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The Future of Book Stores

February 16, 2012

Recently, while on a long drive, a friend and I discussed the future of walk-in bookstores. He suggested that they would always be around (in other words, that there would always be a market for bookstores) because people enjoy browsing too much. I asked: What if you simulate the pleasures of browsing in a digital environment? “Is that even possible?” he asked.

Going the way of the dinosaur?

Browsing is many things to many people. For some, browsing may be nothing more than walking through aisles of bookshelves, admiring the books, running their hands along the spines. For others, browsing means reading some of one book, then some of another. It might mean sitting in a couch or standing in an aisle. It may even mean that you went looking for a specific book and found yourself looking at all the other books around it.

A thing of the past?

What you may have noticed in that description is how tactile the experience of browsing is. It means touching the book, looking at the cover and the words on the page, hearing the chatter of the other customers or the music playing over the loudspeakers, smelling the pages, and maybe even tasting a coffee or a sweet. Browsing engages all of our senses; it is an experience.

It is this sense-engaging aspect of browsing that makes digitally replicating the experience that much more difficult. You not only have to permit potential buyers (browsers?) to read the books that they are browsing, but to offer them an experience while they do that. Since you can’t create these sensory experiences through a computer, how do you even begin to simulate browsing?

Here are some ideas:

  • 15/20 minutes of free book “browsing”: Potential buyers would have 15 or 20 minute access to any book. The title would be accessed through a user account and could be accessed once every 24 hours. (I welcome suggestions on how to improve this idea).
  • Sidebar of suggested titles: This already exists of course. When you go to buy a book on Amazon, they often offer a list of titles that “you may also like.” But this wouldn’t be a suggestion based on subject matter, but on your buying history, your friends’ favorite books, and registered friend suggestions. This means using data from other sources, including Facebook, to show buyers titles that are subject-similar and that their friends liked.
  • Interactive book reviews: Instantaneous and simple access to complete reviews, both good and bad. This would have to be coordinated with the magazines and newspapers, but pull quotes just don’t cut it. This particular feature would also incorporate all the top-rated reviews (rated by other users and readers) from press and public.
  • Access to the most similar titles: This would not simply be a list of other similar books, but a smart listing of the titles that are indexed, referenced, or come from the bibliography of the book that you are browsing.
  • App function: Ability to download the browsing function on an e-reader, tablet, or smart phone. This means access to all the browsing features from your armchair, in your kitchen with your morning coffee, at your favorite cafe, wherever.
  • One-click browsing: Available on the purchasing website (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.). One click of the “Browse” button and all the above options would be made simply and easily available. The Browse page must be simple and it must be intuitive. Any unnecessary clutter, confusing icons, or difficult layout will be unused.

There can be no real replacement for the joys of true book browsing. However, these suggestions try to approximate that experience and bring it closer to the digital marketplace. I don’t personally believe that all bookstores will close, but the end does indeed seem nigh for retail chain bookstores – stores that lack any sense of community or soul. It’s not a matter so much of if, but when. Digital browsing is just the next frontier in online sales.

Note: While researching this article, I stumbled across “zoomii.” Several years ago, zoomii attempted to replicate browsing for digital retailers like Amazon and B and N. It no longer appears to exist; perhaps it was just ahead of its time? Amazon’s Shelfari feature is a step in the direction hinted at above, but it’s not intuitive enough; it requires too much work of the book buyer. In other words, it is not true browsing.

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