Why We Buy Books Online (and Why We Don't)

BlogHer Original Post

As I read yet another article about the supposed death of Borders, whose death has been predicted so many times I've lost count, I can't help but wonder why we buy so many books online. I confess to it myself. I used to spend hours in bookstores, browsing and stroking the books. Now the majority of my book are purchased online. Why is that? I can't only give you my answers.

Let's get it out of the way early -- shopping for books online is usually cheaper. Even with the major chain where I live that sells books both online and in brick and mortar locations, the prices online are significantly cheaper. In the store they charge the cover price unless it's part of a special discounted promotions. If I buy the same book from their website I can expect a significant discount. For example, the last book I purchased from them had a cover price of $26.00 and the online price was $17.16. Which would you rather pay?

The price difference between their online sales and their actual bookstore locations is something that has confused many a person and honestly, lost the chain many a sale among my friends who, upon discovering this, have turned around, gone home, and ordered the book cheaper online from one of their competitors. No matter which site I used to purchase my books I save, on average, 25% off the cover price and I never pay for shipping. When you have limited dollars you tend to appreciate the savings.

When I buy online I don't have to deal with commentary on my reading choices. Awhile back I decided that I wasn't going to buy books online unless it was something that I couldn't get at either my local independent bookstore or the bricks and mortar chain bookstore. I called my local indie to see if they had a book in stock and when I went to pick it up I noticed they had a pile of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games stacked by the cash register. I had read it a few months earlier and when I commented that it was a good read the employee serving me looked at it, sniffed and said rather condescendingly, "I suppose I might read it when I'm in the mood for something light." I was rather surprised by the comment. It was absolutely delivered condescendingly, which is perhaps the not the best tactic for a small bookstore trying to keep customers. I was also kind of amused because there are a lot of things you can call The Hunger Games and "light reading" is simply not one of the things that comes to my mind.

If it had been my first trip to that bookstore, or if I had fewer qualms about where I purchased my book, I might not have come back. Oh, and that resolution didn't last so long. Even though I really cut down on my book purchasing, my bank account told me to go back online. I try to listen to my bank account.

Then there's the selection. A brick and mortar bookstore would have to be massive to be able to house all the books that are available with an online bookstore. Independent, or even chain bookstore, have limited space to display books. Their selection is not going to be as varied. Most bookstores offer a special-orders service and they can get in a book if you want it (and it's in print) but easily do that on my own computer with an online bookseller.

Shopping online is convenient. I like just about any kind of shopping that I can do at home in my pajamas. More than that I can hop online, put the books in my cart and they can be on their way to me in less than 10 minutes. I don't need to get dressed and walk or drive to the store and then try to find it it in the store, wait in line to pay and then come home. Yes, I realize that makes me sound really lazy but sometimes it's just a time thing.

NPR recently reported that it's not the end of days for bookstores, at least not for the independents and they don't have a lot of sympathy for the chain stores.

"It's really hard for me to be sympathetic to the chains," says Elaine Petrocelli, the co-owner of Book Passage in San Francisco. She's been in the business since the 1970s, and has not forgotten when a chain store moved into her neighborhood and almost put her out of business.

As much as I like shopping online, and I admit that I do, I also like to shop at local bookstores. I like to support the local economy and I really do like small independent bookstores. Their selection isn't as varying as I can find online, but I find that independent bookstores do a fantastic job of curating their collection. The local indie I mentioned above has a great section of local history, something I appreciate since I'm new to the area. There's another store that I really like that is part of a small chain of three stores. I've found books there that I didn't even know to look for online. They sell beautiful books and display their books in a wonderful way. I was in one of their locations once when a man turned to the employee before he left and told them that it was the most visually-appealing bookstore he'd ever been in. Independent bookstores are also incredibly supportive of local authors.

There are also times when I'll buy from the local independent or the brick and mortar because of convenience. Sometimes I need a book and I need it right now. I'm not saying that dramatically. Sometimes author interview opportunities pop up and I need to get a book read as quickly as possible so that actually have time to create what I hope are intelligent interview questions.

Most of all I love to go into a bookstore and just look around and browse. I will often end up walking out with fabulous books I've hadn't heard of before. One of my favorite book shopping expeditions was a few years ago after Christmas. Some relatives had sent me cash and it hadn't been the best holiday season I'd ever had. I have a habit of being overly practical with such windfalls and tend to use them for things like bills or savings. Not this time. I took that little bundle of cash and walked into a chain bookstore that was having a promotion. I was armed with some extra discount coupons. I took a couple of hours and wandered around the store adding books that caught my interest to the pile. I left with a delightfully full bag of books and a bounce in my step.

Why do you shop for books online? Why do you shop at your local bookstore?

See also:

Why Brenda doesn't want Borders to fail.

Pen and Paper Mama wonders, where do you buy books?

A library challenge makes fakesteph at Books for Nerds question, and answer, why she buys books at all.

Contributing Editor Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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