Digital and the bookshop

How can digital be made to work in bookshops?

That is the huge underlying question that is exercising the minds of all of those with a stake in bookselling, with new approaches underway that may provide at least part of the answer.

One of those retailers grappling with the question takes the slightly unlikely form of
Lonely Planet. At the end of the month the publisher will open a travel bookshop in Manchester Airport, the centrepiece of which is a remarkable digitally-enabled
globe. Customers touch the part of the world they want to travel to, and the globe responds by telling them what Lonely Planet has to offer, online and instore; a piece of retail theatre that combines the digital with the physical in a very engaging way.

At the opposite end of the scale, Waterstones’ boss James Daunt mused at Hay that he may in the future sell other e-readers beyond the Kindle. Selling a range of e-readers, and making money from that as well as selling e-books instore through the local wi-fi is another way to engage digital in a physical space. Customers visiting in-store coffee shops can browse and buy online and offline. The chain is evolving in a way that Tim Waterstone can surely never had envisaged.

With physical sales down nearly 10% in a year, and perhaps double that in paperbacks in recent months, the pressure on physical bookshops of all types to make a go of digital is becoming increasingly critical.

Digital is opening up new revenue streams for writers, from self-publishing and marketing, and for publishers, through e-books and apps, but for traditional bookshops, digital has largely been a negative experience. At the back of everyone’s minds is the need to
avoid repeating the fate of the music business, and specifically record shops.

Perhaps music does offer one positive clue in the way that “live” experiences have
become more highly prized precisely as ubiquitous cheap digital content has devalued the recorded experience. For books, that trend has been presaged by the rise of literary festivals, led by Hay. For shops specifically, author signings and talks are becoming vital ways to win and retain customers, to add value beyond a screen, and some retailers are now moving outside the shop with street events—like this month’s Charing Cross
Road extravaganza and the Goldsmith Row market in east London. Necessity is the mother of re-invention.