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The reinvention of the bookseller

Coffee shops were game changers for bookstores in the '90s. What's next?

This post originally appeared on Publishers Weekly.

Books Etc Victoria by markhillary, on FlickrIf you’re a brick-and-mortar bookseller, does your blood pressure rise when you think about e-retailers and their deep discounts? Do you look at ebooks as a threat or an opportunity? Depending on how you answered those questions, you might need to ask yourself another one: What business are you really in?

If you’re simply in the business of “selling books,” I believe you’re thinking too narrowly. Think of the story of the successful tools salesman who explained why he was able to sell so many drills: “My competitors sell the drill while I focus on selling the hole.” In other words, he emphasizes the benefits while others are busy trying to sell a bunch of meaningless features.

What are the benefits you’ve successfully provided in the past? When I think of my local bookstore, some of the key benefits I see are personalized service and community. If I want to know more about a book I’m considering, I’d rather talk with a real person than simply trust a bunch of reviews on a website, especially if some of those reviews might be planted by the author or publisher. The main advantage a physical bookstore has over an online one is the in-person advice and support the former can offer.

A lesson from Apple

Despite the sluggish economy of the last few years, some brick-and-mortar retailers have found ways to grow their businesses. Apple is a terrific example. Regardless of whether you’re an Apple fan, there’s always something new and interesting to discover in an Apple store. I can’t tell you the last time I felt that way about a bookstore. I’m not talking about eye candy or glitzy merchandising; when you enter an Apple store you know you’re in for a treat.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if customers entering your bookstore had that same feeling? I realize Apple can invest a lot in its store experience because it’s selling higher-priced items, but maybe that means you need to look beyond simply selling $20 or $30 books. I’m not talking about adding stationery and toys, like some bookstores have done over the years. It’s time to think much bigger.

These days most bookstores have some sort of coffee shop or snack bar. Years ago it was a brilliant move to add that dimension, as it helped turn bookstores into a hangout rather than just an in-and-out retail destination. If in-store coffee shops were the game-changing idea of the ’90s, what’s the new one for the current decade? Here’s one possibility: an in-store self-publishing resource. Self-publishing is red-hot and still gaining momentum. But what’s sorely lacking in the self-publishing world is a reliable place to go to ask all the questions. How do I get started? What’s the best platform? How do I create a marketing campaign? Self-publishing enthusiasts are left with a slew of questionable online options and a few in-person events. Why not create an in-person self-publishing resource within your store?

Take a page out of Apple’s playbook and create a Genius Bar service for customers interested in self-publishing. Establish your location as the place to go for help in navigating the self-publishing waters. Remember, too, that most of the income earned in self-publishing is tied to services, e.g., editing, cover design, proofreading, and not necessarily sales of the finished product. Consider partnering with an established expert in these areas or build your own network of providers. The critical point is to evolve your business into something more than just selling books.

This doesn’t mean you need to invest in self-publishing equipment to enter the field, but it’s interesting to hear from someone who has. I spoke about this with Chris Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, which has had an Espresso Book Machine for a number of years. According to Morrow:

“The Espresso machine has allowed us to create a self-publishing business and more. It has changed how customers view the bookstore. The self-publishing business is a complementary business that takes advantage of technological developments while being true to our mission.”

If my self-publishing suggestion isn’t the best option for your store, don’t simply give up and assume you’ll always have a future selling print books. It’s clear to me that the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores will continue to decline; more specifically, the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores that mostly rely on selling print books will continue to decline. Bookstores have always been a source of inspiration and an important community resource for their customers. Think about your own store’s unique attributes and how they could be extended as print sales decline. If you go about it the right way, the digital reading revolution won’t be a threat but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconceive your business.

Photo: “Books Etc Victoria” by markhillary, on Flickr

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  • http://penumbrapublishing.com Penumbra Publishing

    That’s an amusing idea … can’t you picture a chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble getting into the onsite self-publishing market when they’re too snooty to shelve self-published books? ‘We won’t sell your books, but we’ll let you pay us to help print them.’

  • http://www.y42k.com Ray Charbonneau

    If you really think this is a good idea, hire me :-)

    One wonders how all the paper book self-publishing services stay in business. Every one I’ve seen, except for CreateSpace (Amazon), forces authors to price their books unreasonably high make any money selling copies. The Espresso machines are particularly bad regarding printing costs.