The Future of the Traditional Bookstore in a Digital World


We live in a divided world where some people buy digital and the vast majority still buy the real thing. Major publishers are seeing 24% of their global revenue stemming from eBooks and print still reigns supreme. The gap is quickly closing and many industry experts agree the total eBook market will account for $9.7 billion worldwide in 2016, more than three times the $3.2 billion in 2012. Bookstores have always played a pivotal role in book discovery and book culture in general. How will the bookstore change when digital becomes the preferred format?

The quintessential bookstore has changed drastically since 300 BC when scribes would sell books directly to philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. It also is easier to start one, then it was in France. In 1810 Napoleon created a system by which, a would-be bookseller had to apply for a license (brevet), and supply four references testifying to his morality, and four confirmations of his professional ability to perform the job. All references had to be certified by the local mayor.

Bookstores large and small are hubs of social activity and drive book culture. Not only can you find a large selection of detectible delights to purchase but also meet authors and participate in discussions. It is quite common in New York for a local bookstore to organize parties or wine nights for companies such as Flickr.

Book discovery is central to bookstores and they invest significant time and money into aesthetics. Barnes and Noble, Indigo and WH Smith all have it down to a science on the art of product display and maximizing space to visually draw the eye. Your average best seller shelf is filled with vibrant colors and display stands hype up other notable authors or themes.

How will the modern bookstore change when by 2015 the amount of digital books sold will reach 50%? We have seen the collapse of Borders in the US, Whitcoulls in New Zealand and RedGroup in Australia. Thousands of small bookstores all over the world have also closed due to readers shifting to digital. How will bookstores transition from exclusively selling physical books to actively promoting eBooks?

The one worry many bookstores face is being a showroom for 3rd party eBook companies. This is evident in the relationship with bookstores that belong to the American Booksellers Association and sell books from Kobo. The indie bookstore makes very little commissions on each eBook and relies on selling physical books to stay in business. Barnes and Noble is the only one in the world with quite a large ecosystem of content and makes hefty digital returns.

Indigo, Chapters, WH Smith, Foyles and many other bookstores all sell tablets and e-readers in their stores. Over the course of the last few years, reading devices have been a boon to these stores and they are seeing modest returns. Indigo recently has been launching a series of Tech Zones, which significantly increases the size of their product display area. They now sell iPad, iPad Mini and an assorted array of new e-readers and tablets. When customers buy these devices, where do they go to buy books?

The bookstore of the future must develop their own eBook infrastructure in order to preserve their own identity and maximize profits. It is critically important that major chains develop their own digital bookstore and sell eBooks directly to their shoppers. It is simply not sustainable to encourage all of your patrons to buy the digital editions from Amazon or Apple There is always more money to be made by phasing out the middleman and reaching your audience directly.

Bookstores are not positioned well to start their own online eBook system. I have heard on many occasions that for the most part, they have all lost touch with the publishers. In the past, great relationships will directly forged with the publisher and that is how the stores bought their books. Now, its all agents and sales reps, the average bookstore never even speaks with the publisher anymore. The majority of stores now deal with companies like Ingram, and rely on them for books, magazines and everything else. With no direct line of communication with the publishers, it is going to be a long-road to cultivate a relationship and get their own digital bookstore going.

In the end, bookstores need to develop their own bookstore and develop a series of apps for readers to use. These need to be loaded on any tablet or e-reader that their store carries. If the hardware vendor does not want to play ball, you ditch them. Bookstores sustain themselves from selling books, magazines and hardware. They need to unshackle themselves from a strict reliance on a 3rd party and bite the bullet and develop their own digital storefront.

Michael Kozlowski (5151 Posts)

Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about electronic readers and technology for the last four years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the Huffington Post, CNET and more. Michael frequently travels to international events such as IFA, Computex, CES, Book Expo and a myriad of others. If you have any questions about any of his articles, please send an email to

  • BookFan99

    I agree that bookstores need to inmvolve themselves directly with digital sales but the barrier of third parties isn’t caused by distance between the bookseller & the publisher. The barrier is the inordinate cost of providing a DRm capable downloading service. The Adobe license alone costs 120k. What indie bookstores can afford that!