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.
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