Library futures and bookselling futures

In today’s Shelf Awareness there is an essay titled “Deeper Understanding” about the future of bookselling that has a lot of implications for libraries.

The premise of the essay is that companies succeed in one of two ways: they either promote convenience, or they provide some type of unique or high-quality experience, service or product.

One example would be Chips Ahoy cookies vs. real, honest-to-goodness home-baked chocolate chip cookies. Another, more seasonal example: grocery store ice cream, including Ben & Jerry’s or Häagen-Dazs, as opposed to the local ice cream parlor in your town that makes its own. The local version is special, or at least the one I remember was and still is. (Graeter’s will ship out of Cincinnati but it costs $120 to ship 12 pints, not including the cost of the ice cream.)

Amazon sells convenience. A customer can download a book 24/7 from just about anywhere on the planet. Independent bookstores, on the other hand, sell unique experiences and fantastic services, or they die. Some examples that are working: Powell’s in Portland, OR, Tattered Cover in Denver, CO and Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL (Chicago Metro). But what about libraries? Libraries also need to sell themselves in order to compete for increasingly scarce resources.

Can libraries be as convenient as Amazon? Should we even try? Or should we choose to use our expertise to provide unique experiences and fantastic services, as those independent bookstores that are making a go of it are? Attempting to be all things to all people in all ways is a recipe for disaster–there is a reason that the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” is a such cliché. The US Postal Service is in just this position because its government mandate forces it, in effect, to compete with email, twitter and FedEx, all at the same time. FedEx only has to concentrate on UPS.

If a patron is looking for a copy of Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris, or A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, both on the New York Times Best Seller list, the local library is probably going to put the patron on a waiting list. Budgets will not permit enough copies to be purchased to meet immediate demand. And even if they did, would any library want to devote that many dollars to a title that won’t be in quite such high demand a year from now when those dollars could be spread over many other titles?  We can’t beat Amazon or Barnes and Noble on convenience. But we can beat them on service and experience, if we put our hearts and minds into it.

Just think about it. Libraries can become the ultimate independent bookstore. And, even better, we can do this in synergy with local independent bookstores, holding events that help both entities. Author signings at branches and the independents. Writers’ workshops with authors that visit both places. Theme parties in conjunction with local writers’ groups or even the romance, mystery or science fiction convention in the area. Children’s storytimes at both venues. Book clubs and recommendation blogs that independents and libraries can work on together. There are many possibilities that share expertise and service and promote local resources.

Otherwise, Amazon beats the independent bookstore on convenience, and we’re just part of the tax burden that no one wants. But publishers and authors need both of us to help sell books. There’s still no replacement for one person telling another “you’ve got to read this book!” Libraries need to find more ways to be that person.