even $10 for a digital book doesn’t account for all their fixed costs – but I think that doesn’t make sense to anyone other than a publishing accountant. digital books are blips on a hard-drive – and not nicely-crafted physical objects (like real books are). why should I pay the same price (unless you throw in the paper copy for free). The publishing industry really needs to self-analyze, cut costs, reduce the price of books, and thus sell more books.

    Look – if hollywood can sell movies with $100 Million budgets on DVD or Digital download for less than $5 – then so can the publishing industry with books. If not, prove it in detail to the consumer, cuz they will otherwise never believe you.

    And, that being said – I think its still to expensive anyway. Music shouldn’t be $1 per song – it should be 10 cents per song. TV shows should be max 25 cents, etc….

    1. Rocket_ace, while I do agree that publishing in general is not good with change, I don’t agree with your cost analysis.

      Upfront, here’s my bias: I work in publishing, so naturally I don’t want that to go away, but here’s what I know. Aside from really elaborate editions with really, REALLY nice covers and attached googaws, the manufacturing costs for books is pretty low. You’re paying the authors, marketers, typesetters, art department, copyeditors (and yes, even otherwise good authors can be abysmal with spelling and grammar). Yes, eBooks are only digital blips, but someone has to pay, at the very least, for the electricity that makes the retrieval and distribution for those blips possible, nevermind the upkeep and maintenance of the website and assorted mechanisms that make selling those books possible, along with whatever cut the sellers take, UNLESS the author is a one-man or -woman writing, marketing, selling, webinating machine. I don’t know the exact numbers for the eSide since I work mainly with print, but it’s not insignificant.

      I’ve also heard the case that marketing is pointless if you can just put it on the web, but let’s face it: Unless you already have a very heavily trafficked blog, which is a lot of work in and of itself, nobody’s going to find, review, or read your book. As Cory has often said, what he fears is obscurity more than pirating, and no matter how you do it, getting the book out there is a lot of work. If the authors do it themselves, that’s great, but shouldn’t their time be reimbursed?

      To me, the “they’re just blips so the price should be almost nothing” is the same as that old argument, “A car is only $200 worth of raw materials, so that’s all it should cost me.” Somebody designed it, tested it (one would hope), refined it, and built it. Those people should get paid. Personally, I’d pay most musicians even more than the price of their CD for the enjoyment I’ve gotten from their work. I want artists to be able to make a living at what they do–most of them can’t.

      As far as the Hollywood comparison, I’m not sure where you’re getting those numbers. I paid $7 for “Logan’s Run” on DVD at Best Buy, and that movie is 30 years old. How many recent, blockbuster movies are on DVD for any less than $20 a unit, unless they were giant bombs or have been out for a while? I don’t know the business, but I suspect that making the money back on those movies involves moving a hefty number of DVDs–more than most mid-list book titles sell–for about $20 a pop, at least.

  22. Book Stores are important for the internet to survive.

    If there wasn’t a hard copy analog way to get information then the internet would become a snake eating it’s own tail of “facts”.

  23. Cory, you might be pleased to know that Google Books is now making custom covers for some public domain books using images from inside the book.

    “Library books often contain beautiful drawings and illustrations. Unfortunately, their book covers can often be dark and plain, hiding all this wonderful content from unsuspecting eyes. Over time, we’ve tried a bunch of different approaches for getting better covers, for example, using the book’s title page or recreating a simple book cover by featuring the book’s title and author. Finally we hit upon an idea that we like — why not surface the illustrations inside the book to be its front cover?”

  24. Sadly, most books are not at all well-made these days. I worked at my local public library, and a couple of years ago the quality of the books got across the board pathetic. A few readings and they’re falling apart!

    The publishing industry is eating it’s young, killing off the back catalogs, and increasingly, only printing stuff that they know will be big. That means most new F&SF is crap series, and most of the rest ordered by libraries is now just the bestsellers, because that’s pretty much all that’s left that they can afford. Does this mean the novel is dying? I hope not, but I think it may be on life support for a while at least.

  25. Public Libraries- a historical anomaly to publisher’s attempts to restrict access to books. I’m happy I can now get Dickens’ Christmas Carol for $8, but I would much rather borrow it for free from my local library (actually part of the Minuteman Library Network, so I request a copy from 35 public and 7 college libraries in the region) Considering the existence of this institution, I think BookGuy needs to re-evaluate. I am willing to be that a lot of the price for ebooks is from encryption and DRM type mechanisms to preventing printing from ebook-devices. Sad.

  26. Count me in the futurist camp. I think as soon as a good E-Reader comes out in the sub $100 range you’ll see a whole generation of young people jump to them and never look back. As much as I love books and bookstores, I say good riddance to any technology that takes up space, trees, chemicals, production energy, transportation energy and all the other resources we should be thrilled to conserve. I won’t miss my dead tree books, any more than I currently miss my old petrochemical-based vinyl, CDs and DVDs.

    As far as the pricing of ebooks, Rocket_ace is right. They’re priced ridiculously high, which means books will be quickly Napsterized as soon as the demand curve hits a critical mass (sooner than you think). Everything will be available to everyone for free, which is glorious if you are a member of the human race but lousy if you’re counting on a dead tree and scarcity business model to pay your bills.

    This battle has just begun…

  27. There’s a fun Russian chain of not-quite ’boutique’ shops that specializes in offering a decent selection of music, dvds, and books. They’re thriving.

    Moscow, admittedly, has a big reading culture. The proportion of people on the metro reading books is very high. I’d guess 15 percent books, matched by 15% each of magazines or newspapers. Yes, I’m saying 45% of Muscovites, those not overly crammed into subways during peaks, are reading. Bulging bookshelves are sexy. Perhaps it’s the result of a culture in which books have always been cheap.

    See, your typical legal (meaning licensed or past copyright) book here costs the equivalent of $7 for a decent-quality hardcover. Penguin paperback editions of classics (in several languages including English) go for one to three dollars, but so do most paperbacks in Russian (translated or original). A lot of people choose hardcovers.

    As you probably know, a lot of video and software piracy happens here, as well. Guys sell their pirated movies off folding-tables on busy streets. Cam or pre-release versions are common. And on the internet, piracy truly abounds. Many providers offer subscribers free access to a huge library of unlicensed recent films.

    So when music, books, and movies can be had so cheaply here, at home or on the streets, what makes a popular chain (called ‘Respublika’) succeed in selling them, all legally?

    I think it’s simple. They appeal to the young, hip, and/or nerdy. They offer a selection of offbeat, classic, import, or specialty stuff. The staff is good. Most locations are open to 11:00pm (some 24 hours), there’s good music playing, some have an espresso bar. Near the entrance they sell gifts: mostly cool stuff that you’d like on your desk. And location: some stores near the metro, some high-rent, some near colleges.

    It’s a chain I really like. I think the formula is a no-brainer. I haven’t been out in a while: don’t such chains exist in Europe or the Americas?


    (DISCLAIMER: nothing to disclaim, I’m a guy off the street; I also couldn’t really tell you what Respublica’s financials are, either.)

  28. There will e books in the foreseeable future. Just as there are people who make wooden wheels and steam engines today, there will be books. And just like the wooden wheels and steam engines of today they’ll be hand crafted by wonderful maniacs for their appreciative audience of collectors and fanatics. Which, to my view, is a vastly more wonderful thing than crap churn out in bulk and never appreciated.

    Books are dead. I got a Kindle 2 for $100 and the first time I used it I had exactly the same sensation that I had the first time I played a DVD or touched an iPod. No, it’s not a 1:1 replacement for the old media, but where it wins it wins so decisively that it’s just a mater of time.

    And that’s good.

    Just like my first iPod changed the way I appreciate music, my Kindle has changed the way I read. I read at least twice as much now. (And I read a lot before.) Rather than carrying a single heavy book that I may feel like reading, I’m now always carrying a dozen books that I want to get into. When I finish a book at 2am, I can immediately buy the sequel and keep reading. Without leaving my comfy chair. I now look up words that I don’t know because it’s so laughably easy. I make and take notes in a text now where I never would before–I hated the idea of defacing a book with my pens and pencils, and finding those notes again in a print book was a tedious process. With digital notes and highlighting I can do it non-destructively and I can search my notes almost instantly.

    But just like the 1st gen iPod, I wouldn’t buy an eReader yet. They’re a little pricey, the features are a little lacking and the display is a little murky. But wait two or three generations and it’ll be a no-brainer. In 2012, anyone who calls themselves a bibliophile will own one.

  29. Manuals – gone online.
    Accounting ledgers – gone online.
    Reference material – gone online.
    Government publications (laws, codes) – gone online.
    Address books – gone online.

    What’s left; novels, bibles, comics.

    We wonder what is going to happen to the book industry, but we are also redefining the meaning of what a book is.

  30. The problem with all online shopping is that it pulls money from your community. Money that would normally got to roads, infrastructure, etc. When you buy online from amazon where does your tax money go?

    That being said I don’t think we are going to see a drop in online buying any time soon.

    “I also obsessively check out bookstores, dragging my family into them wherever I go.”

    Something else to consider is what does online shopping do to our communities? When I am not at home slogging through the online world, it is nice to visit a community that has a interesting bookstore, music shop, gift shop, etc. It would really suck that if every community you visit in the future only had a Wal-Mart MacDonalds and Starbucks.

  31. Cory,

    I really like the idea that there might be opportunity in curating and designing the experience of reading public domain literature. Print on demand is a really exciting development- I’ve used quite a few times to put custom book anthologies together of content I’ve come across online for my own use, mostly because I’d rather read this material in a printed format. Of course, I can’t sell these books, but the concept of putting real care into the internal layout and jacket design could apply to what you’re describing. I called my latest anthology A Year of Ideas (you can see it for yourself here: If I do another for 2010, I’ll probably include this article in it.


  32. The problem with today’s bookstores is that they are trying to be all things to all people, all at once. And the web will beat them hands-down at that game every time. Bookstores will survive by going niche – to the extreme.

    Recently, I noticed that the Borders in Canton, MI has what I call a “Twilight section”. Not just books, but action figures, clothes, luggage, etc. And of course other young adult urban fantasy novels.

    Why not create all-media-and-then-some niche stores: the chick lit store that also sells spa treatments (or runs a day spa and salon), boutique fashion, and adult beverages. Or the goth boutique with music, movies, fashion, decor, books,… you see where I’m going. Get the really rabid fans to feel at home, and you can do what the best comic book stores have been doing for decades.

  33. Pyster @4:

    Back in 1989 I was promised that book stores would have book printing machines that would pump out books in no time flat…

    If you’d phoned me and asked, I could have told you not to believe them.

    So, publishers ship a bunch of books to a store… if they dont sell they get shipped back. Sometimes only the covers are shipped back and the books destroyed.

    Whole-copy returns are “trade,” as in bookstores. Stripping covers is mass market, as in wire racks in drugstores.

    Why should bookstores keep stacks of books on hand that you don’t want to read? There are always more on their way.

    If one doesnt have their hands on the pulse of the fickle public and have precognition it becomes a guessing game that is going to be lose/lose every time.

    Yup! That’s why successful publishing companies have entire departments full of people whose job it is to acquire and edit books you’re going to like, and figure out how best to promote and sell them.

    I like book stores. They are just awesome places to browse. The smell of the paper, the feel of the books, the random social interactions… You can see the books in a way you cant see them online currently. But the reality is this… The selection is always finite. Browsing a finite selection blows.

    Oh, come on. Your local Barnes & Noble has enough books to keep you reading for years, even if you’re picky; and in a few weeks, there’ll be a bunch of new titles on the shelves. You’re not suffering.

    Should I risk the trip only to have them not have anything on/by the subject/author, or the specific title?

    You do it so you can find the book you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it.

    Why would I special order it from the bookstore and no online? Booksellers used to be great sources of information on what was available. Heh, they were mostly the only game in town. Now we have the interwebz, and it knows a lot more than the booksellers could ever reasonably know.

    Where’s the website that’ll listen to a sketchy description of what you’ve liked in the past, and recommend a new writer you’ve never heard of? Or the website that can figure out which book you want when you’ve forgotten both author and title? A good bookstore is a wonderful thing.

    And now… We are at the dawning of electronic books…

    We’ve been at the dawning of electronic books for a long time now. Audio books are still outselling them by a healthy margin. Meanwhile, people keep buying the paper sort.

    I see little hope for the traditional book seller.

    People have been saying that for a long time, too.

    Anonymous @27:

    Sadly, most books are not at all well-made these days. I worked at my local public library, and a couple of years ago the quality of the books got across the board pathetic. A few readings and they’re falling apart!

    Blame Quebecor, not the publishers. Quebecor has a big print-and-bind operation that keeps swallowing up other companies. Just try and get them to listen about binding problems. See how far you get.

    The publishing industry is eating it’s young, killing off the back catalogs, and increasingly, only printing stuff that they know will be big. That means most new F&SF is crap series, and most of the rest ordered by libraries is now just the bestsellers, because that’s pretty much all that’s left that they can afford.

    Oh, malarkey. Hundreds of small adventurous new titles get published every year. It’s not the publishing industry’s fault that library budgets have been slashed. If your local library can’t afford all the books you want, ask for them through interlibrary loan.

    I remember people talking about the imminent death of the novel when I was a little kid. It hasn’t happened yet.

    Zadaz @31:

    There will e books in the foreseeable future. Just as there are people who make wooden wheels and steam engines today, there will be books. And just like the wooden wheels and steam engines of today they’ll be hand crafted by wonderful maniacs for their appreciative audience of collectors and fanatics.

    I’ll let the guys in Production know. They’re under the impression that they’re producing books which are printed and purchased in mass quantities.

    Which, to my view, is a vastly more wonderful thing than crap churn out in bulk and never appreciated.

    Why the bleep do people like you think it’s necessary to talk about books in terms of “crap churned out in bulk”? We publish some damned good books. Furthermore, every book you’ve ever loved has been a book that someone else out there thinks is crap, so it’s a good thing we pay more attention to what people buy and read than what they say about it. If you want the industry to publish different books, start buying different books.

    Do you think bad books are a new invention? I’ve got news for you: they’ve always been around. They just don’t stay around.

    What the book industry has done, with their mass printings and proliferating wire racks and bookstores, is make it possible for more books to get published, sold, and read by more people than ever before in the history of the world. You’re a direct beneficiary of that process. When you hear lamentations about the end of literacy, cry bullshit, because that’s not what’s happening. You and the rest of your contemporaries have more access to books, and more choice of what to read, than any society has had before.

    Books are dead.

    Not hardly. Books are selling very well. Some titles are migrating into electronic form, but so what? They’re still books. It’s still publishing.

    Unless you’re a lot younger than I assume, you’ve already lived through several major revolutions in the way books are produced and sold. Odds are, you didn’t notice them happening. Congratulations on noticing this one.

    1. Thanks to Teresa for more insider perspective. She mentions the amount of reading material available at B&N, and that websites don’t provide the best recommendations (amazon’s sure suck).

      I read a good bit of midlist or backlist stuff, so B&N’s selection frequently disappoints. Where I do get my browsing and recommendations are from the web — specifically, which I think has surpassed LibraryThing in the social aspects of bibliophilia. I can get to know people in group discussions, look at what’s on their shelves and get personalized recommendations. It has led to me buying and reading a lot more. Clever of to acquire the site, but they’ve kept a light hand in how they promote themselves.

      I think this may also be relevant to librarybob, who seemed to be looking for ways to discover lesser known but excellent writers.

    2. You seem to be confusing “Working really hard” with “doing something valuable”. And I’m frankly at a loss as to why you are attacking the people posting in this thread–the audience here are some of the most dedicated hardcore readers you will find anywhere.

      The primary basis of your long, hyper-defensive post is that book stores and publishers are doing it right, but the consumers are just idiots and won’t consume correctly. Publishers and bookstores work hard to put stuff on the shelf that is tuned to the readers eye. Really? If you’re so good at it, why do such a small percentage of books ever show a profit? Don’t tell me you blame the consumers.

      You tell me there are enough books at B&N to keep me read for a lifetime. BS. I recently decided to get caught up on the classics of Science Fiction. I started with a list of the 100 best SF classics as defined by the SF authors, and I pulled 25 from that list to read.

      I was able to find exactly five of them between the two B&N near my house. Trips to other book stores netted me exactly one more. So of the very best SF in the world, bookstores netted me 1/5th of my list. Yup, bookstores sure are meeting my needs. Can anyone explain why bookstores would be so negligent?

      But bookstores aren’t all to blame. Nine of the books on my list are–if you can believe it–out of print! The worlds best books, out of print!

      Once books have gone digital, they never have to go out of print. Once the publishers have invested the nominal costs of digitizing, they can sell that book forever, and make money off of every single copy. They no longer have to be slaves to expensive and risky publishing runs.

      Gah. It’s just so infuriating, bookstores and publishers! I very strongly want to be your customer, I very much want to give you my money You can easily provide the things I want to buy. Why aren’t you doing it? It makes no sense!

  34. Just a heads-up for interested UK people: the London bookstore Blackwell has an Espresso machine too!

    On a related note: Bravo, Teresa! (omgyouaremyidol*squeak!*) I have a Kindle (well, it’s my gran’s really, but we share) and a LOT of ebooks. I also have a lifelong collection of print books, plus audiobooks and radio plays.

    Most people who’ve posted here already know this, but just for emphasis: Some book addicts have lots of different reading needs. You can’t read an ebook in a plane before takeoff. You can’t hold a book OR a reader while you’re painting or cooking or washing up. You can’t bring several physical books on a short trip when you’re not sure what you really want to read, especially when the baggage allowance for a domestic flight is 15 kilos.

    And I love bookshops. Part of it is that I do love the book-as-object, and collect certain runs of books, e.g. Penguin or Taschen (don’t get me started on the Penguin love) or the NY Review of Books reprints. But I can spend hours in a bookshop and tend to walk out with a pile of things I’d never heard of and Amazon certainly wouldn’t recommend to me, but end up sticking in my psyche, like Leonora Carrington’s Hearing Trumpet. Two of my favourites, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (neither available as ebooks) I found on display tables in bookshops and certainly aren’t bestsellers or bestseller-related recommendations. And I love the social aspects of bookselling, like the launches or readings or writer talks, or even just that lovely time you have when you ask a seller what they recommend and they give you a great and unexpected answer.

    I’m sorry this was so long, but I thought it was silly for anyone to make general declarations about something being ‘dead’ just because they didn’t like it as much as the new innovation.

  35. I should self-identify here. I’m a public library director in the midwest.

    I don’t think the issue will be book “selling” as much as it will be book “selecting.” One overlooked aspect of the publishing ecology was how good publishers established their reputations by serving as gatekeepers … they kept the trash off of the shelves. They made some famous errors, of course, but this worked in a general sense. There were, and are, many good second-tier publishers handling regional and narrow interest titles, also selecting “what was good” for their own readers.

    These “good books” may not have made a lot of money, but (taking the long view) they established the value of the publisher, making other books more sellable.

    E-books are only part of a changing ecology. One major change that has been going on for 25 or so years is an ever tighter focus on that hard to reach goal, the best-seller. The cash cow of the publishing world that tickles the hearts of the MBAs who now run publishing houses.

    Authors can, of course, work the various book-centered social networks in order to generate interest, but that (I think!) will be pretty much restricted to novels by more-or-less known authors. What happens to the “not quite ready for prime time” authors whose first efforts were often money-losers, but who would have been added to a publisher’s “stable” in the belief that more popular books would come in the future? What happens to the non-fiction author whose obvious audience is likely to be small unless the book has shelf (think “face time”) exposure? What happens to the great author who just can’t work a social network?

    The magazine _Publishers Weekly_ helped booksellers select titles, but with more and more authors going to more and more small press publishers (or self-publishing) there a need to reassess how this is done. Ditto for those of us in the library world since we’ve depended far too much on what the major publishers have sent us for review in _LJ_, _Booklist_, etc.

    In my view, the booksellers and librarians need to develop new ways, new online ways, to obtain and review titles so we can purchase them and make them known to the public. (And, yes, library purchases actually help sell books to the public … it’s another form of exposure.)

    I’m not at all against e-books, but wouldn’t it be ironic if e-books failed the reading public because all that could be purchased were mediocre best-sellers?

  36. Given all the discussion about ebooks, I want to say that I own a Sony Reader with over 1700 books and articles on it. The vast majority are intellectually demanding books and classics, and I’ve been reading electronic books for over a decade. Some people might find interesting my reflections on the *experience* of eReading:

    Frederick Glaysher

  37. I don’t mean to “over post” here but I’ve been thinking about all this for a very long time and working hard, as an independent writer, to figure out how to make the Internet work for me as a writer, not the conglomerates and gatekeepers. “librarybob” makes some fascinating connections that I want to respond to:

    “What happens to the great author who just can’t work a social network?”

    One word: Facebook. 350,000 million people, a worldwide market, serviced by EBM, Lightning Source, etc. No gatekeepers and manipulators in between… e.g., ALA, Booklist, Kurkus Reviews…

    “Publishers Weekly.”

    Part of the old model, which I acknowledge you realize. I’ve thought at times that something like Library Thing would help, but they’re still clinging to the old model as well, in my view, to date.

    “booksellers and librarians need to develop new ways, new online ways, to obtain and review titles so we can purchase them and make them known to the public.”

    I agree. But it’s the democratization and decentralization of the Internet and Post-Gutenberg Age that is the greatest challenge of the old model. They, as much as LibraryThingy approaches aren’t recognizing that enough…

    Now in light of all that, consider again, very seriously, what is now possible for the independent writer who understands and feels in his bones all the pent up fury of all the generations of exploited writers since Gutenberg:

    Frederick Glaysher

  38. At the far, far end of the spectrum, over there where books are fetish objects, to be revered and lusted after, some of you may have seen this article & video. I’ve been in the business of using new technology to make books since the 1980s, and I almost weep at the beauty, dedication, craft & sheer joy that must have motivated this guy for a whole decade of his life.

    Watch and enjoy this paean to biblioporn. I hear the price was $1800, and has appreciated to around $7000 per copy.


  39. Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Readers are both attempts to corner the market, Sony less so. It’s really the devices that will recognize and allow the individual the freedom to choose that will win out in the long run.

    Since I can only put one link on my Profile, let me mention that my blog, eReading, is available on my website under > Blogs. There I discuss ereaders much more extensively.

    Boing Boing, great article. I’ve learnt a lot from it. It has helped me understand to a much deeper level how obsessed with controlling and manipulating what people can find available to read the American Library Association, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, etc., and the entrenched schools of thought, really are. I’ve always known that and recognized it as one of the fundamental problems for an independent writer and publisher to have to deal with, but this discussion has opened it much more to view–and the extent to which it is really still running counter to the entire direction of the Post-Gutenberg Age. They running scared, think about it. How do we remain in control, their pitiful dirge.

    The whole system of the mega-publisher and librarians scratching one another’s backs needs to come to an end, buried, along with all those who are profiting on the work of writers who are doing the real work of sacrificing to study and write.

    Generations of writers are exulting in their graves…

  40. It’s not that librarians want to be in control. It’s that they’re too lazy to re-examine a reviewing system that was “state of the art” in 1890. ;-)

  41. I worked in a successful independent bookstore in a small, working-class town of about 8000. We grossed an average of $800 a day (not sure what that means in terms of profit)which seemed like a decent sum. Unfortunately, one of the biggest draws of the store was the discreetly-hidden selection of porn magazines.

  42. librarybob wrote:
    It’s not that librarians want to be in control. It’s that they’re too lazy to re-examine a reviewing system that was “state of the art” in 1890. ;-)

    My response:

    Their reviewing system is also based on a worldview, which, like all worldviews, closes itself off to other possibilities. That it’s the same worldview that other controlling sectors subscribe to, i.e., universities, largely the media, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and so on, not to leave those in traditional publishing, means truly serious and needed alternatives are shunted aside.

    The usual rebuttal is the cream rises to the top. The reality is much of it sours for lack of requisite refrigeration to get it to market.

    Fortunately, the Internet has perhaps come along just in time for civilization. Though those entrenched are straining every muscle to preserve the status quo, the truly creative have gone around them, as has happened with music. Books and publishing are on the cusp and the next few years will increasingly witness the massive changes for which Jason Epstein, ebooks, and Lightning Source have laid the foundations.

    I’ve never liked the fact that librarians were in between me and what I wanted to read. Too many of them got in the way, arrogantly thinking of themselves qualified to judge what’s “trash” and what isn’t. Political, religious, or non-religious bias always figures way too much in that for my tastes. I have to differ. Many librarians, indeed, do want to be in control of that screening process. The Internet now gives that control to the individual, the individual reader of what Saul Bellow called “the great public,” who alone has the ability to find and recognize what is new and worthwhile, not “trash.”

    The Mission of Earthrise Press on my website discusses the Post-Gutenberg Age in more detail.

  43. To bear Cory out a little…

    I run a bookshop in an art gallery in the UK. We sell a mix of products (cards, gifts, stationery etc) but roughly 80% of space and 70% of sales is from books. We publish our own titles connected to our exhibitions programme. We never discount, except for damaged books or potential returns which go in our annual January sale.

    The book choice is carefully curated by me and my assistants, and includes a range of books and zines by local artists and hard-to-find limited edition books from independent publishers and art presses. This gives us a competitive and creative edge which then allows us to sell more mainstream titles to an affluent, indpendently minded audience which at the point of discovering a book doesn’t want to price compare against other stores, or wait for delivery.

    The fact that all of our profit goes back to the gallery helps our audience to feel good about their purchases, and enables greater self-funding.

    It is a model that works well, and profitably within the context of a larger taxpayer-funded instituition. As independent retail generally (and bookselling in particular) continues to decline I am certain that part of the gap left will be filled by larger institutions and attractions who can use retail (often of books) to add value and context to a wider remit, rather than simply selling goods for the sake of profit.


    To those who believe that creative products (music, tv, film, books) should be very cheap or free online I would say simply that ‘you get what you pay for’. I like my art delivered by professionals and I’m happy to pay them a reasonable premium for that. Film, TV and music all have multiple revenue streams – cinematic release, toys,gigs and concerts – publishing has very little aside from the words on the page, those words are worth your time and need your money.

  44. I remember people talking about the pleasures of physically browsing record shops. It didn’t save them.

    For bookstores to survive, they must present an advantage so compelling that I’ll spend time & effort going to the store. It used to be, that I needed to go to a record store to meet my desire for music. That is no longer the case. I don’t even think about record stores, or video-rental stores, anymore. Soon, that will be true of bookstores, as well.

    Undeniably, there are pleasures associated with the printed book. But most people (i.e., the people one must sell-to, in order to remain in business) do not buy a book for the crispness of the page, or to feel the page turn under their fingers, or even notice the well-chosen and properly-sized type. Those are the pleasures of the gourmet, of the collector. Most people buy for information, or for story. Neither of those requires paper, or ink, or a trip to Borders.

    Printing ink on paper has endured and dominated publication for centuries, no question. That is not an argument that it will continue to do so. I note that stories and experience were orally conveyed for millenia before Gutenberg. And yet, that did not prevent ink-and-paper from largely replacing the skald and the memory of village elders.

  45. I think Cory’s right – the bookstores that survive will be those that are canny about catering to their local audiences.

    An example of one that’s doing this, and thriving, is Camden Lock Books at Old St Underground station in London. Old St is a medium-sized transport hub on the border between hipster Shoreditch and the financial City of London; the mix of people walking past the shop every day typically

    – have design/architecture/web/fashion jobs (Shoreditch), or
    – work in mainstream financial jobs (City)

    …but in both cases are generally travelling to and from work by train and want something to read.

    The shop stocks a moreish-but-crunchy mixture of current bestsellers and well-chosen (and sometimes abstruse) literary fiction, along with a decent selection of niche genres and nonfiction. It’s ace. I spend 2+ hours on the train every day (I work at Old St) and recently worked out that in a typical month I spend more money in that shop per week than I do in the pub.

    Camden Lock Books is the only independent bookstore I know of that’s thriving. I think it’s down to how well-tuned it is to its market (graduate professionals who need something at least reasonably intelligent to read while they travel), and the fact that its market is naturally bibliovorous. It’s interesting to speculate about other locations with specific niche markets, and beyond that to how many of these buy enough to make niche stores worthwhile. But in essence, with the proliferation of both titles published and sales channels the only survival strategy for physical bookstores has to be a mix of curation and shrewd observation of what will make the bookworms keep coming back.

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