Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Bookstore of Tomorrow

After Seth Godin made a big announcement that he would not publish any more books, the debate about the future of book publishing has come back to life for another couple of weeks. The main point is whether bookstores as we know them will cease to exist taking along the way the culture of reading in comfy chairs sipping on coffee and whatnot to make way for digital book readers & book shopping on computers or on-the-go from Internet-connected devices.

Well, if the bookstore reading culture is such a major thing how about making an effort to preserve it while adjusting to the new conditions? There is almost always a compromising way unless the old system is absolutely broken. In this case, it is the business model not the experience that has problems, so here’s what I’d like to see happen:

The Market

Bookstore as a business where people come to buy books will disappear. Same thing will happen to libraries as repositories of old books. Instead, the two will merge in community learning centers where people rent, buy, or read books as well as engage in all kinds of educational activities. It will not surprise me if audio & video will also be distributed there.

Publishers will just have to accept the changing rules of the game. When Amazon decides to open its first digital learning center (joined by any B&M bookseller), they will have little say. Currently, they are the gatekeepers between authors and printers, and the middle men tend to disappear as distribution comes closer to producers.

The Experience

Shelves will be used only to display the latest releases from publishers as well as self-published books from authors with enough acclaim or who paid for the prominent positioning. The display may even well be just electronic images of covers instead of physical objects.

In order to get a book, a person would bring an e-reader to the cover and a contact-less scanner (either an RFID or a QR-code-like) will recognize the book and download it onto the e-reader. Once the download completes, the person will have the option to rent, check out, or buy the book depending on the licensing. Reading within the building will be free and controlled by some positioning technology.

Libraries would be replaced with computer research stations with e-reader connectivity and most space will be converted into quiet reading spaces & interactive classrooms. This will allow library staff to focus on helping with research.

The Business Model

It’s true that the printing industry will suffer the most from this new fully-digital system, but it will also bring new money-making possibilities. Libraries may be privatized and converted to the freemium model where some services will be free and other will require a fee.

I think that the best revenue model will include free renting (checking out) of books older than, say, 9 months, a membership fee to get the latest releases, and an on-site café. These educational centers will also have the ability to rent out classrooms to private groups and to charge for classes. The competition will be focused around additional activities (tutoring, lectures, films, etc.), equipment availability, staff professionalism, and probably food quality.

The main benefit to both publishers (who will probably become a mix of literature marketers & copyright managers) & authors will be the new “literature-as-a-service” model where learning centers will pay ongoing license subscription fees to the book catalogs. This way out of print books can still bring revenue. Continuing the analogy with the software industry, authors are likely to make more money in this case. However, I am not an expert in pricing & revenue distribution in that industry so I may be wrong.

So that’s my vision of tomorrow’s bookstore. Funny thing is that it’s not revolutionary. All of these strategies have already been tested in other industries. The only “innovation” is the distribution channel but it’s here already so we just need to wait for it to become commonplace.
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