"Technology and the Independent Bookstore" made a case for why most independent bookstores have failed to thrive in the internet era. This article explores how independent bookstores might rethink their approach to technology.
1. Be Open to New Technology and New Partnerships
"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads, that sucks." -- Jeff Hammerbacher, former Facebook employee
Jeff nailed it. There is a war for talent that challenges the most socially-minded entrepreneurs to use their skills for good.
One advantage our bookstore has is being located in the heart of San Francisco. We breathe technology; it's in the air here. Craigslist was founded here. The Google bus passes by here. The people who shop in our bookstore are tech savvy. They include "cultural creatives" who are pioneering new ways of applying technology for social good. While I feel our store doesn't lack for talent who see the potential of the web for connecting with the community which surrounds our independent bookstore, I see that our industry as a whole lacks a deep understanding of the web's potential.
The challenge is how do you harness the good will and support for our independent businesses, and leverage the top minds to help us create a powerful new business model online for the independent bookstore?
The ABA as the organizing body for independent bookstores must change its culture to be more nimble, open, welcoming and experimental. This recommendation made the top of my "how to" because in the past several years, I have met at least 10 people (creative booksellers, prospective technology partners, and innovative publishers) who each have individually approached the ABA about partnership and hoped to receive access and welcoming open arms. Each had an eerily similar story to tell: that the ABA gatekeepers were unreceptive.
These conversations were missed opportunities. These potential partners represent the best hope for independent bookselling. In spite of a shrinking market, they are entrepreneurs who are passionate about our industry. They are looking for ways to connect & work with the independent bookstores they love and admire.
Instead of putting all eggs in one basket (indieCommerce), the ABA needs to plant many seeds in the form of many nascent projects with a little resource and a little funding and some clear goals and measurable outcomes. Then, see which ones flourish. And, be tolerant of failure but deliver rewards only to those projects that succeed and have real results.
It would be immensely helpful to consider having the ABA open a satellite office in California and have an organizing body more in tune with technological innovations. We need to be accessible to the people who the expertise to help us evolve independent bookstores online. Instead of having "gatekeepers," we need "cultivators of partnerships" open to new ideas who have a track record of successful reinvention.
2. Develop a business model that is on another playing field: Recognize our strengths as a physical space, emphasize the experience of discovery and community
When I've considered the potential of technology and the web to enhance the experience which surrounds our bookstore, I've inventoried our strengths and skills and set in motion both nimble and ambitious projects. All our experiments seek to differentiate our bookstore from Amazon (which now is the largest player in the book world with an estimated 30% market share, still growing in double digits annually). We recognize the areas that we can't compete, and differentiate where we can.
One publisher disclosed that although independent bookstores represent less than 10% of their overall sales, that for new titles in the first six months, independents represent 50% of sales. That indicates that independent bookstores strength is in launching new books, helping authors connect with their audience. Khaled Hosseini has credited his success to a handful of independent booksellers that championed Kite Runner in its first years. By focusing on this key differentiator, the potential for leveraging technology to enhance this role independents play is filled with potential.
indieCommerce is a clunky response to Amazon's efficient and elegant solution to selling books online. Independent bookstores need their own efficient and elegant solution(s). This requires a lot of soul searching about what we have to offer in the digital age (think: community, physical proximity, and discovery). And, laser focus on what the user experience engagement with a physical bookstore online can be.
There may not be one answer to this for every bookstore, but there is likely to be several groups of similarly minded bookstores who might design what an internet experience common to their stores (think: urban vs rural, specialty focus, etc.).
To summarize, a more nimble and open approach to technology partnerships and incubating new business models is what we need.
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