Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The future of the bookshop

Nick Sherry got a great deal of coverage for his claim that bookshops faced an "unhappy ending".

The Minister's website doesn't include a transcript of his comments yet so it is hard to know really what he said. The fact is that he was speaking at an on-line retailing forum hosted by eBay subsidiary PayPal. eBay's CEO has been made an NBN Champion by Senator Conroy so to a large extent you'd think Sherry's comment has been scripted for the event.

Josh Gans on his blog has opined that Sherry is basically correct though suggests the timescale he suggests of 5 years is too short. But Gans at least is open to the idea of booksellers "re-inventing" themselves.

I engaged in a bit of Twitter banter suggesting the complete demise of the bricks and mortar bookstore was extreme because I liked thumbing through books - browsing is an important part of the activity. I was challenged as to what my view really here goes.

Firstly, I'll refer to my posts about the demise of Borders. That was not about online, it was about the failure of the "category killer" business model.

Let's list the ways to "access" books.
1. Buy physical book in bookshop.
2. Buy physical book online.
3. Borrow physical book from library.
4. Buy e-book online.
5. Copy e-book online.

The choice between e-book and physical book as the medium of purchase is as much about the reading environment as anything else. The first observation to make is that if I buy the physical book it would be nice to also get the e-book. In non-fiction works for research there are things about spreading books out, multiple mark-up and tagging methods that just "work". but the task of reading it could be made easier by having the book "dual mode;.

The second issue is to do with "finding" books. On-line sources are very good at capturing purchasing details and using it to make suggestions. Dymocks at least has my personal purchase history on my "booklovers" card but has never used it for tailored suggestions (I guess because if I get an e-mail I'm at the alternative source). On-line sources are also good for searching for a book that you know the details of. But on-line sucks as a place to "browse"...even the Amazon "look inside" section doesn't readily give you the feel.

So to me it looks like physical shops and on-line, physical books and e-books are all part of one eco-system, not separate ones. Your financial institution transacts with you on-line and physically - a few specialists have tried to create "on-line" only models but they really are niche.

The problem in books is that my local preferred physical stores (Dymocks and Abbeys) have uninviting online presence, and if I go online I might as well go international. And here is the real issue for Australian distribution - parallel importation. If Sherry and Conroy want to promote the use of on-line retailing by Australian bookstores then they have to be allowed to access the same wholesale market as the overseas competitors. Also sometimes I find in a physical bookstore a book I only want as an e-book...I'd happily transact then and there with the bookshop, but there is no current way for me to "reward" them for helping me to find the book.

The other innovation would be to create portability in "preference" mechanisms. I'd prefer all my purchase history to be available to ALL my preferred bookstores (so add Amazon to that list). The Reading Room is potentially a site that could do that.

The "bookshop" of the future will place more emphasis on the ability to browse for books and less on the need for a large quantity of any specific volume for sale. My bookseller will support my ability to purchase on-line or physically, they will support my e-book platforms - and provide me with the e-book for any physical book I buy.

Finally if Senators Sherry and Conroy are really interested in on-line retailing, perhaps they might like to turn their attention to the question of on-line payment systems and how to "dis-intermediate" them while increasing security. PayPal is in part a response to the identified risk of providing credit card details to every on-line trader you wish to buy from. There is a completely different potential global solution. It is like an international version of B-Pay - but in reverse. Under B-Pay I am provided with a provider number and customer number to authorise a transaction. I want something that works in reverse. I want my bank to be able to give me a number that identifies the institution and then a "transaction code". That transaction code can be authorised so that only the vendor nominated can make a draw down on my account - the vendor never sees my account details - just the transaction number.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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