Posted by: thewearyprofessor | April 13, 2012

Reading’s Future in a World Without Serendipity

Pundits are speculating the recent Justice Department decision that essentially allows carte blanche authority to set its own loss-leading e-book pricing structure may signal the death knell for brick and mortar bookstores. Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million stock prices are down on the news, and ex-Borders employees are presumably poised to act as experienced grief counselors.

Even before this development, Barnes & Noble turned most of its prime front of store display space into boutiques to promote its Nook e-reader. They might as well hand their retail workers guns to shoot themselves in the feet, as every e-reader they talk customers into buying likely lessens the need or likelihood of a return trip to the store. The clerks are effectively putting themselves out of work.

In this e-reading age, it is not only the fronts of the stores that have become interactive boutiques. For many shoppers the entire bookstore merely functions as a place to discover titles via marketing or serendipity, which browsers then order for their devices—in many cases before even leaving the store. This effectively makes brick and mortar businesses into free display space for leading e-book vendor Amazon and the publishers. Sales figures are never readily available, but I suspect the superstore cafes may be outselling the book and DVD areas.

Right or wrBN storeong, if these stores cease to exist it will profoundly affect individual readers and fundamentally alter the world of publishing forever.

What happens to the happy browsing accidents that result in the discovery of new titles? Will readers now be substantially constrained and limited by Amazon’s recommendations based on their prior purchase and browsing histories?

How will this influence and address changes in taste due to aging and personal growth? Will most readers follow the course of least resistance and keep to their favorite genres and authors? This will make publisher projections and acquisitions much less risky, but will diminish variety and daring.

Will the evolution of literature and the development of new writers fundamentally change?

Have we seen the end of the term “in print” to describe available books?

Certainly the argument is often made that the elimination of overhead, physical materials and shipping will allow publishers to keep more authors and titles available, but by what means will they be found? We must never judge books by their covers, but will we even have the opportunity to be attracted by them?

For readers, it will be the end of an epoch when the last brick and mortar bookstore closes its doors.



  1. I actually find plenty of serendipity in my discovery of e-books, especially in the prominence of new, independent authors getting a chance to find audiences through Kindle Direct Publishing. I read more than I ever did in my print-book days, and I read more varied books. I hope independent stores like the Tattered Cover in Denver will survive and find a way to benefit from the shift to e-books.

  2. Should any readers be unaware, the above comment was left by Len Edgerly, who brings us the entertaining and informative weekly podcast The Kindle Chronicles ( and who co-founded the laudable E-Books for Troops charity ( that recycles used e-readers to enlighten, entertain, and boost the morale of our soldiers. Len is also the author of several e-books himself, including a memorable account of his experience attending Amazon’s big Kindle Fire launch event last fall that I highly recommend.

    I fear Len’s e-book discovery experiences, while certainly encouraging, may not be representative of the average reader’s. Going out of his way to explore odd offerings in the Amazon Lending Library to report for his podcast, for example, may be a bit more effort than the typical Kindle owner might be expected to expend searching for new titles. Will most venture beyond what Amazon deems their comfort zones? I hope so, but I have my doubts.

    Len’s mention of Kindle Direct Publishing brings to mind another troubling issue. While it allows for a true democratization of the publishing process by eliminating editorial arbitration and allowing anyone with an inclination to publish, it has also resulted in a plethora of substandard quality works cluttering the field for researchers and general readers. Yes, editors run dictatorships, but they also provide quality control.

    Then again, if it was not for this self-publishing impulse, we would not be able to enjoy Len’s podcast or e-books–or, as if I need to mention it, my blog.

  3. Additional material on the lack of integrity and worthlessness of some of Amazon’s self-published offerings and bestseller knock-offs

  4. You make some very good points, but my feeling is that brick-and-mortar bookstores, though generally in a current state of contraction, will eventually stablize and remain a permanent feature in our communities. Many pundits have compared booksellers’ predicament to the music industry, in which independent and chain stores that sold CDs have almost completely disappeared, with physical CDs currently relegated to sub-departments in larger chains such as Walmart or Best Buy.

    However, I think the process for book buying is different than for music. Even when CD stores were abundant, I rarely went there to randomly browse and even more rarely bought a CD from a group I’d never heard of just because it looked interesting. For the most part, a CD store was more of a destination for me to buy something I knew I already wanted, and even when I did ‘browse’, it was for something I knew I wanted but was hoping to be released on CD. When CDs became available for sale on the internet, I easily pivoted to buying them online and rarely went to a CD store after that. I could even listen to clips online for just about any CD, something I couldn’t do – or do easily – in the stores.

    Bookstores, however, are different. I *do* browse bookstores for new and interesting titles. I am open to trying authors I’ve never read – or heard of. I actually want to be surprised by something I didn’t expect, and I love being able to browse through the books themselves. I find sampling a dozen pages of a book online exceptionally unsatisfying, but in a bookstore I could literally sit down and read the whole thing if I wanted to. I suspect that many people feel the way I do, and that observation is borne out by my experiences working in a bookstore. Though I do have many customers asking for a particular title, there are also a substantial amount of people who remain for hours just ‘browsing’.

    The 3 largest chain bookstores have had different experiences and reactions to the change in the bookselling climate. Borders has rung the most panic alarms, having undergone a complete liquidation. But their financial problems, although affected by the rise of Amazon and ebooks, were deeper and including long-term issues such as a bad business model, poor management, and an utter lack of vision. Even without the rise of ebooks, their future would have been shaky.

    Barnes & Noble, being the market leader, has been appointed the bellwether for the industry. But their problems can be viewed as being long-term as well. The problem with B&N is that in the space of less than 15 years, they went from a 30 store east coast operation to a 950 store behemoth. That expansion was in large part financed by debt, which was OK as long as the chain continued to expand and profits rose, which it did for over 20 years. But B&N also suffered a lack of vision, allowing Amazon to elevate ebooks to their current status and market share. You’d think the world’s largest bookseller would lead this revolution, but they missed the boat. And ebooks (and Amazon) started grabbing a significant share of sales just at the time the economy crashed, and that’s the point where B&N’s debt became a threat to the company’s existence and not just another bill that future earnings would pay for.

    Although it’s still too early to say with any certainty, Books-A-Million may be showing the industry that a chain bookstore can navigate the current crisis and stay relevant as well as financially healthy. BAM, although a chain, has expanded slowly and is still principally a regional bookseller, with most of its stores in the South, though there are some in the northeast and midwest. They have yet to expand farther west than Texas. What this means is that while B&N is struggling to escape its debt, BAM is a debt-free company. Like B&N, BAM’s comp sales are down significantly, but this past quarter, their profits were up. Unfortunately, as recounted in Business Week, that was mostly due to “savings in payroll and benefits”, which I have personal experience with. But be that as it may, it does mean that the company is better equipped to survive. But then again, I think B&N will survive too. Just not with 950 stores – or actually, the 750 it is now currently at. That figure will continue to drop too, but there will be a bottom, and I don’t think it’ll include bankruptcy.

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