What Is the Future of the Physical Bookstore? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

The Problem of Reinventing the Bookstore by Nate Hoffelder

Over at The Digital Reader, Hoffelder summarizes and comments on several designs meant to “reinvent” the bookstore. What should a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the digital age look like? Some ideas include the following:

  • Literary sommeliers who advise you on what to read next. (I think these are also called “booksellers.”)
  • A dedicated area specifically for events.
  • Comfortable reading areas, with ready access to drinks and food.
  • Desks that can be rented.
  • Multimedia interfaces in the store that allow for digital purchasing, reading of online reviews, and other “sensory” experiences.

Hoffelder says there’s just one problem with these visions:

I was disappointed by the lack of detail on the bookstores’s business models. Only one of the designs really addressed that point, and what they propose just doesn’t sound practical. The real point of this exercise was to find ways for booksellers to make more money …

Thoughts & questions:

  • How will physical retail bookstores need to change to remain viable businesses as more book sales shift online?
  • What is the future business model of the bookstore? Is it primarily based on selling books?

Platform Monopolies by Fred Wilson

Speaking of bookstores: One of the most well-known venture capitalists, Fred Wilson, has commented on the larger question raised by the ongoing Amazon-Hachette battle. He writes:

When a platform like Amazon emerges as the dominant monopoly in publishing, who will keep them honest? When every author has left the publishing house system and has gone direct with Amazon, what does that world look like? … We have invested in Wattpad, which is a bottoms up competitor to Amazon, as opposed to Hachette, which is a top down competitor to Amazon. We think its easier for a more open, less commercial platform like Wattpad to keep Amazon honest than it is for a legacy publishing house.

Thoughts & questions:

  • I’ll just pose a version of Wilson’s own question: When you see a dominant market power emerge (in this case, Amazon), ask yourself, “What will undo that market power?”

Will Publishing Change the Tone? by Porter Anderson

For those not closely following the news and debates on Amazon vs. Hachette, you might not realize it, but the discussion has become heated, divisive, and rather nasty. I have more or less removed myself from the conversation, except for the handful of articles I’ve linked to through Smart Set (such as the Wilson piece above).

As the dispute drags on through the summer, Porter Anderson asks if it’s time to dial it back. He writes:

How are you going to be able to take in such a high, bracing view of things if you’re trying to score points in the ground war, blog-shrieking at the 38th self-publishing romance writer from the left? … Spirited, informative, earnestly felt debate can be a huge help in such times of change and challenge. But it’s not necessary to take sides. In fact, it can be an education just to listen carefully to everyone trying to sway you.

Thoughts & questions:

  • There are many gray areas. Let’s acknowledge them.
Posted in Smart Set.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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[…] Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.  […]

Graham Downs
Graham Downs

Regarding the future of physical bookstores, I actually had a vision the other day.

It was of a bookstore that behaved more like an old video rental store. You’d browse the shelves, find the book you want, and when you’d paid for it, you wouldn’t take it home.

Instead, the book you’ve just purchased would be automatically sent to your e-reading app in the format of your choosing. 🙂

Anittah Patrick
Anittah Patrick

What an interesting question about which many of us have thought, I’m sure. Often as I think about how digital has disrupted many businesses, I try and frame my lines of inquiry around “what customer problem does this business solve?” Ultimately, physical bookstores satisfy a buyer’s desire to align themselves with a particular subculture — specifically, as one who is a member of the literati (if you will). I think the notion of a writing gym meets curated bookseller meets cafe is on to something. As my husband and I have often joked about buying a property zoned for retail,… Read more »

William Ash
William Ash

I think these are pointing to some real confusion in the world. First, bookstores are retailers. We like to confuse them with literacy as if they are something intrinsic to reading and ideas and culture. They sell books. The book does not change if I buy it online. If the book is the point, then the distribution of it is just a matter of efficiency. The loss of a distributor only impacts a culture if what they are distributing becomes unavailable or rarer. This is not the case. The problem of the monopolies are not that they are big per… Read more »

Angela Ackerman

I really enjoy these Smart Sets, Jane. Thank you so much for getting us thinking beyond the articles.


Indie bookstores MUST tie into ebooks. There’s no way around it. Some have via Indiebound, but the vast majority (like my local bookstore) haven’t. I’d love to see if a community model works–as in, maybe the ebooks aren’t as cheap, but a percentage of your money goes to an organization in your neighborhood. So, you buy an ebook and help support a literacy program or a local food kitchen or something.

It might not work, but hey, nothing to lose as a trial.

Marcy Mason McKay
Marcy Mason McKay

I almost picture part-Starbucks and part-library (where more than whispering is allowed). The baristas are knowledgeable about books and can recommend what to read next. The literary vibe is there and a place for folks to gather. We NEED physical book stores to continue!


[…] future physical bookstore will look based on articles she’s find on the great world wide web https://janefriedman.com/2014/07/17/future-physical-bookstore/ 2) I am looking forward to reading the results for this WritersDigest fiction […]