An email and a coffee sparked this post. The coffee was with New Zealand’s innovative new National Librarian, Bill Macnaught and the email was a Mike Shatzkin post. Both, in different ways, concerned the concept of curation and crystallised some thoughts that suddenly felt necessary to write about.
Mike’s post talks about the notion of curation being central to the success of any bookselling venture, past present or future. His central historical point being that the bookselling chains thrived because they could offer wider range more effectively than their competitors and are being trumped because online retailers can out-compete them on that very basis.
There’s nothing that I disagree with here but I think that one can observe the same phenomenon from a different perspective and see that the concept of ‘curation’ is much wider than range.
The rise of the chain bookshop was not just a function of their increased inventory but also because they increased the quality of the experience of a bookshop.
As any Apple fan will tell you, the key to their marketing success has always been a concentration on the experience of the user rather than the features of the device. For Apple the fact that a device can seamlessly stream video to your television is far more important than the number of gigabytes its various spod rods and gangle pins possess. The aim is give the user a sense of what will feel like to own that gadget, and how it will transform their lives.
Chain bookshops began by really getting this.
Both Waterstone’s in the UK and Barnes and Noble in the US took the best elements of the independent bookshop experience and refined them such that they could work on a much wider stage. They then used their increased economic muscle to broadcast their message to a much wider audience and with greater resonance than could be achieved by a single local bookshop.
Waterstone’s in its salad days offered an experience of cultural sophistication and a set of values keenly attuned to those already in the cognoscenti and those who aspired to be. The strategy was to bind the customer to the company’s values and build a long-term relationship with them. Essential to this were locally responsive (and often highly idiosyncratic) branches, high-profile and high concept brand messaging and the brokering of a relationship between creator and reader through author events. The aim of all of this was to create an emotional as opposed to a transactional bond.
Likewise my perception of the Barnes and Noble approach is that they placed an emphasis on curating a comfortable, informed and accessible environment for their customers. For B&N this was less about involving an audience in a cultural aspiration than creating a welcoming inclusive space for their customers with a focus on recommendation. Also through strong author events programmes they sought to increase their own brand value by increasing the intimacy of the connection between their readers with books.
Both of these incarnations were curated experiences that went well beyond an increase in stock ranges. Although Amazon clearly leads on that front through the application of technology and cannot compete on this level of personal experience, what isn’t noted enough is that neither do the chains any longer. Bookshop marketing has shifted from curating an experience to selling features.
The financial needs of expansion meant that the chains had to reach out to ever wider audiences and to sell much more on price. The reasoning being that an essentially literary experience appeals only to a minority of potential customers but that everyone is open to an offer.
Given the scale of those businesses its hard to see why they wouldn’t have done that, but surrendering the experience territory entailed two things. Firstly by denying themselves that tactic they put themselves squarely into competition with businesses that would always surpass on the twin features of range and price and give up their unique edge. Secondly, because an emotional connection has been withdrawn, the customer can feel jilted and in a destabilising way one’s most loyal and indeed lucrative customers rapidly become ex-customers and ex advocates.
In a phrase; no edge and no love.
The only way for these bookshops, or any bookshops for that matter, to survive is to get some edge. One way would be by recreating that experiential approach and creating spaces that people will gravitate to for the way they will feel. They will need to curate that experience in such a way that evolves and responds organically and energetically over time. (While curatorial brands are by their very nature conservative there is a powerful difference between preserving the values of your brand and boring your audience).
Given the changes already wrought by technology, even done brilliantly I don’t believe this will save every bookshop. But might it be possible to run a well-defined, digitally savvy, well located chain that knows its boundaries in terms of scale but seeks a closer, more active and more involved relationship with its customers?
Maybe, but technology has already changed our book buying and reading reality and I think a straightforward return to old glories will not suffice. Indeed if within its business model the emphasis was on conservation of the old bookshop experience, then it’s extinction is assured and we will lose that experience totally.
If we want an off-line ‘in-person’ public space for books in a digital world then that’s an experience we will have to curate from scratch. At this moment, the only way to conserve, is to choose to be radical.