2012: The coming of the bookstorepacolypse.

Earlier this year, in my Creature class, we were working on a Barnes and Noble campaign that rallied around the idea that people still love the printed word, and in an world of iPads and Kindles, that was never going to change. I don’t know that I ever really bought into that premise; after all, the vast majority of the reading I do is on my iPad. For as much as I love reading printed books, I love instant gratification more. I can read Paul Carr’s blog on my iPad, see that his new book is out, jump to my Kindle app, buy it, and start reading it in the time it took me to type this sentence. Printed words can’t touch that.

Combined with Barnes and Noble’s frustratingly maddening customer service, and I’ve personally started nervously eyeballing my RSS feeds for the first sign the ship is going down. I don’t know if this is the big iceberg, but the chunks of ice are getting bigger out there. Courtesy TechCrunch and the WSJ:

Underscoring lack of growth in the book business, Barnes & Noble Inc. reported lower sales in its fiscal second quarter, as a continued decline in its brick-and-mortar sales outweighed growth at its website.

The bookstore chain’s stock sank 16%, to $14.59, after the company reported a worse-than-expected loss of $6.6 million, or 17 cents a share, for the quarter ended Oct. 29, compared with a loss of $12.6 million, or 22 cents a share, a year earlier.

TechCrunch goes on to suggest that as long as B&N has their Nook and their online presence, they’ll be fine for the time being. Which is probably true. But for people like me, who are fully engulfed in the Amazon ecosystem, the reasons for me to step into a B&N are getting fewer and fewer. And the Kindle Fire is probably well on it’s way to becoming the Best Selling Tablet That’s Not An iPad, which leaves their own Nook on the outside looking in.

I love books-even over my Kindle app sometimes. But B&N, and Borders before them, leaned too far in the way of making their stores too easy to hang out in, and not easy enough to get in, find what I need, and buy it for a decent price. Remember that story I told back in May? I went in to pick up a book, which was twice the price of B&N’s own online price, and more expensive than the Target next door. Their refusal to budge on the price meant I left that book, and $30 of other product in the store, and went elsewhere. Sure, you can drink Starbucks while you’re reading, and you can read books on the Nook for free while you’re in the store, but if I have to dance around the huge Nook kiosk and navigate through massive Angry Birds endcaps and discounted calendars to find the book I want, only for it to cost twice as much, at some point, I’m just going to say, “screw it”, and keep ordering Kindle books while I’m sitting on the can. 

The next is the love of books. B&N stores are machines designed to make people think they love books. There are books everywhere. There are coffeeshops where you can read those books. Nobody cares kids litter the play area with board books. But, as I noted before, are those books the books people want to read? And how much longer can the board book survive in a digital world? When the e-generation grows out of Goodnight, Moon, gone will be the chintzy paperback copies of Lord of the Rings I had as a child. Instead those same documents will be available on their own, cheap Kindle. It’s inevitable. Sure, our generation loves books, but will the next one? And won’t the one after that find them a nuisance, much as I find my own collection of my Dad’s records a nuisance? As each media supplants the next, the old media is treated with scorn. (TechCrunch)

So the question is starting to change from “Will Barnes and Noble survive?” to “When will Barnes and Noble start closing stores?”. In hindsight, was our Creature class even on the right track? Was the answer to not talk about how people loved books, but why people loved the experience of going to the bookstore? Did people even love going to the bookstore, or was is just a means to an end? Will the physical bookstore survive, or are they destined to be smaller niche storefronts like record stores are becoming? It’s going to be an interesting 2012.