Bookstore Admission, Really?

A recent story on The Bookseller, which appears to be a UK oriented website for those who sell books (who’d have guessed?), had a brief article quoting Victoria Barnsley, the CEO of HarperCollins UK and International, who suggested that brick and mortar bookstores might start charging customers to browse. The justification is that for many people the physical bookstore is acting as a storefront for online retailers. She went on to claim that some shoe stores in the US are charging customers to try on shoes for this same reason.

I volunteered to tackle this subject for Indies Unlimited and thought it would be easy. First, books aren’t shoes. There was little context as to how widespread this is among shoe stores. I’m not a big shoe buyer, but have never heard of it. A quick check among my favorite shoe buyers from around the country was met with the internet equivalent of a blank look. But assuming some shoe stores are really doing this, I get it. Most people would be leery of buying a shoe without checking out the fit. When the shoe becomes something more suitable for Imelda Marcos’ shoe rack than mine, the fit and the look would make trying before buying even more important. However, is there an equivalent need in buying a book? Do you check out the thickness of the paper or quality of the binding before deciding (assuming your plan is to buy a paper book)? Second, if the bookstores are going through a tough time getting customers in the door, is charging to visit going to increase revenue enough to make up for the people it will drive away? On its face, this idea seems ridiculous.

But I love to tilt at windmills, play Devil’s Advocate, and use clichés, so I’m going to argue that maybe this makes more sense than it appears at first blush. (Oops, is three clichés in one sentence a record?) Barnsley’s quote was from a BBC 4 Radio show. < > In addition to Barnsley, there were two other guests, the CEO of a literary agency and Michael Tamblyn, who is Chief Content Officer for Kobo. It lasted about 30 minutes and was far ranging with talk about self publishing, the future of publishers and bookstores, and the tradeoffs from a publisher’s perspective of using DRM on ebooks. Well worth the listen if you have a half hour to burn.

One of the subjects they talked about was “discoverability.” Barnsley said that Barnes & Noble had recently released a statistic that 40% of the people who came into their stores would leave empty handed, go home, and buy their books online. Her interpretation was that “you still need a physical bookshelf to actually discover stuff.” I’ll leave that thought floating in your brain while I go off on a tangent.

Most of the publishing pundits I’ve read seem to have roughly the same picture of the future of the brick and mortar bookstore, only differing in severity and timing in their predictions. I’ll summarize these as bleak, describing the paper book as something that will become a “specialty market,” not unlike how vinyl records are today. (Even Barnsley predicted that “specialist book shops” will survive, but the generalized bookstore will be as rare as a dodo bird.) These “experts” indicate that the way for a physical bookstore to survive is to become a “destination,” with “events.” Things like talks and book signings from authors. Maybe sponsoring book clubs.

Let’s return to discoverability. Preceding Barnsley’s comment about needing to have a physical bookshelf to “discover stuff” was a discussion from Tamblyn saying that an online book retailer’s goal is to take an almost unlimited selection of books and narrow it down to a handful aimed a specific customer. The show’s host, Evan Davis, responded to Barnsley’s claim by pointing out how good the algorithms of online bookstores are in tailoring suggestions to the customer. For all of you who responded to her claim by screaming, “also boughts” or “you might also like” at the screen, you’re right. (You also need to calm down.) I think the typical IU reader has made the transition to ebooks. But when I venture out of my indie-ebook bubble I’m constantly running into what I call the book fetishists. (Can I use that word here?) They “will never move to ebooks” because they love the feel and smell of paper. Where books are concerned, form matters more than function. If they’re willing to pay a premium to hold the paper in their hand, even though (at least in the opinion of non-paper-sniffers) the reading experience for books that are primarily narrative is superior using an ereader. Why wouldn’t someone who prefers the inferior method of discoverability provided by wandering the stacks in a bookstore also pay for the privilege? As paper books become more of a specialty product, maybe charging an admission for those unable to “find stuff” without seeing it on a physical shelf is just good business.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

23 thoughts on “Bookstore Admission, Really?”

  1. I’ve thought about this shift in terms of creating an entertainment experience: book browsing, holding new books in hand, experiencing them surrounding you for me is much like going to the movie theater versus streaming videos on the computer. Every time my friends and I get together, it always results in a trip to the bookstore. Some of us buy things, some don’t. Would we pay admission? Possibly, if all of our admissions could be applied toward a purchase. The bookstore would have to carry something more than just the same old bestsellers, though, in order for it to be worth my while as a place of discovery.

    1. Ah ha, Krista, it would have to be worth your while as a place of discovery. And that was my (at least partially tongue-in-cheek) theory. I don’t question B&N’s numbers that 40% of the people who walk in their stores are using them as a place of discovery (although the number might be a touch high). I don’t question Barnsley’s contention that people need shelves to discover stuff, at least people who either don’t know any other way, are unwilling to change, or (possibly) discovery at B&N’s website really is too hard and that’s where they’re buying online when they leave.

      But, for you, I’d bet discovery is inadequate, because you’ve found a better way. I don’t think you fit the profile. 🙂

  2. Charging admission to a bookstore is like raising toll rates in the hopes of increasing revenues and ridership.So far, it is a failed venture in the DFW area. I guess if they want to quicken their demise they can put a surcharge on customers. Sounds more like the panic, knee jerk button just went off in the UK. I see an implosion in the making.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I agree, it might be a bit of a panic. In this case, a publisher, but one that wants B&M bookstores to remain viable for as long as possible, is searching for ways to make that so.

      Your talk of tolls is an interesting one. I think you’re taking public transit, since you mention ridership, but we could think about this in terms of toll roads. I’m thinking of two different toll roads, the Hardy Toll Road in Houston and, I think, E-470 is the highway number in Denver, that connects the airport to northbound I-25. Neither one has nearly as much traffic as the other major highways, at least outside of rush hours. People who use them during those times are doing it for convenience (both a shorter route and faster transit for getting between two points.

      Now compare that to bookstores. If going through shelved books is your ideal method of discovery or if you believe the bookstore does a better job of narrowing down (we’ll call it curate, since they and the publishers like that word) than you’d be able to do online using the tools those retailers provide, then maybe you’d be willing to pay to do it your way. I wouldn’t, but maybe there are people who would. It is almost surely a stop gap, at best, because I would expect those people would tend to be older, but it might delay the demise of a store *if* it didn’t run off more customers than admission made up for.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Al. When I read this article, I thought the guy had gone nuts. Bookstores charging to browse doesn’t make sense; ask any newspaper that has tried to set up a paywall for its previously free online content.

    But admission fees for events? That might actually work. It might even convince publishers to go back to sending authors on tour for their new releases — the bookstore operators and the publishers could split the gate, thereby helping to offset the publishers’ travel costs.

    And that might even help indies get in the bookstore door for signings. The store could agree to host and promote the event in exchange for 100% of the gate. Admission could be nominal — 50 cents? A dollar? The advantage for indies would be exposure, and the opportunity to maybe sell a few books. Of course, the question is whether anybody would pay a buck to see an author they’d never heard of. 😉

    1. Maybe, Lynn. The one thing that is clear is if bookstores hope to survive or want to prolong their life that they’ll have to find new revenue somewhere. Whether admission (to the store, events, or whatever) is the way to do it, I have my doubts, but I’m also not their target customer for any of the obvious things that have been suggested.

  4. Bookstores charging customers to browe their wares?
    So the thinking is, We’re getting less customers in the door, so let’s CHARGE them?
    One thing you always have to guard against when desperate is doing things that make it worse.
    The very fact that it’s been announced that they are thinking about this is a boot in the crotch to bookstore business. Evil suits at amazon and rolling on the floor and ordering champagne.

    1. I really suspect you’re right, Lin, and my first thoughts were exactly like yours. But then I thought about the people who fight change. Given enough of them, if they’re willing to pay a premium to continue doing it their way, who knows.

  5. Charging for events I can see. Charging to browse? I don’t see that revitalizing bookstores. Maybe bookstores need to look at libraries that are finding new ways to be relevant. Or maybe they should find a way to price books to match the online sales or if bought online but the customer uses a referral code the store gets credit.

    1. I like your ideas better, Tasha. In fact, I think Kobo has a plan that allows independent bookstores to share in the profits of books they help sell, either bought for an ereader while in the store or through the store’s website.

      1. I believe you are right about Kobo. Some independent bookstores are also looking into/buying PoD book making machines so they can sell “any” book that publishers permit for printing in stored. I don’t know much about these.

        1. I think I’ve heard those called “Espresso book machines” (or something like that), Tasha. I’ve heard they’re extremely expensive right now. I think in low six figures. (Just did a quick google search and didn’t find anywhere that was quoting prices.) I’ve got a few thoughts on those.

          1) It would be a way for bookstores that didn’t want to stock books from indies to make them available, if there was a company that acted as the middle man/distributor for them. Amazon/Createspace or Lightening Source(?) seem the most logical to do this, if they thought the demand was there.

          2) Publishers might resist because it undercuts the part of their current business model where they’re indispensable, which is printing and distribution. However, for their backlist, it could be a good deal for all concerned.

          3) It is possible that for the narrative fiction market, it is too late for the prices of these machines to drop far enough to make business sense financially for a book store in time to be more than a flash in the pan. But I can see them working in specialized markets, maybe textbooks (for college) and such.

  6. I don’t even agree with charging for events. That’s like charging you for their marketing costs. Book signings are just another form of advertising. Authors to it to spread word of their books. The stores do it to draw in customers. As for charging customers to even browse, that’s something I can’t even wrap my head around.

    1. Desperate times lead to desperate ideas, Brian. I think from observing how several of the bigger publishers have been dealing with ebook pricing for libraries we can see that the ideas are often short sighted.

  7. Bah, humbug! I love going into B&N to look around, have a cuppa while I watch the crowd and even walking out with a book I found at a special price. Would I pay to do it? NEVER. And what idjut told these people that American shoe stores are charging for try-ons? Maybe Manolo Blanik or someplace of that ilk, but do YOU shop there? I’ve never heard of it and seriously doubt any “normal folks'” retailer would try it.

    1. That’s the Christmas spirit, lrbauthor. 🙂

      I wondered about the shoe store claim too and came to the same conclusion as you. It would almost have to be an upscale brand, but would also have to be available through an online retailer at prices less than a B&M store, otherwise the comparison falls apart.

  8. What an interesting article and conversation. You’re right Al, when I step away from my computer I have lots of friends clutching onto their print books and telling me they’ll never give them up. In that same vein, I’ll never pay to browse in a bookstore, but you know what, “never” lasts for a long, long time, so who knows.
    The times, they are ‘a changin’.

    1. I won’t pay to shop in a bookstore either, Martin, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that will never change. But I’ve made the jump to electronic and I’m happy I won’t have to convert a second room in my house into a library to store more paper. But as I keep reminding myself, not everyone has made the jump and many claim they won’t. That’s a market for someone to serve if they’re willing to pay the price.

  9. I used to be a book fetishist, and when I first bought my Kindle I told myself I’d use the Kindle to find good books and then I’d buy the paper version ‘to keep’. It didn’t happen. Instead I’m devouring more ebooks than I would have thought possible – because they’re cheap, convenient and you can change the font size!

    I still love those small, quirky independent bookstores you can still find here and there. They are visually appealing as /destinations/, but I’d probably only buy their books if they stocked specialist books, or specialized in my favourite genre. Comfy reading chairs and really good coffee would help as well. 🙂

    1. acflory, I can’t claim I don’t get those who are resisting change, because I do. I loved bookstores, whether the big superstores or the quirky little independent or Powell’s, the quirky monster indie in Portland, Oregon, which I’d visit every time I was in Portland (two or three times a year for 10+ years). But then I moved to a small town which, although having the state university, had a dearth of bookstores unless what I wanted was a used textbook. So Amazon started getting much more of my business. I’d grab the paperback bestsellers at the big box stores where I grocery shopped and every month or two get a stack of books from Amazon.

      When Amazon introduced the Kindle I fought it. I’m on a computer the majority of my waking hours that aren’t spent reading and I couldn’t see looking at a screen all day long. Then I met some friends in Texas for a long weekend (traveling with several heavy books in my luggage) and one of them showed me her Kindle. Five minutes seeing it in action and I was sold. Ordered one when I got home and haven’t looked back. In the three years since my Kindle arrived I can count the number of paper books I’ve read on one hand. In fact, the book I was reading when it arrived remains only half read. My old eyes love it too. 🙂

  10. Excellent post, Big Al, and as I’ve said on many occasions, the times they are a changing. I, like most of the people I know, initially belonged to the, ‘I really prefer the sensual experience of reading a ‘real’ book,’ set. However, as you said, once I got used to the convenience (carrying around as many books as I wanted in my shoulder bag), simplicity of finding and purchasing the book of my choice, and the difference in costs and not forgetting the text size adjustment (my old eyes love it), I was converted. It will happen to everyone, it’s only a matter of time.

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