Not yet, but in another decade, I think we will be.
Why? Because of revolutions in the way we handle data, including e-books and our sales techniques.
Let’s start with the controversial part: we all know that the e-book devices on the market aren’t as good as printed books. (Let’s call the printed books p-books, shall we?) But in another few years, they may well be. And e-books have obvious advantages in weight and volume, in convenience of purchasing books, and in cost.
Some market segments are very price sensitive and very sensitive to convenience. If a significant fraction of the readers for a given segment switch to e-books, the rising price of the remaining p-books will push the remaining readers ever faster in the same direction.
So, if some formats just stop being offered in some market segments, or even in many of them, what happens to bookstores? To wholesalers? To distributors?
No one in the book business has much margin to spare right now. We need to figure out what the changes might be, and have plans ready to implement when we see the cascade start, or we risk being caught very short.
When p-books aren’t purchased as often, what will bookstores have to offer? Can gift books, art books, and other premium forms of books sustain bookstores? Or will they need to offer more sidelines? And e-book readers? And more book-related programming, making them a shopping destination?
Some of them, of course, will look at challenging Amazon’s primacy. That’s going to be a very hard slog for obvious reasons, but it could be done if the new stores offer some sort of community experience or added value that Amazon’s site isn’t delivering.
Wholesalers and distributors are necessary now because of the numbers of small bookstores and small presses, and because of the volume of business done by the indies.
They can aggregate the orders and build enough volume to make large fixed investments in handling books and orders more efficiently. But when the volume of p-books being shipped drops, especially when the indie publishers surge into the e-book arena by preference because of the lower barriers to entry, then a big part of their role disappears.
Will the efficiencies of wholesalers and distributors order processing, credit and collection, and payment systems be enough to earn them a reasonable place in the supply chain? Or will they need another role?
As it becomes less and less possible to have sales reps showing all the new books to all the bookstore buyers, is there a place for an automated system that integrates Bookscan-type data, bookstore buyers’ feedback, and publishers’ catalog data to produce useful ordering recommendations? Could this turn into a wholesale version of Amazon.com?
Is there a role for such a system in the e-book world? Probably not. There may well be a role for retailers, but I’m not sure that I see a near-term need for another layer of intermediaries. But p-books might well be a profitable niche for wholesalers that can add this kind of value-added service.
If you’re a bookseller, I’d like to hear whether you see an advantage to you in such a system? And how you are preparing for the future.
If you’re in wholesale or distribution, what do you think of the above?
And if you’re in publishing, how do you see the future of the books you’re making? Will p-books ever lose market share to e-books?
Am I completely out to lunch?