The bookstore in a future full of iPads

I love reading books and I love shopping for them.  Okay, let me rephrase that.  I love browsing through a bookstore, but I rarely buy a paper book these days, always preferring the digital version if one is available.  This duality of feelings and the certainty of the inevitable demise of the paper book in the future makes me a bit sad each time I go to a good bookstore.

The experience of going through the books, the quiet atmosphere and the simple joy of seeing so many colorful covers that represent books you haven’t yet read is an experience I am in no hurry to loose.  I am, however, already mourning its loss for my son’s future.

In visiting a very nice bookshop with my family last month, I ended up discussing with my wife the future of bookstores as we know them, over a nice cup of coffee. She asked me if I really thought all of that would end and I had to answer that I was certain of it.  I remember asking her to look around and to think how we could justify all those dead trees at a time when our planet needs every last one of them and when an alternative such as the iPad is readily available.  To that she reminded me that the iPad was not really inexpensive, a point I had to concede. That, however, is only temporary.

An iPod Touch, basic model, costs today half of what the original iPod cost when it was first introduced in 2001.  In fact, the top of the line 64GB iPod Touch costs exactly the same amount  – $399 – as the that original iPod cost, which is just $100 less than the base iPad model.  Time works inexorably against the paper book.  In a few years time we will have cheaper iPads, as well as more powerful models which will dwarf what the current generation devices can do.  The basic act of reading a book on the iPad will probably change very little, just as the iPad plays music in pretty much the same way the first iPod did, but they will be more accessible to everyone.

The convenience of being able to buy books where ever you are and have them instantly available for reading beats having to go to a bookstore any day.  That goes for online purchases of paper books as well.  Why would you want to go online, order a book and then wait a couple of days for it to arrive?  All the fantasizing about how wonderful an experience it is to hold a book in your hands is merely wishful thinking on the part of those that make a living from traditional publishing and are afraid of change or those who are averse to technology in general.

Try holding a book such as “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” on your lap for a while to read it and come back and tell me just how wonderful an experience it was.  Let’s get real about this, reading such a volume on an iPad (or even a Kindle for that matter) beats the hell out of holding a volume that weighs several kilos.

So, now that I have gone ahead and killed the paper book for the thousandth time, how can I keep my bookstores?  Well, the idea was actually given to me by a friend while we were browsing through a huge bookstore during a trip to São Paulo, Brazil.  We were wondering through the bookshelves and he commented that he should be able to approach his eBook reader of the paper book on the shelf and have it immediately identified.  Once that happened he would have the pricing and the option to buy it, immediately downloading onto his device.

I just stood there with thoughts running through my head.  It hit me that a bookstore, with real paper books, makes a wonderful display to let people get to know about what books are available.  It also occurred to me that if actual sales were digital a bookstore could carry a much larger number of titles as it would not need to carry a large inventory of bestsellers.  All that would be needed of each book would be a couple of units to be on display.

Oddly, having those printed books to display gives a purpose for bookstores to exist, as they would continue to provide a valuable service as a venue to get titles in front of readers. They also give a bit of purpose to publishers as they would provide a value added service of getting those volumes printed and distributed to the bookstores.  This doesn’t sound much different than what we have today, however, there is a world of difference between having printed books that are for show and having them for actual sale.

In the scenario I describe, bookstores continue to be nice places you visit to get to know about new books that have been released and perhaps to peruse a title while sipping a nice cup of coffee.  It’s a place where you take your kids to choose new books or where you go to pass some time before a meeting in a welcoming environment, it’s not a place where you need to go to get a book. You go there because you like doing so.

Of course, such a scenario is only an idealized concept, which might not be remotely viable financially.  However, even if it were viable it would require publishers to stop being dragged around by the nose by companies such as Amazon and Apple and start taking charge of where their business is going.

In a world were most people have access to a personal device which allows immediate purchase and reading of titles, trying to to stay attached to a model that forces people to go somewhere or to wait  to get a book is certainty of failure.   Make no mistake, this world is coming and it isn’t even too far away.  Anyone that wishes to ignore this had better be very close to retiring.