2011.07 | eBooks – Are Bookstores Dead?

eBooks are a topic on everyone’s technology discussion list these as of late.  For a great overview of what is taking place in this industry, listen to the excellent podcast Closing the Book by Sean Prpick from CBC’s Ideas.  A recent post on CBC’s Spark also discussed new creative directions for digital publishers. 

The recent bankruptcy of Borders Books in the US has certainly brought home the weight of the changes taking place.  The Kindle is Amazon’s best selling item of all time, and eBooks seem poised to overtake paperbacks and hardcover books in sales – at least at Amazon.  The New York Time is also going to start publishing a best sellers list for eBooks. 

While I knew it was a big deal when the Kindle came out in 2007, and then the Kobo and iPad in 2010, but it really struck me that the eBook was mainstream when my mother asked whether she should get an iPad, Kindle, Kobo, or Sony eReader.  I used to think eReading was for geeks at the airport reading books on their Palm Pilots.  These gadgets are for your mom now.  (Just don’t try to explain to her how she can access the internet for free on her Kindle without it being connected to anything.  Trust me.)

For eBooks, the store is now a device instead of a brick and mortar structure.  Realizing that it was important to be competitive in this new reality, many of the eReader providers have developed software that easily crosses platforms to avoid customers getting locked into a store with a device as much as possible.  Most of the of main reading solutions are able to be used on multiple devices – providing access to your reading material on the eReaders PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, Android phones and ereaders.  For eBooks in Canada, one can use software based reading applications such as Amazon Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, GoodReader, Stanza and more.  Consumers can now hear about a book, comparison shop across various stores and purchase a book in the time it takes to get out of the house and get into a car.   The eReading app even remembers where you were in the book when you open it on a different device.

Exclusivity with one or another bookstore by certain authors can make it more costly to obtain some books, but it seems that the publishing houses (and retailers) have learned from the staggering success of iTunes to ensure that there is availiability of titles via multiple bookstores, so there is a greater opportunity to shop around more quickly than there was with music in the early days.  The process is so simple that my mom can do it without thinking. Bookstores not connected to any reader are also popping up a lot faster than music sites did – sites like: eBooks.com and Google eBookstore.  Most avid readers also know that there are millions of free books available online at the retail bookstores as well as via sites like Project Gutenburg and the Internet Archive that provide material in various electronic formats.   With solutions from Overdrive becoming increasingly common it is also possible to borrow eBooks from many local libraries.  Kindle users in US are able to lend books to each other for two weeks, spawning services like Lendle to allow strangers to loan each other eBooks.

So much for going to the old bookstore for books.  What about magazines?  Many of the magazine publishers have jumped into the iPad publishing craze.  Some magazine specific iPad apps include Wired, Popular Mechanics (you would expect those for the techheads among us), but also Time, People, Oprah’s ‘O’ Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.  These are the mainstays of magazine racks everywhere.  Do these apps deliver a better experience than the magazine?  Maybe for some.  While they are enjoyable, I personally feel it makes reading the magazines feel more like being online.  I’d rather just enjoy the magazine as I always have so far. 

This reality has driven me and many others to Zinio.    Zinio works much like the eReader apps but for magazines.  Subscribe to magazines for around the same price as the paper copy and you can read it on Mac or PC, iPad or iPhone.  One of the biggest annoyances of subscribing to a magazine was seeing the new edition on the newstand for a week or so while you waited for it to arrive at your front door.  Now consumers get the magazine immediately when it is released.  Almost any mainstream (and some non-mainstream) magazine you can imagine is on the service.  No paper to mail or throw out, and even better, no subscription cards stuck in every 3 pages.  One of the best innovations of Zinio is being able to see all of the magazine subscription information and expiry dates in one place.   No more reminders every time you go to the mailbox that it’s your last notice to renew. 

So does all of this ease of purchase and ease of use mean the death of the bookstore?  Perhaps as we know it, yes, but most retailers have learned from the past.  Decades ago railroads missed the fact that they were in the transportation business, and not the train business – losing all of their business to trucks and other formats.  Booksellers and Music Stores realize that they are in the business of selling content – not books or CDs.  You can already see these retailers changing their product mix to meet the new realities. 

Those retailers that know their businesses work as curators.  They provide advice, ideas, and interfaces into experiences.  Today’s time starved consumer is overwhelmed by the massive selection of ways to spend their time, and media to consume.  Physical stores are not going to disappear, just as books will not go away completely.  Stores will continue to act as a hub of communal interest – providing reading, performances and discussion forums. 

Brick and mortar retailers will provide value beyond the book or the CD.  Product, Price, Place, and Promotion as elements of offers don’t change – but the delivery mechanism is, and that needs to be recognized.  Understanding of the consumer, and the ability to provide what that specific consumer wants, when they want it, is absolutely key.  It’s those tools that are really just starting to come into their own.

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