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The Future of the Book Store

The Becker-Posner Blog debates the future of the bookstore. Their analysis is heavy on the economic-side of the question, and not very Anthony Graftonish.

From Gary Becker.

The decline of bookstores, theatres, laundries, and other retail industries with physical facilities illustrates a trend that runs counter to older ideas about the effects of economic development. The process of development has been presumed to cause a substitution of market activities for home production. For example, households in poor rural societies have not only grown their own food, but also made much of their clothing, washed their clothes, baked their bread, and cooked from scratch their other food. As countries underwent economic growth, many of these productive activities left the home and migrated to the marketplace. Factory-made clothing was substituted for clothing made at home, and bakeries and laundries developed to make bread and sweets, and to wash, clean, and dry clothes.

Further technological developments,however, such as small motors used in home washing and drying machines, and small machines that cooked bread easily at home, shifted many activities back into the home, and thereby saved on time and energy spent in the shopping process. The online digital revolution is a further major step in this trend of returning activities to the home. Time and effort are saved, for example, when instead of going to movie theatres, consumers both order and download films online to be viewed at “home”, either on television sets, or increasingly on computers.

From this perspective, what is happening to bookstores is not unusual. “Books” are still read at “home”, but increasingly they are also purchased at home, and not only in hard copy form. Digital books are a true revolution, but their effects on bookstores are only a small part of a broader technological development that has brought important activities into the home.

From Richard Posner, who has written lots of books.

The substitution of online for bookstore distribution of books will provide a substantial social saving and, as I said, increase the demand for books by reducing their retail price. As for the effect on publishers and authors of books, there is concern that it will be adverse, but that seems unlikely. A seller tries to minimize his cost of distribution, just as he tries to minimize his other costs; the publisher is the ultimate seller, and the bookstore part of the chain of distribution. But there is an important, and potentially relevant, exception, and that is where a distributor provides point-of-sale services that increase the demand for the product. This is the rationale for resale price maintenance: manufacturers of some goods place a floor under the retail price of the goods, thus deliberately increasing the retailers’ margin, but hoping by doing so to induce them to engage in nonprice competition that will increase the demand for the goods. Bookstore staffs, by decisions they make concerning choice and display of books to carry, and by making purchasing suggestions to customers, can, in principle, increase the demand for books. But these services cannot guarantee the survival of many bookstores, because unless the services are valued by a greater margin than seems realistic to expect, there will be too few customers to defray the bookstore’s fixed costs at acceptable prices.

The question then becomes whether the loss of point-of-sale services that bookstores provide will hurt publishers (and therefore authors, whose prosperity is linked to that of publishers) more than it will help them by reducing their distribution costs. That too is doubtful. As technology continues its forward march, online booksellers will find it increasingly feasible to duplicate and indeed improve on the point-of-sale services that bookstores offer. Bookstores will decline, and perhaps vanish when the current older generation, consisting of people habituated to printed books (as to printed newspapers), dies off. Yet this may well represent genuine economic progress, just as department stores and supermarkets represent progress though they cause the demise of countless small retailers.

One Response to “The Future of the Book Store”

  1. 1
    Harry Perkal:

    Maybe that is true about bookstores and other retail outlets will die out in the furure- but I am concerned the loss of social contact among people. Perhaps I am old fashioned but there is a difference in quality when you are with actual live people in a bookstore or a theatre than interacting in your apartment with a computer or heavans know what other devices in the future.

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