Browse Physical, Buy and Borrow Digital: Is it Possible?

The romance section, Book HavenOn Twitter I recently asked the following question: “If you could buy digital books in a physical bookstore, would you shop there?”

I asked because I saw a eReads article about digital book kiosks in physical bookstores, an idea I would LOVE to see.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how I shop for books, what I look for when I go buy a book, and I realized, I seek a specific title when I go make a purchase. I haven’t browsed a romance section in a bookstore in a very, very long time. Yet I have a very difficult time when I browse online bookstores, and even with the best of recommendations, the best of purchase history suggestions, and the reviews all over the internet, I still sometimes miss that experience of seeing the bookcase of romance spread out in front of me, of discovering something surprising. Even when I went into a bookstore with a list of, say, 2 or 3, I’d end up buying maybe one extra, if the budget and time allowed.

I confess: I am one of those annoying people who likes to see everything on the buffet before starting at the beginning to make my selections.

But because I read digital books, I have learned to shop differently. In other words, I don’t browse as often, if at all. While I like the freedom to shop wherever I am, even at 10:30pm in my pajamas on my couch, I miss the experience of shopping without a specific product in mind in front of a selection of unknown books I can pick up, look at, and try. The physical browsing experience is very different from the virtual one, and I’m not sure it is possible to replicate the randomness of being among bookshelves. As fast as my internet connection is, I’m faster in a physical bookstore picking up and looking at physical books one by one. In other words, even with recommendations, user data, keywords, and metadata refining the choices I look at in digital stores, there is value in bookstores, one that I wish could more easily welcome the digital shopper.

I am aware that with the nook and nook Color, Barnes and Noble shoppers can browse physical books and buy them in the store using the BN wifi – one reason why I wish the nook and the nook Color worked for me. Also, I know that Canadian bookstores like Chapters and Indigo allow readers to buy Kobo ebooks inside the stores. I suppose this is one more question to ask when considering a digital reader: do you want to be able to shop in a physical bookstore but buy digitally? Then get a nook or shop with Kobo in Canada! Heh.

But the larger questions of how I shop still make me ponder and I wonder if I am alone in noticing the change in my shopping habits. Have other digital shoppers learned other ways to browse or simply do less of it? Do they shop like I do, based on recommendation or hunting a specific book online? Is there anyone else who, like me, misses the serendipity of discovery in a bookstore, but feels like a douchebagel shopping in a physical store then going home to download online?


I don’t think the way we shop that leads to the discovery of new books has changed irrevocably, and I do think it’s possible to get digital book readers back into physical bookstores. Digital shopping options in physical bookstores would rock my world because they’d allow a store to reclaim and build more communities of reading customers while also engaging in fun and PROFIT (yay, profit!). We’d just have to be welcomed there, somehow.

Some folks on Twitter expressed doubt that digital book readers would want to go to physical bookstores, that the convenience of shopping any time without going outside in the cold would be much preferable to the experience of browsing an endless bookshelf or doing any live interaction with other book customers. Others said they’d love to shop in a store – and experience the chance to chat with other customers perhaps – and buy digital books knowing that the store they shopped in profited from their purchase. As much as the random and inefficient bookstore search for something to read can be daunting in a well-populated romance section, sometimes I, and it seems other people, miss the browsing.

Curious about the logistics of installing kiosks, figuring out customer service and streamlining all the methods through which to load content on various readers (Time yet again for another round of… Where’s My Venture Capitalist?™) I went hunting for any other retail outlet that adopted digital sales of its product in the physical store. I couldn’t find one. Would music stores, for example, be in a more robust position if there had been in-store downloads? With DRM and individual devices that weren’t wireless, perhaps not – but with wireless reading devices, a person could conceivably be able to load content from inside a bookstore on a number of devices, and not just the nooks in the BN stores.

On a larger scale, with increasing numbers of Facebook connections and users, and a whole mess of different niche networks online devoted to books, is it possible to also recreate physical connection (heh) with real people while browsing in a store? Do we, in short, still want to talk to actual people? In the discussion about Borders and bookstores, many people had suggestions as to what brings them to a physical bookstore. Would digital buying options make that more likely?

I’m still questioning whether my book shopping habits have changed irrevocably, or whether I would browse in a physical bookstore’s romance section without feeling like a complete heel for then buying digital copies, such as from Amazon or from an Indie’s online Google bookstore.

(Note: I talk about shopping and whatnot in this entry, but I also want to point out that this operation could conceivably work in libraries, too: browse physical, borrow digital.)

So, let me ask you, with a simple poll (above), and, if you like, in the comments: would you like to shop for digital books in a physical store? Or is that idea just not of interest to you?


Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sophie says:

    I would totally shop in store and buy digital.  I love physical books and always get caught up and buy more than I planned whenever I go into a bookstore—well I used to before I started reading digitally. Now I’m in an apartment with NO space for my books so it makes so much more sense to buy ebooks. But I definitely miss browsing and impulse buying in store. Okay I still impulse buy on Amazon but it’s just not the same.

    Boys38: why yes!

  2. 2
    Daisy says:

    I sure would if I could!  Browsing online, especially on my Kindle, doesn’t feel like “real” browsing, since I know there’s some logarithm making the selection for me.  I realize a bookstore is also making selections for me, but I can cruise a lot more titles in a shorter time on the shelves.

    I would really love this option for series and older titles.  I might see a book in a physical store that looks good, but it’s the third book in the Scandalously Sweaty Seducers Series and numbers one and two are too old for the store to carry.  I HATE to start partway through a series.  I’d buy the first online on the basis of liking the look of the physical #3, and if they’re any good, I’m hooked on all of them.

    methods99: There are at least 99 methods for selecting a book.

  3. 3

    My book buying has definitely changed. I used to buy based on the books that were advertised in the back of the book I was currently reading. I tended to read the same author or genre over and over again. I was constantly looking for a good book. Now with the internet and the ability to read dozens of reviews, I have more books in my TBR pile than I can conceivable read in my lifetime.

  4. 4
    Lyssa says:

    Barnes and Nobel already have a system that encourages this. You can go and shop in the bookstore, read selections of any book in the store on your nook for one hour, and then purchase the book for your nook. They are encouraging this behavior by ‘giveaways” at their cafe (sometimes a smoothie, others a cookie, or a free box of chocolate samples) if you show your nook to the clerk. While I normally hate shopping, B&N have tempted me away from my homey comfort to browse by the time to sit and read. (The wifi is free, and my local b&n also has charging areas so beside comfy chairs.

  5. 5
    Aryn says:

    I generally will buy the book where I find it. If it is a book store, I’ll buy the print version. If I find it at Books On Board or AllRomance, that’s where I buy it. That being said, I live in a very small town with one very small book store that has vastly cut back on print stock. So, my print book buying is down to almost nil. If it is a specific title that I can find nowhere else, I’ll turn to and get the print title there. I actually own a Nook Color, but the local B&N doesn’t have wi-fi, not do I have wireless at home, so it’s pretty much a waste trying to buy e-versions of books in the store. So, I find myself replacing old favorites if I can find them in e-version or purchase titles by authors I already know.  I’ve purchased so very many lousy ebooks by dint of publishers’ blurbs or reviews by who-knows-who on the net and been stung, that I pretty much just don’t buy books any more. I’ve gone from an easy $8 thou a year to maybe $50 a month. If I could find old faves in e-version, that figure would be higher, but re-releases (Dana Stabenow’s first Kate Shugak book was re-released in Feb, but not it e-version) are slow in coming. Since I didn’t start reading romance novels until my divorce five years ago, my ‘old faves’ tend toward mysteries and general fiction.

  6. 6
    Francesca says:

    I held out against digital until very recently because I love books as objects almost as much as I love to read. All and sundry know that my ideal gift is a fancy-schmancy edition of a book I love.

    Having said that, although I did occasionally read something from Gutenberg, I acquired a reader last week. I can’t see myself giving up on bookstores, even if I feel like they are giving up on me (but that’s a whole other rant).

  7. 7
    ev says:

    Part of the fun, for me anyway, of shopping in a bookstore (and working in one) was talking to people and seeing what others were interested in. That has lead to many a new find for me, and hopefully, them. Romance was my section, so I got to know my customers.

    If I could buy digital books at the store, I wouldn’t feel so bad about going and sitting and reading on my device while drinking something rather than just getting something to drink and bringing my own read with me. Does that make sense? Of course, that also suggests that the bookstore would have a compatible format for me and my reader available.

    spamword- read92. I try!

  8. 8
    Inez Kelley says:

    I’d love it. I don’t anything can replace standing if front of a book shelf and having a conversation with a stranger over which book to buy next, what they thought of X and oh they have to try Y! If they liked Z, they will love it!

    I can get gift cards for Walmart, Target, Applebee’s, iTunes, etc in set dollar amounts. What I love to see is EBOOKS like that. Covers are on the card, Back copy on the back, buy it, scratch of a silver slip, imput a code and BOOM! On my reader. Hell, make it dual code system if they must for epub and kindle. Once one has been activate, the other is useless. That makes sure it is only used once… like iTunes.

    I could grab handfuls of a book I loved to give away not just generic $ amount to a specific publisher/distributor. They would take up a helluva lot less space than physical books but could be grouped the same, by publisher or genre or whatever. Then I’d have my cover of PERFECT PLAY and my digi copy and could give it to my FIVE BFF and share the joy. These cards would/could then be kept by the reader as a little library. (Okay, I just want to take out the Perfect Play card and drool every once in a while)

    The technology exists. Why won’t they use it?

    CODE: able49 I can think of 49 ways this would enABLE bookstores to embrace the digi-craze

  9. 9
    Inez Kelley says:

    Damn, forgot a point.

    And wouldn’t that be a way to work around the BOOK SIGNING problem ereaders often feel left out of. Have an author sign the card!

  10. 10
    Miranda says:

    I wouldn’t go to a bookstore for ebooks. I usually shop based on author, and then I’ll browse the ‘other people who bought this book also bought’ recs on Amazon. I end up with quite a backlog this way :)

    I browse and buy magazines at bookstores because my Kindle doesn’t do color, and I do like magazines. If I see a paperback that looks good in the bookstore, I’ll probably buy it, but for a hardback, I want to download the free sample of the book and read it before committing.

  11. 11
    Carolyn says:

    I voted ‘no, not really’, because it’s been years since I’ve been in a real bookstore. Our town doesn’t have one unless you count WalMart, which I don’t!

    Before the advent of the internet, I’d have to travel 50-100 miles to find a bookstore. I did join a lot of bookclubs, but hardbacks can fill up a bookcase fast.

    Amazon may be a lot of things, but it saved me, allowing me to buy paperback and then, with its Kindle for PC, allowing me to buy ebooks. Sure does save a lot of room.  :-)

  12. 12
    Natalie L. says:

    @Inez Kelley—I’ve actually gotten some review copies like that.  Postcard sized, scratch off the code on the back, go to a website and input the code and after a bit of wrestling with registration, e-book on my computer (and then on my reader via Adobe Digital Editions).  So while the technology is definitely there to do it, the process really needs to be streamlined because the registration part was a pain in the butt.  I will note that the publisher that was doing it is now using NetGalley, so I suspect a lot of people had problems with the registration bit.

    I really don’t do a lot of browsing when I buy e-books—a lot of my SF/F purchases are re-reads and most of my romance purchases are based on recommendations or are a few authors whose books are a must-buy for me.  For me, the beauty of e-books is the availability of the backlist. Bookstores usually don’t have a lot of backlist titles available and some of my favorite writers aren’t stocked in my local stores anymore so my only options are ordering physical copies from Amazon of B&N or buying e-books.

  13. 13
    tracykitn says:

    My current method is to browse the physical books and take pictures of the covers with my cell phone. Then when I get home, I can go online to buy them for my Sony reader…It can get frustrating, though, if what I’m looking at isn’t available digitally (shocking, I know!) or is more expensive than I’m willing to pay just then—if I then decide to try to go ahead and buy the physical copy, sometimes it’s just not convenient. The store may be sold out, or be an hour’s drive away (and with three kids, just picking up and going to the bookstore when it’s an hour’s drive is just not always doable.) I can sometimes pick books up at the local library to read and decide if I want my own copy, but frankly, the selection there is thin, and there’s no telling if or when they’ll ever get a copy of a specific book…

  14. 14
    Julie says:

    I do miss shopping in bookstores since I got my ereader. Before B&N turned over so much space to toys, that was one of the reasons I was considering the nook. I ended up buying a kindle, though.

    And by the way – tracykitn’s method of taking pictures of covers on your cell phone? If you have a smart phone you can use the photo (or bar code) to search Amazon for the book on your phone. Then buy it from there, add it to your wish list, whatever. It’s a little messier to buy a kindle version. I think you’d have to add to your wish list, then bring up your wish list on a computer, select the book and choose the kindle version.

  15. 15
    Meg says:

    I do this with the Nook app on my phone. Even if I don’t have my Nook with me, (which I usually don’t) I will look it up via the mobile app to see if it’s available either on Google books or If it is, I’ll add the preview to my library, and the next time I turn on my Nook, there’s the preview. No more forgetting titles I meant to add to my ‘to read’ pile! Also works at the library, if I see something I want to own vs. borrow.

    (However, I do still buy print, too.)

  16. 16
    Jael says:

    There’s a B&N here, but I don’t think I’ve set foot in it since I got my first Kindle in 2008 as it’s on the other side of town, and I seldom go over there.  There are no bookstores on my side of town unless you count Wal-Mart and the grocery store rack.

    I’m hooked on e-books now and don’t regret it – don’t have to find a space for them and don’t have to dust them.  My Kindle fits in my purse, and when it’s not with me, my books are available on my smartphone’s Kindle app.  The rare hardback or paperback book I get these days comes from Amazon.

  17. 17
    Christine says:

    I guess I feel I already have the ability to do this if I wish. I have the 3G Kindle as well as cell phone, ipad and itouch Kindle apps so I can pretty much buy a book instantly from anywhere (and have.) A kiosk for me would actually be more time consuming. I like that my Kindle knows it’s me so my personal information doesn’t have to be keyed in on what may be an unsecured network somewhere. I can just click and read. If I see something I like perusing a book store, I can check prices and buy from Amazon etc before leaving the store. I have also found doing so much of my shopping “online” has made me a smarter shopper. There are less impulse purchases of “Oh the cover looks great” and more books chosen by excellent reviews or recommendations. As a result I have been reading a higher percentage of books I really enjoy.

  18. 18
    Chelsea says:

    I still spend a lot of time in physical book stores. I love browsing that way, and it’s often how I discover new authors. I’m a list maker anyway, so I’ll go to a bookstore and find things and make a list, and include what the store is charging for it. Then I compare to other stores including the local used book/comic book store and the ebook price. While online, I also check the overall ratings and maybe skim through reviews, though usually I end up not agreeing with the majority. 9/10 times lately I’ve ended up with the ebook format, either because it’s the cheapest or because I couldn’t find the physical book anywhere. Our local B&N seems to do a poor job at stocking all of the books in a series, and Im too impatient to wait for shipping. It would be great if I could shamelessly bring my e-reader into a store and shop both ways simultaneously, but I own a Kindle. My hubby takes his to the store and shops right there, but I’m just not comfortable with that.

  19. 19
    DS says:

    We still have a Borders at the mall,  but I only go a couple times a years (at most and I don’t think I was in there at all in 2009-2010.)  But I do like to pop into the downtown library and browse through the new selections.  I have seen something I didn’t realized was coming out and ordered it right there on my Kindle if the ebook price is to my liking.  Our library’s sole electronic offering is downloadable audiobooks. 

    We also have a bookstore that is new/used.  The used offerings, interestingly enough are former rental library books from other areas. 

    So the idea of browse and buy electronically isn’t bad, but I just don’t see any advantage to it over my library/Kindle method.

  20. 20

    I have been in love with this idea since e-books came out. Can you imagine being an author doing a reading—because it’s hard to sign a Nook and still have infinite room for all the other autographs you want—and having your ENTIRE backlist available? I’m not just talking for someone like Janet Evanovich, but for Missy Mid-List, who has three books out, but one is only available digitally (‘cause the rights reverted back to her, so she put it up on Smashwords). Her sales could soar.

    It’s a question of being able to combine digital buying/reading with the personal touch of An Event. (Note the capital letters!) I see it as a total win for everyone. Reader, writer, bookseller.

  21. 21
    Kate Jones says:

    Physical book stores are GREAT for browsing, but I don’t find that I go to them on purpose any more.  If there’s one in the vicinity of other shopping then you can’t peel me away, but when it comes to day-to-day purchasing (and sometimes it is daily), it’s all about the interwebs and the comfort of my couch (or office chair, or passenger seat of the car…)

    I have to second Christine as well:

    A kiosk for me would actually be more time consuming.

    With purchasing options on-board the device (which is infinitely portable), why would you need the kiosk?

  22. 22
    Melodie says:

    I’ve thought that the bookstore should have empty covers on the shelf alongside the books. They are already printing covers anyway. If you wanted the book as an e-version you would carry the empty cover to the cash register and purchase that and get the e-book sent to your account. They could make reader covers similar to view-binders so we could slide the art into it to match what we’re reading. Afterwards we could slide it into an album so that all the people who complain about not being able to check out people’s bookshelves when they visit would have something to snoop through. It would also solve the booksigning issue.

  23. 23

    As a nook owner I do in theory already have the ability to buy books right inside B&N, although I have yet to actually try this. The main thing standing in my way on it is that every time I’ve tried to do anything on my nook in the B&N I frequent, the connection is really, REALLY slow.

    So right now what pulls me into a bookstore is if there’s a specific print release I’m looking for, from one of the authors on my list of people I Must Still Absolutely Buy In Print, people who I wish to still be able to read if the zombie apocalypse comes and we don’t have any electricity anymore. ;) I don’t randomly browse anymore—in no small part because the vast majority of my purchases ARE now digital, and those are driven by online word-of-mouth as well as by downloading B&N’s samples of those books.

    But I would really, REALLY love to be able to come into a bookstore and reliably browse with my nook. Better yet, I’d like to be able to buy a print book AND be given an unlocked download to get the electronic one at the same time. Those authors on the aforementioned Preparing My Zombie Apocalypse Library? I’m buying them electronically TOO.

  24. 24
    CupK8 says:

    I like options. :) I go to physical bookstores for the experience of being IN a bookstore. I’ll spend hours browsing my favorite sections. Now that I’m in grad school, I don’t have the luxury of taking a day just to browse the bookstore (though I wish I had when our Borders was still open). If I could, I would. And if it meant I could choose to buy a book digital or print, it would make me go there more often.

    I do have an insane TBR pile, though, so I tend to buy mostly on recommendation – not always.

  25. 25
    Alley says:

    I voted not really because it’s been a very, very long time since I was last in a bookstore just to browse.  Maybe a year ago or so, when I had a B&N gift certificate to use.  I’m clearly not a book shopper the way other people here are, as I’ve never stood around talking to other customers about which books we’re looking at; book shopping has always been a quiet, solitary, relaxing experience for me, which is is why switching to internet shopping hasn’t really been too much of a difference.  It’s actually been an improvement, as with the advent of coffee shop bookstores, physical book shopping became rather uncomfortable for me—I preferred the tomb-like, quiet bookstores that smelt of books to the current model with kids playing with toys, people sitting around talking, and the smell of coffee permeating everything.

    If I AM somewhere and see a book I’m interested in, I usually just scan the barcode or cover with the Amazon Remembers app on my iPod (or just write down the title if no wifi is available) so I can check it out when I get home to my Kindle.

  26. 26
    Stephanie says:

    You know, if I didn’t have the nook, I would tell you that absolutely, yes, I miss the physical book buying experience and would love to see that happen. (Because I do actually miss it) But, see, I have a nook, and I almost never make it to a BN store.

    But then I realized that I don’t browse when actually buying. When buying, I’m usually looking for something or someone specific. When I’m browsing for things to try, I browse in the library, because I’m too cheap to spend money on an author that’s a complete unknown to me. And I still can’t download books in a library, so I do still miss that chance.

    I’m the jerk who, when she goes to a book store, takes note of books that might look interesting to go check them out at the library. Don’t get me wrong – once I’ve tried an author and liked them, (or once sources I trust highly recommend them) I’ll start buying. But I *do* still miss the browsing experience. I just can never justify it when I’m usually tired after a long day’s work, and I know I can get any books I need to at home. A 3 or 4 hour (round trip) commute will do that to you.

    So there’s nothing I can complain about – I have the chances to browse physical book stores. And as much as I say I miss it, I still don’t do it.

  27. 27
    Lisa Hendrix says:

    I love this idea, and Inez Kelley’s suggestion about book gift cards. The problem of discovery/browsing in a world without shelves has been a concern of mine for years.

    And wouldn’t that be a way to work around the BOOK SIGNING problem ereaders often feel left out of. Have an author sign the card!

    The Nook guy at one the B&Ns; Delilah Marvelle and I visited on tour had us sign a Nook cover for display & sale. He indicated that some Nook owners have purchased second and third covers as they collect author signatures on the first one(s).

  28. 28
    Terry Odell says:

    When we moved to the back of beyond, I find myself looking more and more at digital options. I have the NOOKcolor, and have a large ‘supply’ of samples, which I can buy if I get to the end and HAVE to turn the page, all without leaving the comfort of my bed.

    But on those occasions when we do go down the mountain to a real, live, bookstore, I’d love to be able to find the book and purchase the digital copy. Not only do we live in the back of beyond, we’ve downsized and shelf space is … well, it isn’t.

    It IS harder to browse the on-line shops, however. I do tend to seek out authors, books recommended by others. I’m more likely to have a good idea of what I’m looking for before shopping the digital venues.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist—of Mystery

  29. 29
    TaraL says:

    I answered “no, not really,” but as some others have said, that’s mostly in response to proximity. I have to drive an hour to get to a bookstore that sells new books. It’s been ages since I’ve even bothered to stop in when I happen to be over that way so being able to shop for e-books too isn’t a draw.

    I do enjoy wandering the book aisles and chatting with other readers, but I get that when I go to the local used book store. I do often pick up the books in a series that are available at the UBS and then come home and fill in the gaps with e-books, so I suppose if the UBS could somehow sell me e-books, I’d buy them there to keep my money in the local economy, but I doubt that’s going to happen.

  30. 30
    mikaela says:

    I would love to do that, but since I doubt the prices will drop it wouldn’t change anything.  Also, due to the prices, I get most of my e-books from the library.

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