December 6, 2011

Trending toward the truth: Poll shows internet booksales rely heavily on brick-and-mortar bookstores


It has long been my contention that much of what’s going on in the book business today has anything to do with what books are really supposed to be about — Amazon is not forcing ebooks upon people because it’s the best format to deliver the literary information contained within, for example, but because the margins are better, which is the same reason Barnes and Noble is putting Godiva chocolates where there used to be books. The other half of my contention is that one reason it’s gotten this way is that reporting on the industry has tended to follow trends at the cost of reporting reality.

Thus, as I pointed out in a MobyLives post a few months ago, the demise of Borders was treated as a trend story, the trend being that ebooks are cooler than print books and people were thus losing interest in print books, instead of a business story, whereby Borders had simply been badly managed and all signs were actually not that people didn’t want print books anymore, but simply that giant corporations didn’t want to sell them anymore.

Now, another case in point — as a New York Times report put it:

Bookstore owners everywhere have a lurking suspicion: that the customers who type into their smartphones while browsing in the store, and then leave, are planning to buy the books online later — probably at a steep discount from the bookstores’ archrival,

Now a survey has confirmed that the practice, known among booksellers as showrooming, is not a figment of their imaginations. According to the survey, conducted in October by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, 24 percent of people who said they had bought books from an online retailer in the last month also said they had seen the book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore first.

Thirty-nine percent of people who bought books from Amazon in the same period said they had looked at the book in a bookstore before buying it from Amazon, the survey said.

It was just one of many reports on the survey. But in going for the sexy trend story (Amazon is killing old-fashioned brick-and-mortar bookstores) every one of those reports missed something important, not to mention fascinating — and not to mention something that must be alarming to Amazon: For 39 percent of Amazon’s polled, a bookstore is still a crucial part of their book-buying experience.

Think about it: Almost 40 percent of Amazon’s customers, according to this poll, have added a complicated step (the time-consuming and not-without-expense process of going to a bookstore) to the simplicity of Amazon’s buying process. Maybe it’s because they don’t want a book with a dinger on it, or they want to see the quality of the paper or art reproduction. Maybe they want to ask a clerk about it. Maybe they want to be sure they don’t get stuck with another print-on-demand copy that looks like a piece of shit when it arrives. Maybe it’s because “Look Inside the Book” just isn’t the same as flipping through a real book. Whatever. Almost 40 percent of Amazon’s book-buying customers have rejected something fundamental to Amazon, which is the concept of buying something sight unseen. And indeed, according to this poll 40 percent of Amazon’s business thus relies on brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Which begs the further observation: What happens if the geniuses at Amazon puts all those bookstores out of business?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.