I’ll start with an anecdote.
Back when the dinosaurs walked the Earth, 1964 or 1965, I saw Disney’s version of Jules Verne “20,000 League Under the Sea”, the 1954 film. I loved it.
Of course, the next week when my friends and I played, they wanted to be either Ned Land or Captain Nemo. Me? I wanted to be Dr. Aronax. But I digress.
A dear uncle of mine found out I loved to read and encouraged me to do so at every turn. He came to visit and was very amused at my going on and on about the movie. He was surprised, and, I’d like to think, a little impressed, that I recalled so many details and even portions of the dialogue. He asked me if I had read the book. I said no. He then asked if I would like to read the book.
I literally jumped up and down and said yes, boy, would I ever like to read the book!
A cute anecdote, you are thinking, but what does it have to do with comparing brick and mortar bookstores to online stores for ebooks or print on demand books? I’m coming to that.
So, my uncle asked my mother if he could take me to buy the book, and she said yes, happy to have me out of her hair for a while.
The ride over to the bookstore was eternal, as far as my six-year-old mind was concerned.
We got to one of the best bookstores in the city. Two stories worth of books, I kid you not. Literally thousands of books.
The smell was wonderful, the shelves filled to capacity with printed works.
There were areas for magazines, all formats, and sizes. Life was there, so was Time, Newsweek, Bohemia, many others.
The different bookshelves were carefully labeled. We looked for classic fiction books. Then we looked for Jules Verne. There! We found the books we were looking for. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. “Journey to the center of the Earth”, “Around the world in 80 days”, “From the Earth to the Moon”, and so on.
But no “20,000 leagues under the sea”.
They were out.
My uncle asked a salesperson if they had the title. Alas, they did not.
My heart broke, a little, but I told him, that was OK, I’d love to read any of the other works by Verne.
He smiled and said no. He’d get it for me.
The attendant, the bookstore manager, and my uncle spent the better part of an hour on the bookstore’s phone talking to the other locations of the chain, to see if they had a copy, and eventually, to a wholesaler.
They found one. The “last” copy that the wholesaler had. It’d be delivered in one to two weeks.
About three weeks later, my uncle came to visit and had a beautiful hardback copy of the book.
It took me three days to finish reading it, cover to cover. I wrote my uncle a thank you letter and my mother mailed it for me.
I’ve read that particular book many times over the years.
Now, what does that have to do with comparing brick and mortar stores to online stores?
Let me put it this way. If you are browsing, there is little if any difference. You’ll pick a book from the available selection.
However, if you are looking for a specific book, the difference can be between a sale by the bookstore and the author versus the reader walking away, empty-handed, and a lost sale.
The physical store needs to have inventory. A vast inventory. They must have an ample selection of genre as well as one or more copies of each of the books.
Let me put it in context. Today, they may have on hand only one copy of each of the different works by Ian Fleming, all the 007 novels, if any. They don’t sell much anymore, if at all. Of the “Harry Potter” books? I bet they have more than one copy of each.
The bookstore must make a large cash investment to have the book you are looking for. Not only must the structure be attractive, well illuminated, and comfortable, they must also have a large selection and inventory of the different works. The tough part is that this does not guarantee a sale.
If you go to the bookstore looking for the hottest new release, the book everyone is raving about, the one that every single book club is reading and discussing right now, there are two possible scenarios.
You walk in the bookstore and a short distance beyond the door you can clearly see, further in the store, an area dedicated to that title. Probably a table of sorts with a mound of copies of the book on it.
You walk in the store and see the empty table in front of the promotional point of sale material and maybe a note inviting you to please walk up to the counter where you can place your order for the book.
But, you may think, why place an order here? I’ll do it online.
That is the fundamental difference I want to talk about here.
The bookstore places the point of sale material close to the door or on the storefront window, to lure readers in. Then the actual book is further in, sometimes in the back. Why? So the reader walks through the store and, maybe, have an impulse buy.
The bookstore must make the most of the time they have the readers’ attention. That’s why they now have coffee shops and other amenities, as well as areas dedicated to journals or diaries, pens, pencils, art supplies, accessories, author signings, of course, and so many other things.
They need to make the store inviting, a destination in itself, and sell the reader something while they have them there.
An online bookstore is completely different, even if the basic product is the same.
These stores rely on a high volume of traffic, but the work is to be performed by each and every author, not them, necessarily. They have to make sure the page is easy to find, user-friendly, easy to navigate, easy to complete a transaction, a good search feature, and done. It’s on the author to have an eye-catching cover, a hook on the blurb that captures the reader and motivates them to buy.
The reader is looking for a book. Either a specific title or browsing. So they go to their favorite online store, type in the title, their favorite author’s name, their favorite genre, any of the many different keywords that will help the search feature to identify something appealing to the reader. Then, on their phone, their tablet, their reading device, or their computer, they browse or select the very title they wanted. Sometimes, if it’s an ebook, in a few seconds, often under a minute, they have access to their new book. If it’s a print on demand book, it may take a couple of days or even a couple of weeks, but they already bought the book.
So the difference, essentially, is the immediacy of the transaction and the availability of the product. Online, they “always” have it on hand. The reader expects and will get it immediately if you are purchasing the ebook. If the reader is getting a printed book, they know it’ll take a while. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes, not so much, but the readers are already committed and the store never misses a sale because the title is “not in stock” or “out of print”.
For me, I love bookstores. They are places filled with windows into the minds of our fellows. Either to their special skills, to their professions, to their faith, or their flights of fancy, to so many other glimpses into fruitful minds.
I admit I buy books online. Both ebook and printed. It’s convenient, not only from the immediacy point of view but also because you don’t run out of room on your shelves… much.
But I still go to bookstores, and I always buy something. Anything. Even if it’s just a pen or a notebook. I don’t want to see them go away. It’d be a wonderful experience lost forever if they did.
What do you think? What do you prefer? Let me know, and I hope you enjoyed this little look at bookstores, in general.