future of bookstores

The Future of Bookstores is About Service and Expertise

Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

Let’s talk about the future of bookstores, shall we? I know that many, if not most, people think that the fate of bookstores lies in the way of the Dodo. Sure, it makes sense as long as you think of bookstores as buildings in which you buy physical books, which might not exist a couple of years from now — at least not the way we know them.

I wrote a similar piece on the future of libraries a couple of months ago, and I believe that the strategy of going back to the roots is also part of the future of bookstores. When I think of a bookstore, I don’t see those big faceless mall-like stores — stores that are essentially just a big warehouse, luring customers in by offering a huge choice and the convenience to take the book home immediately. And guess what, this model is massively disrupted by ebooks. The cover price is, in most cases, cheaper and I can instantly download them to my ereader after purchase without ever leaving my house.

Hence, bookstores became somewhat of a physical storefront for online booksellers like Amazon. People go into the bookstore, start reading a book and if they like it, they either scan the barcode to compare the price or download it as an ebook. Therefore Barnes&Noble’s move to enable Nook devices for in-store purchases through NFC chips is probably a good one.

What Makes a Good Bookstore?

But back to what I think makes a good bookstore. For me, bookstores are about the expertise of the owner and staff, and that is something that got lost along the way in many cases. Sure, we all thought that the wisdom of the crowd and online ratings would lead us to make better buying decisions, but we’re noticing a trend back towards expert opinions and tastemakers. There are simply too many useless or frankly bad reviews out there, so why bother with those if I can find an expert who might have a similar taste, and who I trust to give me recommendations for authors I should check out. Only a good bookstor, with trained and dedicated staff can deliver that service, and more and more people are willing to pay (again) for services like this.

More importantly, this also stays true in a digital world. I can go to a bookstore like this with my NFC or GPS-enabled device, ask the bookstore staff my questions and download the book inside the store. Through NFC or geo-location the bookstore will then earn its cut of the selling price.

The Campus Bookstore: Staying Relevant in a Digital World

If we now take a look at campus bookstores, we can see another important factor: service. I believe that services like repair, maintenance, and rental of digital devices is one part of a new business model. Digital textbooks are far from being small pdfs that download in under a minute. If we talk about the future of e-textbooks, we think of embedded videos, 3D models, audio, high-resolution pictures, and so on. Downloading such textbooks takes time and also counts on your bandwidth cap, of course. Depending on the speed of your Internet connection, this might be a pretty tedious experience. So campus bookstores could offer a service that would preload e-readers or tablets with all the books needed.

Through a rental program even high-end devices like the iPad would become more affordable for a broader audience, and the bookstore staff would also take care of saving and moving the personal data when the student switches a device.

Another interesting option is print-on-demand, based on concepts like OER or providers like Flat World Knowledge. Instead of ordering printed versions from the provider, campus bookstores could offer those services directly on-site. This saves shipping cost and time, and enables professors to quickly adjust textbooks by adding extra content.

This means of course a change of mind for many bookstore owners, because instead of fighting new technology they need to embrace it. In a digital world, the only thing that still matters is what makes your offer unique and irreplaceable by cheaper and faster online offers.

Picture License AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Natalia Romay Photography

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at KirstenWinkler.com.