October 10, 2013

The Bookstore Scavengers

—Gary Jennings, The Journeyer If a man is to have a fault, it should be a passionate one, like insatiable curiosity. It would be a pity to be

—Gary Jennings, The Journeyer

If a man is to have a fault, it should be a passionate one, like insatiable curiosity. It would be a pity to be damned for something paltry.

Several years ago, I began a notebook wherein I would jot down excerpts from books I was reading. Excerpts like the one above: not earth-shattering wisdom, but a pleasing quotation that I would have otherwise forgotten.

This notebook, unsurprisingly, remains largely empty.

In the moment, without wishing to pause my reading to whip out a notebook (which I would need to have with me) or a phone, I would have flown past that phrase and it would have vanished into obscurity.

Reading on my Kindle, I can highlight it immediately and preserve any memorable literary nuggets for later. To me, this is an aspect of e-reading that deepens my engagement with the books and helps me retain meaningful passages in a way that simply wasn’t practical before.

The Bright Side

—David Brin, Existence

What’s the one best sign of a mature person? Letting others help you reconsider your assumptions.

We often read about how people like me who grew up with physical books are grappling with the transition to digital reading.

Those experiences tend to focus on what is lost: the palpability of page turning, the craftsmanship of good binding, the deliberate art of printed typography, and the experience of visiting a bookstore.

Some of those things, inevitably, will be lost. Progress is unsentimental. But eventually it will be understood that those qualities may not have entirely disappeared, but changed form.

If we take the bookstore example and look past the surface, the true appeal was in the sense of discovery inherent in browsing through a treasure trove of literary choice.

That discovery, that serendipity, is not defeated by Amazon’s recommendations. Book stores need not disappear. But they must undergo a metamorphosis.


Adults follow paths. Children explore.

Kindles and their companions have unintentionally turned avid readers into bookstore scavengers: vultures that descend on shelves out of habit, grazing as before, but leaving with jotted-down titles instead of purchases.

This remains a missed opportunity. Instead of being content to let customers surreptitiously snap cover photos for later searching on Amazon, why not reward their interest?

As others have pointed out, the mechanism to accomplish this already exists: simple use of affiliate links and QR codes would allow the bookstore to turn those lost sales into profit, albeit a profit that they’d share with the digital retailer whose affiliate program they align themselves with.

But even here, there are better deals waiting to be brokered.

It saddens me to see even large bookstores meekly deflecting the problem by trying to diversify their offering to include general lifestyle” wares.

It has gotten to the point where walking into Indigo you’re equally likely to see blankets as you are books. I don’t know what the right solution to this problem is, but I’m pretty sure I know what the wrong one looks like.

The Way Forward

—Hugh Howey, Wool: Omnibus

It turned out some crooked things looked even worse when straightened.

If bookstores look to the future, they needn’t see only doom and gloom, or lose their way. Unintentionally, their attempts to circumvent the influence of ebooks is eroding the core values that make up their appeal.

The world has enough stores for pillows and teapots.

Bookstores are temples of literature, where worshippers descend to enjoy time with fantastical worlds beyond their own. This is a wonderful thing that needs to be encouraged and adapted for the modern world.

As people embrace e-reading more ubiquitously, shops can spend less money buying huge quantities of hardcopies: having just enough to keep them on the shelves for people to browse through, with vouchers or cards available allowing customers to buy themselves a digital copy once they’ve found what they like.

Then they can focus on what brings people to stores over Amazon: discovery, author events, the ambiance of a bookstore environment, the membership card loyalty points, etc.

What if reading more books earned you discounts as a card-carrying bookstore visitor? What if avid readers were selected to receive early copies of new releases? What if their reviews were included on an in-store panel beside the new arrivals?

These changes will come in one form or another, so I’d prefer they be made deliberately by bookstores owners who are in tune with the rhythm of the world but willing to maintain their identity as they adapt.

In the meantime, you and I—readers, lovers of books, lovers of technology—will continue to be unwilling bookstore scavengers.

I’ll see you amidst the shelves.

digital lifestyle

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