Are fortresses, and many other things to which princes often resort, advantageous or hurtful? – Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince
When I was young there were these things called bookstores. They were usually owned by good people who wanted to offer value to their communities. They sold books and offered good, if generally condescending, advice (like music stores and instrument stores) about what you might be reading if you were as cool (or educated) as the people that worked in bookstores. Unfortunately, this little thing called the Internet came along and made everything but the “experience” (the scent of collected paper, author events, lack of good organization, general unavailability of titles, the aforementioned pithy advice, etc.) of shopping in a bookstore available from the comfort of your own underwear.
The bookstores responded by crying in public a great deal and readers everywhere wrung their hands in public and used the Internet in private to do everything that they used to do at bookstores. Bookstores failed to evolve and offer premium experiential value to readers in keeping with the “premium” in prices they needed to charge to keep their doors open. And though they were completely right about the value they provided to their communities, and their role as facilitators of thought and diversity in what some of us can call, with a straight face, a democratic society, they went out of business, one after the other.
I imagine the bookstores, sitting somewhere in whatever afterlife, commiserating with vaudeville companies about the good old days and how convenience, that rat-bastard, came along and snipped their Achilles’ tendons.
The playing field is never level. It will never be level. We live in a consumer-driven world and the consumer can only be manipulated away from convenience with an offering of value well in excess of their perceived loss of convenience. This offering can either be authentic, or driven at great expense via marketing.
What’s most troubling to me is the general hand-wringing and public complaining that has so pervaded the industry, from writer to publisher to bookseller. It strikes me that as long as we are focused on blaming the Internet for the downfall of publishing, we limit our ability to strategically subvert the emerging paradigm and create economies of real scale (community, in other words). Bookstores can survive; in order to do so, they will need to provide value to the consumer that the consumer cannot easily dismiss as unnecessary. Obvious service enhancements for the consumer can be gleaned from distinctions that have made Elliot Bay in Seattle and Powell’s in Portland thriving businesses well into the purported Internet takeover of the book selling business, including offering food and beverage service, offering a comfortable place to sit and an open browsing policy, as well as focusing on author-driven and other community events that make both bookstores destinations (not only within the communities in which they are physically located, but to tourists and shoppers from other parts of their respective metropolitan areas). Primarily though, what is most needed is a general overhaul of the attitude that often greets customers at their neighborhood bookstores.