Robert Gray: Where Will You Be Reading Next?


In response to last week's column, Doug Siebold, publisher of Agate Books, shared his recent post to a group discussion administered by Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks at LinkedIn, the business social networking site. Siebold envisions "the e-book turning into a complementary format, like the audiobook did 20 years ago. I think only the heaviest readers, e.g. students and academics, will really need a dedicated appliance, and even then it will need to come down under $100 for people to adopt it in big numbers. Using Stanza myself on my iPod Touch really opened my eyes--it's perfect for incidental reading, like at the doctor's office or waiting in line or on the train, and in situations like those the backlit screen is a real plus, and not the negative so many assumed it would be."

Stephanie Anderson, new manager of WORD bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., is an indie bookseller trying to address "now" and its implications for her profession. She begins by considering the "old chestnut" theory that some readers will always want traditional books.

"Well, I do think that the old chestnut is important," she observes. "When I worked at Moravian Book Shop, our clientele was much older, and we would be doing them a disservice by really pushing e-books. Some readers always will want to handle a book, and I suspect the percentage of that group is more likely to shop at an indie store than a random sampling of readers. So the real challenge, I think, is how do we serve our existing, loyal (to us and to physical books) customers but also serve customers that want e-books. How do we balance? And how do we keep an eye on the balance as it changes? I think the rapid and stunning popularity of the iPod is a good example here. I was in high school when it was introduced, and then it was this cool, young-people thing. But now my grandfather has one. He loves it (but he, and I, still have CDs, too)."

Anderson believes that, "If there isn't a place for e-books in the indie store retail future, there isn't an indie store retail future. I like your Genius Bar example. That is always what I've envisioned--you handsell the book and then the customer sets their e-reader into the dock, pays you, downloads the book, and leaves. It's important for indie booksellers to look at this as an opportunity, not, groan, another thing to add to an already busy day. As I see it, once most books are available in e-book form, and presumably stored on someone else's server and accessible through the Internet, the so-called advantage that chain and online bookstores have in terms of number of titles available just disappears. Everyone is on a level field now--except that we still have the advantages we've always had, like solid customer service/hospitality, staff who read books and handsell well, etc."

Can booksellers redefine and reinvent their handselling expertise for the digital age? Anderson offers a personal example: "I have handsold books through my blog to people I have never seen before and never will, because I don't even know where they live. I think Twitter can do this too, I hope to experiment with that this year with a store Twitter feed and track sales of books mentioned on blog or Twitter."

Anderson adds that she has "just switched jobs and I think my new boss is willing to let me play with a lot of these ideas, although I think the industry is still at least a year away from any serious implementation of bookstore-level downloads of e-books. The neighborhood I'm in now is younger and more technology-literate, and so I plan to keep a very close eye on any developments. I would love WORD to be one of the first stores to make this work. Personally, my G1 (Google and T-Mobile's response to the iPhone) is arriving in the mail today, and I look forward to playing with the e-book readers that develop for it. I have a personal Twitter and I'm going to be running a store one as well."

And what comes after now?


For Anderson, this means "keeping an open mind, and always remembering that whatever comes next, it's going to have to work just as well at my new store as my old one. Both groups of customers are important to the success of indies, and I don't want one to get left behind or the other to get out of our grasp."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)


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