And The eBook Shall Lead…

And the Children Shall Lead was one of the worst episodes of the original Star Trek television series. In this story, the Enterprise visits a research station on a planet where all of the adults stationed there have been killed, leaving only the children. It turns out that the children had been mislead and used by an evil alien to kill their parents in a plan for galactic domination.

A terrible nightmarish episode, that probably pales next to the nightmare being experienced right now by the book publishing industry. On one side, Borders is delaying payment to publishers while they seek new financing. And now on the other side, Barnes & Noble has just fired a sizable portion of their buying staff.

These buyers are the people who work with the publishers and decided what books are going to be bought and put up for sale in the bookstore. Unsold books take up space, so it is important to choose what to sell wisely. Good buyers are essential for the success of any traditional bookstore. That Barnes & Noble has seen fit to release many of their buyers is more evidence that not only has the bookselling game changed, we may be at a critical juncture.

Without book buying staff, who then decides what books to sell in the stores? I suspect that computer algorithms are going to get that job. They will “decide” based on the popularity of physical books bought online and eBook sales. These are the same kinds of algorithms that the likes of Amazon and Netflix already use to suggest books and movies they think a customer might like. And at some point, eBook sales are going to take the lead in that decision making process.

It won’t be a perfect process, but the risk of error is relatively low because unsold eBooks don’t take up shelf space. So practically speaking, you don’t have to decide what eBooks to carry because you can carry them all! Then just select the most popular ones to buy in print for your stores. In any case, there’s no turning back now. Going forward there are going to be a lot fewer bookstores to sell physical books in, which means a lot fewer books bought from publishers.

I still hold out hope for the creation of boutique bookstore/cafes where you could peruse and buy some of the most popular books in print and also take advantage of special deals on selected eBooks. These boutique stores would also be locations for promotional events like book signings. Though I don’t think there is a consensus on the best way to sign an eBook yet!

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