I initially read this blog post by David Leach a couple of nights ago but I've been thinking about it ever since. In his post, Leach speculates that the era of the big box book retailer is ending and the independents will rise again.
His argument makes a lot of sense. Everyone's (supposedly) up in arms about big companies and corporate greed. Additionally, we'd all love to go to a store that's the equivalent of "Cheers", where everybody knows your name. You don't get that feeling at a big brick-and-mortar store today, so could the indies make a come-back?
Maybe, but I don't see it happening the way Leach describes it. First of all, I have a hard time envisioning a bunch of new independents investing in and building up storefronts around the globe. The momentum here still seems to be tilting more towards online than in-person, and that's where I believe the opportunities await.
What if there were a hundred mini-Amazons, each with their own area of specialization? When I go to Amazon now I stumble across reviews from customers with similar interests but I don't really run into the customers themselves. The experience is also completely void of any personal interaction. Everything needs to scale, so it's totally automated. But what if these micro-indies approached things differently? What if there was more of a personal experience even though the browsing and buying is conducted online?
When I buy online I tend to look for the same primary benefit I do at a brick-and-mortar: who's got the best price? I see myself evolving a bit on this front though as personal service is starting to mean more to me, even when purchasing low-priced products. I enjoy reading sports books. Could I be lured away from Amazon's low prices to a micro-indie site that has more of a personal feel, treats me like a human and not a credit card number, enables me to chat with fellow customers, chat about last night's game, razz the other teams fans, etc.? Yeah, that formula could easily change my buying habits.
There's another key point in Leach's post that you may have missed when you read it. He asks a couple of incredibly important questions:
What if there were no more bookstores and no more book-only websites? How would we market and sell our books?
Wow. Now that's an interesting scenario to ponder.
The obvious answer is for the publisher to establish a direct relationship with their customers. That's always been a trick proposition though as most publishers are worried about alienating their retailing partners. Even though I fully expect bookstores to outlive me, I also believe that publishers who expect to thrive in the coming years must figure out this direct-to-customer model.