Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Book Blogs the Next Big Threat to Independent Bookstores?

First it was Barnes and Noble. Then Amazon. Then Target and Wal-mart and Oprah's Book Club Then the Kindle and iPad. So what's the next major threat to independent bookstores? Here's a hint: you're reading one right now.

I've been thinking about the relationship of bookstores and book blogs for a few months now, ever since I openly thought about how best to spend $100 on books. The long and short of it was this: you can get more for your money through Amazon, but patronizing a local bookstore has significant, if difficult to quantify, benefits as well. Depending on whom you ask, these benefits range from supporting the local economy to supporting new and emerging writers.

Last year Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, outlined the three qualities that separate independent bookstores from their big chain brothers and online retailers: provide a cultural experience, provide an outlet for new and lesser-known writers, and enable positive social change in their local communities.  Their article is definitely worth a read, but the thing that struck me about the functions they described was how much book blogs do these things as well. Let's have a look:

1. Provide a Cultural Experience

 Madan and Evans: Like a wine sommelier, good independent booksellers are valued by readers for their thoughtfully curated selection of books and personalized service.  Good independent bookstores facilitate discovery of new books and provide a life-long means of education and learning for their customers.

To be blunt, book blogs are amazing at this. Not only will your typical book blog be open and accessible to readers, but book blogs are also extremely well-networked. I know of a book blog for every kind of book I can think of and that book blog will be connected to many other book blogs in the same niche. Recently, I was perusing the new fiction wall at my local bookstore and realized I had already heard of all of the books there--and noticed the absence of some others.

2. They Provide a Nurturing Environment for Lesser Known and Emerging Writers

Madan and Evans:  Independent booksellers are valued by authors (and their publishers) for their skill at promoting new books and emerging writers.

I'm not sure there is anything most book bloggers like to do than tell the world about an unknown gem. From what I can tell, it's not clear whether the book blogging community can move the needle on a particular author or title, but if my buying habits are any indication of what's possible, then book blogs have the potential to do everything an independent bookstore can do to promote a book. And, given the book blogging world's use of social media, there's a upside of distributed promotion that has yet to mature.

3. They Enable Positive Social Change in Local Communities

Madan and Evans: Another function independent bookstores have historically served has less to do with books, and more to do with thought leadership and good citizenship. Many independent booksellers have been the catalysts of enabling positive social changes in their communities.

I'll have to admit that positive social change is not something I readily associate with bookstores, but it seems that some do. From what I can tell, activism in the book blogging world is present, but in it's nascent stages. Recent conversations around banned books, gender bias in reviewing, and the funding of public libraries shows that there is room and interest in book blogging for issue-oriented activity, but this seems a tertiary concern at the moment. The physical location of independent bookstores is something that would be difficult for a blogger or group of bloggers to replicate in a local community, but the potential for regional, national, and possibly international activity is largely untapped.  

I'm not sure if this congruence in the functions of bookstores and book blogs is good or bad...or even for whom it might be good or bad. There's more to be said about how they are different, of course, but it does seem that, at their core, good book blogs and good bookstores are in much the same business. 

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