Barnes & Noble Up For Sale, the Beginning of The End for Mega Bookstores?

The Wall Street Journal reported Barnes & Noble is putting itself up for sale so it can reorganize and figure out what to do as people are adopting eBooks at an accelerated pace. Barnes & Noble is largest bookstore chain in the U.S. with 720 retail stores, but it sounds like that number will shrink significantly over the coming years. I think Barnes & Noble’s woes mark the beginning of the end of bookstores as we know them. I’m willing to bet that in 15 years there won’t be a single Barnes & Noble or Borders retail bookstore left standing in the U.S.

In the (near) future, reading on Kindles, iPads, Nooks, smartphones and other devices will be the norm rather than the exception. Here in San Francisco it’s very common to see several Kindle and iPad users reading eBooks when I walk into a cafe. Yes, things are skewed here, but this area does tend to set trends when it comes to consumer technology.

Even though many people are already swapping paper for eInk, I think the mass migration away from paperbacks and textbooks will take 10 to 15 years. That might sound like a long time, but it’s not all that long considering we’re going to be breaking habits that have taken a lifetime to learn.

Think 10 or 15 years is too short of a time to get away from paper books? Then just consider how you communicated and consumed other forms of media in 1995. Back then I was in high school and most of my friends didn’t have email, much less mobile devices. Over summer we’d exchange addresses of our summer camps and communicate via snail mail. A few of us had our own landlines and even fewer of us were lucky enough to have pagers. I felt all was right with the world when my dad allowed me to buy one. My friends and I made trips to the mall to buy music.

Paper books don’t have a place in the digital future. Why? Money. They cost a bundle to produce, transport, warehouse, stock on store shelves and sell. Electronic books, on the other hand,  just live on a server and can be sold and downloaded repeatedly. A digital library can be limitless, while retail bookstores are limited by four walls and how much it costs to staff them.

As with all new gadget product categories, eReaders will continue to fall in price. There are now a couple of good options available for less than $150. By next year we’ll cross the magical $100 line and it’ll only go south from there.

Even though the writing’s on the wall for physical mega bookstores I don’t think we’ll see the end of specialty bookstores for a while. The pattern will likely follow the videostore and record store slowdown. Tower Records and Hollywood Video retail stores in San Francisco are empty shells in San Francisco, but there are a few record stores (yes, vinyl) and neighborhood video rental shops around. These small shops have small loyal followings, but the Barnes & Nobles of the worlds aren’t interested in anything small.

Do you think Barnes & Noble and other major book retailers will find a way to keep paper relevant?