Monday, August 10, 2009

Barnes & Noble expects increase in community, eBook sales

Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie Bucket: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

By Steve Weddle

Maybe using Willy Wonka to kick off a crime fiction blog post is enough to get me beaten up outside at recess, but I’ve been beaten up a few times before. Things don’t always go my way. Recently, though, all the stars aligned and I was floating up like Charlie and Grandpa, drunk on the fizzy-lifting drink. Or so I thought.

You see, I need coffee. To exist, I mean. Not like, “I need to feel loved” or “I need to know there’s a reason to live” or bunk like that. Lacking that stuff won’t kill me. No coffee will. They’ll find me curled up like one of those slimy little rodents on the Discovery Channel when they get the night-vision camera inside a groundhog’s nest.

I also need books. Not just to read, either. To read, of course. But also to pile up, to fall over off the piano. To stand in growing towers, my future laid out for me. To line the bookshelves, sporadically organized, my past on display. And the current read, set cockeyed in the middle of the coffee table, waiting for me.
And then I need Wi-Fi, preferably free. Occasionally I need food, something containing chocolate. Something whose name has the words “triple” and/or “dark” prominently displayed. I need a place to write. I need access to a toilet.
Of course I have other needs. Family. Home. Work. Stuff like that. Maybe even someone to walk by me wearing a suit and tie with a button-down shirt so that I have a focal point for all my anger.

Recently the coffee, books, free Wi-Fi, a place to write, food, toilet – these things all came together, thanks to Barnes and Noble, which decided to move all of their stores, nearly 800, to free Wi-Fi.

On July 28, B&N switched from charging $3.95 for a whole two hours of access to the in-store Wi-Fi (via AT&T) to giving it away.

So there I was. The guy who suddenly had everything, standing in my local Barnes and Noble, walking up and down the aisles while connected to free Wi-Fi.

In a press release, Barnes and Noble’s CEO said it’s all about community: “By providing no-fee Wi-Fi access, we are not only meeting our customers’ needs, but extending the sense of community that has always been in our stores.”

The community stuff I get. It’s a press release. It’s about community and saving the puppies. I wonder about the needs of the customers.

In the release, Barnes and Noble points out that shoppers can “download free Barnes & Noble Apps giving them access to the world’s largest eBookstore with over 700,000 eBooks.” Great news. Just last night I was sitting on my couch, surfing the Web when I realized I wanted to read the latest “Chicken Soup for the Crime Writer’s Soul.”

So I shut the house down, got into my car and drove the 28 minutes to Barnes and Noble, found a parking spot, walked into the store, fired up my iPod Touch, loaded the Barnes and Noble Bookstore Application, then realized I needed to have loaded the Barnes and Noble eReader App, then downloaded the book. Of course, you can’t read a book without a good cup of coffee. So I drove home and brewed a pot.

I suppose I don’t understand who is going to download an eBook in the Barnes and Noble Store. I don’t need the store for this. Am I supposed to walk up and down the aisles, pick up each of the 17 various Monk mysteries, decide which one I want and then download it? Then I go sit in the Starbucks with a Triple Grande Latte and start reading my iPod Touch? Alright, that doesn’t sound too bad. Just kinda weird and unlikely.

So I was in the Barnes and Noble a few nights ago. I love that store and have probably spent $500 on books there this summer alone (the ink-on-paper kind). I like the small, indie stores with the one dude behind the counter and the three people throughout the store, too. But the huge B&N is a different kind of experience. When I was there this week, a guy was giving a reading. Self-help stuff. Under normal circumstances, I would have stayed for the reading. I sort of think of it as my civic duty as a certified holder of a triple-digit IQ to heckle those folks. (Seriously, you want to charge $28 to take folk tales and various public domain stuff and show me how I can apply it to my life? Yeah, I can see how that one about the fox and the chicken and raft really helped you appreciate your co-workers and land the Tompkins account. You’d better be signing those books with an “IOU $28.” Jerk.)

I walked past the guy without even a threat of violence because I’m a nice guy. I was there to enjoy the free Wi-Fi in the bookstore. But I wasn’t enjoying it. I was supposed to download eBooks? No. Doesn’t make sense. You don’t go to a bookstore to download eBooks any more than you go to a record store to download mp3s. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth (ever tried to clean horse-spit out of a Grizzly Adams beard?) but I just couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do with the free Wi-Fi. Sit in the cafĂ© in the middle of the bookstore, open up my laptop and play Mafia Wars on Facebook?

What is the purpose of the free Wi-Fi? The statement from Barnes and Noble suggests the Wi-Fi is to create community and allow for the downloading of eBooks. I’ve been to many coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. They don’t promote community. You go in, get your 8 oz coffee to last you 3 hours, then plop down and open your laptop. You think it’s about community? Free Wi-Fi in Barnes and Noble is about “extending the sense of community”? Fine. Try something for me, then. Find someone surfing the Web. Sit down next to the person and, in the interest of “community,” ask the person, “So, whatcha doin? What site is that? Are those pictures of Vanessa Hudgens there?” Go ahead. The first aid station is in the back of the store, by the way.

So how did I use the free Wi-Fi the other day? On the day when, like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, I suddenly had everything I'd ever wanted? Well, I searched the iTunes Music Store and downloaded a couple of versions of “My Sweet Lord” that my lovely bride had wanted earlier in the day. I had both songs in seconds, much faster than I would have had on my connection at home. Thanks, Barnes and Noble. That kind of speed must cost you a fortune.


Dave White said...

Oh man. They have free Wi-Fi there now? I go to Barnes and Noble to write sometimes so I can get away from the internet. This will be just as distracting!!

Meanwhile, why brew a pot of coffee? When you download the free B&N app for the iPhone or iPod touch, there's a coupon for free coffee!

Anonymous said...

Too much coffee--that's why you are up posting to your blog at 3:00 AM!!
Nice read! I like your style!---posted by Nonna

Carmen said...

I think, with the taxes that we pay on our cell bills, that they should be able to put free wi-fi EVERYWHERE! :)

John McFetridge said...

I don't know if I'm just too old, but, "Am I supposed to walk up and down the aisles, pick up each of the 17 various Monk mysteries, decide which one I want and then download it?" sounds like a good idea to me.

I don't have an e-reader yet, but someday I probably will and when I do I would still like to browse bookstores. I much prefer that to surfing online for books (like I said, I'm old).

I've been saying for a while now that indie bookstores should do this because it's the staff at those stores that make them great. Sometimes the staff at chain stores are also very good.

If there was a way to combine that interaction with the staff with dowloading books it seems it could be great.

Just as publishers need to think of themselves as more than just printers and shippers, bookstores need to think of themselves as more than just warehouses.

Of course, we don't even have Barnes and Noble in Canada, but Chapters-Indigo may try something like this, though I can't imagine them giving awaything for free.

Steve Weddle said...

Dave - Good point about the free coffee. Good for a cup once.

Anon. - It's decaf after midnight.

Carmen - I agree. Couldn't we get Wi-Fi throughout the cities, at least?

John -- Right. The bookstores are becoming literary centers, stocked up with notebooks, magazines, book signings, comfy chairs, Wi-Fi and, yeah, books. A gathering place for folks who like books. Maybe they can put in little conference rooms where the book clubs could meet, maybe even meet with local authors.

Scott D. Parker said...

The irony of the community comment is that free WiFi does create a community, just a cyber one, not necessarily a physical one. Which begs a greater question: since community is now global, what will happen to local, physical communities? We humans need the physical interaction but don't we also need to find other humans who enjoy that which we do? Might the future find humans dissolving into regional, cyber communities, groups that cater to our individual wants and desires at the expense of the physical? Kind of a downer idea but that's what your fun post triggered.

As I've said elsewhere, I'm a person who can go both ways in terms of books vs. e-books. I just don't want to have to go to B&N just to download a book. Might as well get the physical one if that's the case. E-books should be cheaper (not necessarily cheap) and easier to get than a hard copy. It's convenience you're paying for with an e-book.

Anonymous said...

It's sorta funny to see Barnes and Noble threatened by ebooks after they forced many 'mom and pop' retailers out of business just a short time ago. Maybe ebooks will help to even the playing field a bit? I HOPE that the reason someone would go to a cafe or bookstore of any sort is for the physical environment that is created (which includes the helpful staff). Sure I could download an ebook at home, but I don't always want to be at home. Sometimes I like to go hang out or write at Barnes and Noble to feel like part of the community. Although I know the scenario you mention is only meant to be humorous, I DO think that cafes and bookstores help to promote community. I often see people I know at Barnes and Noble and will strike up a conversation (this probably only works in smaller communities). And I've met several people there.

Maybe ebooks will make book retailers focus more on service and a quality environment? I dunno, but I think you're right that the trend can't be good for Barnes and Noble in the long run. While I love to go use their free wi-fi (which we've had for a couple of years...sorry), I don't often do more than buy a coffee. I'm sure that's not enough to keep them in business. But I can't say I'm real upset about it.