This week, much-loved British bookseller Waterstones announced a surprising tie-up with its arch-enemy, Amazon, to sell Kindles and ebooks within its physical high street stores. Whether this is a stroke of genius or a unilateral suicide pact remains to be seen. Either way, Waterstones is probably right to embrace the digital age – whether it survives all depends on how it does it.
I love a good bookshop and so I’m keen for physical stores to survive. But I’m only a humble book reader, not an expert media commentator. So here’s from a user point of view, and slightly biased by my professional (data) background, what my ideal bookshop would look like:
1. Don’t turn it into a Starbucks or Costa. Their business model is based on charging £3 for a 50p cup of coffee. What you actually pay for is the rental of an armchair. So just cut out the middleman and provide comfy reading chairs yourself. And anybody who buys a book gets a free coffee thrown in.
2. A bookshop should be an oasis of calm in the urban jungle. The mind needs space and time to browse. If you provide quiet & attractive areas where people can enjoy their purchases (make them buy before they read, so they can enjoy their free coffee!) they will associate the shop with pleasure and come back again and again.
3. I don’t like current e-readers for two reasons: they don’t provide the satisfying tactile/sensual experience a physical book does, and their plastic covers look cheap and disposable. Why on earth would anyone want to make their book look disposable? Literature is not junk food. So cut the rubbish out and provide decent screens – iMacs or whatever – for people to browse. And if that is not compatible with a Kindle, it merely highlights the third issue I have with ebooks: compatibility. I don’t have to buy new furniture every time I get a book in print. So provide unified terminals for people to browse & buy any format they like – including print. And maybe a small onsite printing machine could churn out personalised, special editions – that would be cool. And to please the more digitally inclined, make sure to have a decent supply of power sockets and Wifi, so they can recharge not just themselves but also their devices.
4. Speaking of embracing digital, bookshops should be fountains of knowledge and entertainment, not just a shop. They could do well borrowing a few concepts from university libraries. Terminals should encourage you to explore, learn, have fun, and – oh – download (ie buy) content. And maybe the pièce de résistance could be a Wolfram Alpha type machine that let’s you type in any question and it gives you the answer, fed by open data, Wikipedia, open source as well as proprietary intelligence from around the web. This way you will also attract classes of school children on educational outings, and raise the next generation of book, sorry knowledge, buyers.
5. Another news item this week was that sales of fountain pens are on the rise again. Incidentally I bought myself one only 3 weeks ago, confirming the trend. The reason is that people increasingly value the personal touch in the digital age. So a good bookshop should also sell good stationary, pens and pencils, and provide spaces that inspire people to use them straight away. Doodle, draw, write a postcard (what a novelty!) – some things are simply more satisfying on paper.
The digital age has given us access to all the world’s information, on small devices originally designed to be held against one ear. That does however not mean we also have to consume and create all information on these devices. (Although I confess this blog post was written on a train using my iPhone.)
Bookshops have the unique opportunity to become focal points that bring together the analog and digital worlds in meaningful and satisfying ways. I hope they don’t waste it.