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Helping Bookstores Remain Relevant

I can't tell you the last print book I bought.  Ever since I got a Kindle more than 3 years ago I've gone almost exclusively with ebooks.  Despite that fact, I visit any one of several local bookstores at least once a week.  I go there because I'm able to browse and discover products in a way that I simply can't do online.

My iPhone is always with me when I'm in the bookstore.  Many times I've found a book that interests me, I pick it up and browse through it, then pull out my iPhone, open the Kindle app and grab the ebook sample (assuming one exists).  I've even bought Kindle ebooks on the spot in a bookstore with my iPhone.  I feel bad, sort of, but it makes me realize the enormous opportunity brick-and-mortar bookstores are missing out on.

I should also mention that I have several other bookstore apps on my iPhone including ones from Barnes & Noble and Borders.  I've never pulled either one of those out while I'm in those stores.  Never.  Why would I?  All my ebooks are in my Kindle library and none of these other e-tailers have given me a compelling reason to switch.

There's something the physical bookstores could do to stop me from constantly defaulting to the Kindle app: Build functionality into their own mobile app that makes me want to go to their brick-and-mortar store.  Here's what I'm talking about:

  • Use location-based services built into pretty much every smartphone to know when I'm in one of your stores.
  • When I open your app and you've detected I'm in-store, offer me special deals which are only good for the next hour.  Make sure all the deals are fully redeemable using only my smartphone app.  Don't email me coupons.  Push them into the app so I can just flash my iPhone at the checkout counter and be on my way without fumbling through my email inbox.
  • If you sell your own reader device, don't make me bring it to your store for all this.  My iPhone is always by my side but I refuse to bring a larger device just to get a deal.  All the promotions and redemptions need to happen with nothing more than my smartphone.  Plus, I probably don't even own your device.  I'm happy reading my ebooks on an iPad today, I might switch to an Android tablet soon and I don't want to be locked into your hardware platform tomorrow.
  • Most importantly, since I'll soon be using your reader app, not Amazon's, you'll know my reading focus the deals on the things I tend to buy.
  • Offer specials on ebooks, print books as well as combinations.  And don't forget about all the other things you sell in your store (remember the cafe!).  If I'm standing in your store and I just bought the ebook version of the latest Mickey Mantle bestseller, make me an offer on the Major League Baseball preseason guide you sell in the magazine section.
  • Take a page out of Groupon's play book.  Use your nifty new app to track how many customers with common interests are currently standing in your stores.  Push a message like this to all of them: "You're a history buff but you've never bought this great ebook about FDR.  If at least 100 of you commit to buying it in the next 10 minutes we'll give you all a special discount of x%.  Stop by the Biography section to browse the book and see why we think it's perfect for you."
  • Surprise me!  Use this app's services to make me want to visit your brick-and-mortar store more frequently!

Everything described above should be free to anyone.  All they have to do is download your free smartphone app and create an account with you.  But don't stop there.  Offer a more exclusive membership program for an annual fee where I'll get even more deals than non-members receive.  How about giving paying members access to lengthier ebook samples?  I'd love that!

Finally, ask all customers to opt in to an anonymous data collection program so that you can analyze the results of all these terrific campaigns and use that data to create even better ones tomorrow.  And don't forget you could also sell that information to publishers.

If you do all this I promise I'll start using your apps and I guarantee you'll see more purchases from me.


Emily Hill

Great post! WoW, lots here...

I read, in a St. Pete article touting Waters' Autography application which makes it possible for eBook authors to 'sign' their tomes, that eBooks will comprise FIFTY PERCENT [oh! sorry, didn't mean to yell ;D of the 'books' in the near future...let's see... I have that URL here somewhere...

"Experts in the publishing industry predict half of all books will be eBooks in just a couple of years."

Yikes! Quite a prediction!

'Will follow you on Twitter..thanks for the work that went into your thoughtful post.


You described what bookstores do that online can't in your first paragraph. Then you admitted that you aren't willing to pay for what they do. This is a little like going into a nice restaurant (you enjoy the ambiance, you discover new food experiences), and pulling out your McDonald's takeout to eat. It's also a little like stealing those bookstores' expertise.

I'm not saying you should shop at your local bookstore out of pity -- bookstores do need to do whatever they can to offer their customers what they want and need, whether it's a curated selection (done, according to you) or easily accessible digital books (which both chains and indies are working toward) or special offers.

But there's also such a thing as ethical consumerism. A lot of readers are discovering that it matters to them that they have a local bookstore to browse in, and realizing that they pay for that privilege by making purchases there. As with locally grown produce, you pay a little more for the curated selection and one-on-one customer service at a local store -- but for many, it's worth it. If you consistently browse your local bookstore and never make purchases there, it's possible you will soon not have that option.

Your advice is well taken, but if I may offer some in return: if you buy
books (even ebooks) from your local bookstore, I promise you'll continue to have the privilege of spending time there.

Joe Wikert

Jessica, I agree with part of what you say but I totally disagree with your point about not being willing to pay for what the local bookstores offer. If they're not going to change their behaviors, yes, you're right, I'll continue to use them less and less. But if they would take advantage of the benefits they have of me being there in person and couple that with a more innovative approach to both e-books and mobile apps, I'm quite certain I'd give them my business. In fact, that's exactly what I said in the closing sentence of the post.


Joe, I appreciate you engaging with my comment, and I couldn't agree more that bookstores have to continue to strive to be relevant in a digital age. (While I think that does in part involve competing in the digital realm, I also think it means doing everything digital can't do even better... but that's a larger topic.)

But I don't know if you've absorbed my point about the problem, both moral and marketplace, of using bookstores as a resource for finding new books, especially as often as you do, and NEVER purchasing a book from them, as you've said is the case. I'm trying to think of a better analogy to articulate what feels like a kind of intellectual theft. What bookstores are selling is curation - their ability to put books in front of you that are going to pique your interest. You are taking what they're selling, but not paying for it.

And I don't mean you'll be choosing to use them less and less if they don't change. I mean if you don't spend money at the stores you frequent, they will go out of business. (Unless most people treat them differently than you do - in which case other consumers are subsidizing your consumption of the bookstore's offerings).

Full disclosure, in case you haven't guessed: I am involved in an independent bookstore. We are, in fact, doing quite well, in large part because we have a supportive community and we offer them lots of things that make them want to be a part of our store by buying books. We also sell ebooks through Google and the ABA, and are seeing that as a growing revenue source that we are still learning how to market.

But I do see people come in, take photos with their iphone, and leave without buying anything. It feels like a slap in the face (and I talk to a lot of other booksellers who feel the same way). It seems as though they're either ignorant of why and how bookstores exist, or they expect other people to pay for it. So at the very least, you're making some enemies with this behavior. At worst, you're putting the stores whose resources you enjoy out of business.

Lady T

"Finally, ask all customers to opt in to an anonymous data collection program so that you can analyze the results of all these terrific campaigns and use that data to create even better ones tomorrow. And don't forget you could also sell that information to publishers."

I'm sure you mean well,Joe,but many people would take great offense to that-yes,chain stores do that but not everyone is thrilled with them doing that either. Some shoppers prefer to maintain a modicum of privacy about their purchases,especially when going to brick and mortar stores,and would avoid places that openly attempt to harvest such information(anonymously or not)like the plague.

Joe Wikert

Lady T, that's *precisely* why I suggest it as an opt-in program. Customers who don't want to share their data don't have to participate. They won't get the special offers either, but at least they'll know their data is private.

Lady T

Joe,to some folks just the fact that you even offer such a thing makes them cringe( speaking as someone who used to work in an independent book store)and what I really object to more than that is selling that voluntarily given info to publishers.

Using the carrot of "special offers" as the incentive to pony up the info is a tactic that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of book store regulars,the ones who actually want to buy what their local bookseller has on the shelves instead of using their displays as a shopping browser for their iPhone apps. Consumerism is a two way street,that's all I'm saying.

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