Writer’s Eye: Making Room & The Weapon Against the e-Revolution

It’s a common theme at most book stores in 2011: overcrowded confusion, patrons fighting for space and comfort, misfiled books and too few workers to make sense of it all. Such is the sight at the better book stores, anyway. The less popular ones…well…if they haven’t folded like Borders, they are just as overcrowded, with a lot of books that won’t sell- and what’s worse: they lack the customers to maintain steady revenue.

Things are slightly better for book stores around the holidays; there is no doubt about the economic boost that the shopping season brings to even the sketchiest of retailers as consumers scrounge for gifts. But the holiday season is a short one, and by mid January, the chaos that has overcome large book selling chains will have died down considerably. In the wake of such commotion, businesses will be left with too many books, too little room, and only a small niche of people who find bookstores comforting.

What many higher-up’s at book chains, and store owners of independent book stores are failing to understand, though, is that they are combating two unique trends that unfortunately do not seem to be going away:

The first is the ever expanding trend towards e-books. In other posts, I have argued that e-books and their technology are just a cultural fad.; but as businesses fight for survival, the enviorment and culture surrounding readerships is demanding preparation for just the opposite. Simply put, if book sellers cannot turn a profit from a patron’s visit  then they cannot expect to cover the costs associated with renting a space, filling their shelves, paying staff, and covering costs of health care for those employees. In summary, this figure, known as a store’s conversation which is the ratio of the number of patron’s who walk into a store versus the amount of transaction a store makes, needs to rise.

There have been articles written that discuss the problem of consumers who do their shopping at conventional book stores, only to jot down a book’s title for later purchase at Amazon, where consumers feel they can get books for a better price.

Additionally, Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer eBooks and e-Readers to consumers, which add an additional layer of convenience that readers seem to be leaning towards, especially those who have busy lives and spend an hour or more in public commute.

Efforts are underway at smaller chains to offer eBooks at a competitive price, which will certainly help attract consumers. However, there is an additional need, which is to add incentive to the buyer to purchase a hardcover book- which is where independent retailers really make their money.

To that end, small businesses and ebook publishers should continue to work together, and begin offering bundles (where for an additional dollar, the book will be available to you for download via your Amazon account, B&N account, iBooks, etc.). In that way, consumers will be encouraged to buy books in their physical form without having to sacrifice the conveience of e-readers. Becuase although it is still widely accepted that paper books are the preferred way to read, they are not the only way anymore. In order to accomplish this, small businesses should be given promotion codes by publishers to administer to patrons’ accounts if they purchase hard books.

Publishers won’t mind, because they’re achieving a rare thing for booksellers: selling two copies of the same thing to a consumer. Amazon/B&N/Apple won’t mind because they will still collect a percentage of the transaction, and many independently published e-books often sell for free, $1, or $2 anyway.

But once the problem of e-books is addressed, there will still be another glaring defiency to combat at book stores. This is a problem that comic book fans found a solution to over two decades ago: in stores that try to service “every genre”, crowds become overwhelming, staff become under-educated on your favorite genre of literature, books become wildly misplaced, and some sections outgrow their alloted real estate (books then spill onto piles along the floor and asiles of the book section, further adding to the chaos of the book store.) All of that confusion will of course steer consumers accustomed to the organization of the internet to places like Amazon.

Again, I am stressing the need based on consumer trends, NOT the popular or ideal answer. While it seems great that book stores should be conglomerate and all encompassing, they simply cannot keep comprehensive catalogues. In today’s reading circles, fantasy books and teen fiction are enormously popular. That’s all well and good, and not an issue in and of itself; however, when those sections are only given a combined four shelves at a major bookstore, because other sections like romance, dietary cooking, and world history need space as well, you find the unorganized situation I described earlier: books on the floor, piled along asiles and in corners, lost to the eye.

To solve this problem, book stores should become specialized. Storefronts should open dedicated to a particular group of readers- stores serving these audiences will find themselves less overwhelming, and thus, populated by readers who will be more likely to be “serious” buyers. Serving them will be a staff who are both more familiar with their stock, and more educated on the popular authors of the genre.

What will book stores do with all of the extra real estate they gain by removing shelves of over 60% of the books they do not serve? Simply put: they will eccentuate their biggest advantage over digital retailers: LIVE space.

Offer free wifi. Offer comfortable and well lit (or dimly lit) reading areas. Offer artisan coffee and tea. Offer abundant music. Offer silence. Offer the opportunity to engage reading groups, to hold university lectures (if possible). Offer new media and presentations on the genres. Focus on your target. As a store, you should not target “readers of books” anymore, because readers are flocking to Amazon. Instead, target “INDIVIDUALS interested in like subjects” (for instance: dietary, health, wellness, athletic, and home improvement books). Provide work shops and hands on sessions, and watch the conversion trends shift in your favor.

If consumers have shown anything since the Apple revolution, its that they are willing to pay more for what they perceive to be a superior service, knowledgeable staff who can properly guide them, and who take ownership in the product they push.

The final hitch to this argument, which is that some readers cannot be grouped into a genre, is a valid one. There are two solutions here: the first is to encourage them to continue to purchase through Amazon (after all, Amazon is a great site. No one should encourage their demise-instead, only encourage competitive balance). The second is to guide readers to libraries, where they can find a miraid of books. If libraries see increased volume, they too will be able serve the greater good of communities, rather than struggle as is the current trend. Librarians are often well versed and libraries are traditionally organized, since library patrons and librarians take more pride n the books they handle.

Have you seen stores that are already doing this? Do you have a suggestion? Totally disagree? Let me know!