HarperCollins held a meeting at the recent Book Expo America in Los Angeles with buyers from many of the top independent bookstores in the country to discuss their plans to implement an online catalog in the next nine months. It was a fascinating study in how people react to change. I was leading the charge into the online world with a handful of other booksellers. Many other buyers were much more hesitant to change a system that has worked for them, despite its inherent flaws. To them, the rush to change seemed reckless.My biggest concern is that bookstores are some of the most under-capitalized businesses you'll ever find. Most stores do not have state-of-the-art computers and speedy internet connections. If an online catalog features too many bells and whistles, (HarperCollins is planning on having video and audio components to many pages) it could take too long for bookstores to load the individual pages. Staring at a stuck screen for more than an instant is going to bring the whole appointment to a crashing halt. There has to be a quick-loading basic page, with the exciting, colorful features all offered as something booksellers can access only if they want to learn more.On a related note, at Bowker we did a number of focus groups with Librarians to better understand their buying process in order for us to potentially build applications to improve efficiency. I was able to attend one of these all day meetings and was astounded by the obvious appreciation for the inefficiency, cost and lost productivity of the process exhibited by the participants (librarians), but at each suggestion of improvement (often made by the participants in the process) the glue of decades of institutionalized processes inexorably pulled us back to the status quo. It was torture.
One of the biggest negative impacts of this inefficient buying process is that it doesn't encourage deviation from a fairly static list of publisher products. (Or over reliance on pre-packaged buys from a wholesaler). Buyers simply don't have time to look at a wider range of material. Of course, having every publisher set up their own on-line catalog is in the long term not going to make buyers happy either because visiting several thousand imprints on the web will try anybody's patience. (And, I am assuming all kinds of order forms and added bells and whistles are included in these sites). Now, if I were a publisher of an industry wide books data base or transaction site wouldn't I be marketing and promoting this 'one-stop shop' solution really, really, really heavily? Probably, but with a lot of changes.
(Hat tip to Nora Rawlinson).