Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
The bookselling landscape has changed drastically over the past few years. Literally.
During my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan I enjoyed the benefits of both the flagship Borders store in Ann Arbor and Shaman Drum, a much-beloved independent bookstore. They seemed to be permanent community fixtures at the time. But my graduation cap had barely started gathering dust when both locales, one after another, evaporated off the face of the earth.
In the wake of the digital revolution, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have strengthened their position as America’s top bookselling giants. What we have here is a tale of two sprawling e-tailer empires battling for the same market. But the landscape is still shifting, still fertile ground for greater changes.
Depending on how effectively publishers respond to this new environment, it may be possible to decentralize the online book business in a way that still allows the industry to flourish.
Enhanced ebooks are the new genre of the digital revolution. The term “enhanced” could imply anything from simple online links embedded in the text to informative videos, soundtracks, and full-blown animation sequences. While this industry invention is still moving through its beginning stages, media and publishing companies have recognized the potential of enhanced ebooks to greatly influence the market.
For the purposes of thinking into the future, let us assume that an enhanced ebook model takes the market by storm. It is a blockbuster hit and revolutionizes consumer demand. Simultaneously, ereaders and tablets transform into a cultural phenomenon which hits society with the same force of Apple’s iPod line. Everybody has one. The enhanced ebook is no longer considered “books plus more stuff,” but an independent literary genre with its own loyal following.
Publishing houses, fully equipped with digital content departments, and media start-ups are well-poised to be at the forefront of this movement. The enhanced e-books they produce would have to function on most digital content devices, at the same time drawing much of its infrastructure and content from the production company itself. Let us take, for example, a new form of novel serialization which I touched upon in a previous article. Publishing houses sell subscriptions to novels written in installments by their writers, and receive story input and responses from readers who communicate via computers or ereading devices.
In this scheme, the writer-reader interaction occurs entirely within the online framework constructed by the publishing house. Outside of replicating the system with its own publishing department, Amazon would not be able to purchase and resell this product.
The online “neo-serialization model” is only one possibility among many. The bottom line is that it may become necessary for publishers to create a strong online presence from which they can launch future ventures. This is especially true if publishers ever decide to create their own business-to-customer bookselling venues in an effort to wrestle part of the market away from Amazon.
Of course, the way these publishers deal with content might change if they wish to compete with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But there are also other methods to enhance the customer experience in ways that the industry giants cannot given the current limitations of their digital storefronts.
The sharp decrease in available brick and mortar bookshops now present the challenge of translating the book browsing process to the Internet—a formidable task since much of the bookstore experience is extremely sensory. Customers are not only drawn by the books themselves, but also by the atmosphere and the chance to discover books they never even thought to look for. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble have attempted to infuse into their websites an element of discovery (eg. the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section in Amazon), there is still much room for improvement.
In this aspect, booksellers may want to take a hint from another industry attempting to bridge the gap between in-store shopping (highly dependent on discovery) and online shopping (highly driven by search).
Clothing stores have made particular headway in this field. Let’s take J. Crew as a good example. Click here to see the store’s lineup of women’s clothing for the 2011 winter season. As you can see, much of the page serves as a store front display, with photos of actual models instead of the mannequins which adorn brick and mortar shops.
Other examples of companies taking advantage of their online real estate are McGarry Bowen (based in New York, Chicago, and London) and Dentsu (based in Japan), worldwide advertising and design companies. McGarry Bowen’s website pops up as a useful model because of the revolving headlines and magazine covers on its news page. Dentsu presents a more unconventional design, but one which is both eye-catching and fun to explore.
As it stands, the blueprints for contemporary online book retail are still nothing but light sketches, but the outline seems promising. Writers and entrepreneurs have begun to explore this new frontier. Publishing professionals are intensifying their dialogue regarding the digitization of the industry. The picture isn’t yet complete, but that might very well be a good thing. The possibilities are endless now that the world of literature is taking on new dimensions.