Will appetite for tablets, e-readers kill traditional booksellers?

Brian Gaar

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 1:24 p.m. MDT

AUSTIN, Texas -- These days, tablets are big news in the tech world. Of course, they've been big news since 2010, when Apple launched its iPad and helped usher in yet another must-have device.

But last month, online retailer Amazon poured gasoline on the flames with its own foray into the market -- the Kindle Fire. Priced at $199, the Kindle Fire could sell 5 million units in the fourth quarter, by some estimates.

Of course, the Kindle -- and to a lesser extent the iPad -- are used as e-readers. So what does the ascendance of tablets mean for traditional ink-and-paper retailers? You know, bookstores?

There have already been some possible harbingers -- Borders Group, the Michigan-based bookselling chain, closed all its remaining stores this year after failing to react quickly enough to technology advances (like e-books, for one).

For their part, local booksellers say that e-books haven't hurt their business.

The beloved Austin institution BookPeople has continued to see year-over-year sales increases, even with the emergence of tablets and e-books, co-owner Steve Bercu said.

Last month, 3,000 people came to a party and book-signing at the Lamar Boulevard store, Bercu said.

''There's still some people interested in going to a bookstore," he said.

As for e-books, Bercu said it's hard to tell whether they're taking sales away from retail operations like his.

''You're assuming it has to be taking some sales," he said. But nobody knows if those sales would have otherwise occurred at a retailer, he said.

BookPeople has actually begun selling e-books through its own website. And under the current setup known as the "agency model," e-books must be sold for the same price, no matter who the retailer is.

That helps smaller retailers like BookPeople.

''There's absolutely no competitive advantage anymore for Amazon, with regard to those books," Bercu said.

Another area where tablets are starting to encroach is in digital comics. The two industry powerhouses, DC and Marvel, have released their own comic reader apps, which allow users to buy comics online (although the selection is not as complete or current as most comic book stores' offerings).

While publishers are embracing digital technology, Brandon Zuern, manager of Austin Books & Comics, hasn't seen a loss of regular customers.

''I've heard many times that they don't want to read comics off a screen," he said.

Overall, Zuern said, digital comics on tablets and other devices are a good thing, because they get more comics in front of more people.

''I mean, it's hard to say where this industry will be in 20 years, if it's all digital or there's still room for paper ... but we're going to find out," he said. "Everyone seems to be embracing it. ... Our job is to make it work for us."

Jeffrey Alfaro, store manager of Dragon's Lair Comics and Fantasy, said he's noticed that when publishers offer free digital versions of comics, they often whet people's appetite for more.

''Any impact (on sales) so far as been pretty small" yet positive, he said.

Still, some say that tablets and e-readers will eventually bring about the death of print.

John Biggs, an editor for the technology blog TechCrunch, pointed to statistics showing that e-book sales are now eclipsing hardback sales. (Amazon reported this year that sales for its Kindle e-reader had outpaced print books.)

''Soon those in-store sales numbers will dwindle and disappear simply because there will be no stores -- heavy readers, the folks who buy genre fiction by the basket-full will be happy to head over to Nooks and Kindles, especially when they drop below $99 (as they will this year)," he wrote.

Biggs predicted that by 2025, most of the developing world will have completely moved to e-readers.

''The book is, at best, an artifact and at worst a nuisance," he wrote.

For Bercu, though, there are some things that only a physical bookstore can offer. For one, he pointed to the literacy programs and other outreach efforts that BookPeople sponsors.

What's more, he said, sometimes shoppers want recommendations from an actual human being.

''It's very convenient to ... buy everything in your bedroom," he said. "But occasionally, you want to do something where there are other people involved."

Austin author Doug Dorst said he hopes bookstores make it.

''I can say this: if e-forms of books do in fact make it even more difficult for Real, Actual, Occupying-Physical-Space indie bookstores to survive, then I would like to express a clear preference for Real, Actual, Ink-and-Paper Books (which is a strong preference that I have as a reader)," he wrote in an email.

''Apart from that, though, I can't think of any reason why I'd prefer people to buy my books in one form or another. If my work is getting out there into the world, I'm plenty happy."

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