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Judging Bookshops By Their Covers

With reports of yet more bookshops closing around Australia, the ongoing decline of physical bookstores seem to be increasingly accurate and foreboding. It is unfortunate, and especially saddening, to see longstanding stores close due to the realities of current market.

If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that we buy books very differently these days. One of the interesting points that came out of the Digital Writers’ Festival panel in February was how we interact with book buying wholly differently now. The trawling of pages and suggestions through Amazon and other online retailers seems to be replicated in our actual presence in book stores. 

Customers still scan the shelves, getting lost in the array of new titles and old familiars, disappearing into an endless breadcrumb trail from one author to the next, one interest to the next. And yet now we come with backup. Armed with a phone, we can check reviews, check Goodreads, check whether it is actually the book we were thinking of. I have found that I’ve become more discerning, less likely to walk out with armfuls of books than I used to be, but more likely to actually get what I want. And while this does initially appear to remove some of the thrill of surprising discoveries, perhaps we’re now gravitating towards the position where book-buying is more easily analysed.

Instead of solely relying on the handful of print reviews and general word-of-mouth from what little is advertised, and what generally is shared and recommended by trustworthy reader friends, we can now actually draw on a vast array of resources carefully suited for our tastes and inclinations, to arrive at purchasing the book we want.

In short, we’re not relying on judging the book by its cover anymore.

Buying books digitally relies on our knowledge of the material, of the author, or of the quality behind the recommendations and suggestions, as well as the marketing facilitating this process. Less rests on the immeasurable qualities, so it makes sense for us to carry this process of purchasing into traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

The stores that enable this will surely benefit. It’s not a question of diversifying the products – trying to turn a bookstore into a store that also has books – but enabling the customers to find and enjoy the products they want.

Additionally, with community libraries also struggling to retain viability and legitimacy, perhaps we’re reaching the point where the difference between a library and a bookstore needs to be eradicated. One offers access through loans and programs and education, the other through sales and possession. But essentially both deal in the same product, and can exist along the same spectrum of customer involvement.

As models such as iTunes show, it isn’t necessarily the physical item we’re wanting to own. We place convenience and ease of purchase at a premium, and have happily transitioned from VHS to DVD and Blu-ray, and now to downloading and streaming the content we want. Ownership isn’t as important, not even as a status symbol. We’re more focused on ensuring we have watched what we wanted, we have listened to the music we like, and that we have access to the information we need.

For books, we’re never reading more than we are now. We’re just reading differently. We’re buying differently. And we’re buying for different reasons, reasons that are perhaps truer to our actual wants and needs. We can spot advertising at ten paces, and run screaming from cynical attempts to coerce money out of us, but we enjoy the ease of getting what we want.

Buying books, loaning books, reading them on paper or digitally, discovering them in a store or online, it matters not in the end what our specific choices are, so long as we can get to them. I want to walk into a store and be able to find what I want, or at least discover what I want. By the same token, I want to know when I don’t want it. I want to be informed if this is the right book for me or not.

We want less barriers between us and the world. Among all the drastic changes to the way society and commerce interact in recent years, the removal of borders, boundaries, gatekeepers and red tape between a person and their goal has become the most distinct. Bookstores, both physical and digital, are there to get books to people. We’re perhaps in a position to witness that happening more clearly and more effectively than before.

Hopefully we will be in a position where nobody, not the customers or the books, will be judged on superficial qualities, but instead with understanding and merit.


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