The question of how readers will discover books that they didn't already plan to buy has been growing in importance in the book industry as more sales move from physical bookstores to online retailers. A new report being prepared by Bowker PubTrack Consumer Service and PW puts the focus on just how important an issue discoverability could become.

According to the "2010–2011 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review," only 11% of book buyers who bought a book online said they did so as an impulse purchase, while 44% said the book they bought online was the one they intended to buy. The results were significantly different at physical bookstores, where the ability to browse through the shelves resulted in 26% of book buyers saying they bought a book on impulse, compared to 28% who bought the specific book they had intended to buy. Browsing also helped buyers choose a title, with 30% of shoppers at stores reporting that they bought a book that they had not planned on buying compared to only 17% of online shoppers.

The results were consistent across the three major trade segments (the report also breaks out buying habits for the religion, scientific/technical/medical, and academic/professional categories), with impulse buying occurring at a much higher level in stores than online. Just looking at impulse purchases, 25% of consumers buying fiction titles at a store bought a novel on impulse compared to 11% of online fiction shoppers. In nonfiction, 31% of physical store purchases were made on impulse, while 13% of online nonfiction books were bought that way, and in the juvenile category 28% of purchases made at a store were done on impulse compared to 11% of nonfiction books bought online.

The way people buy books online is becoming more important to understand since the annual review also found that in 2010 people spent more money buying books online than any other channel. Online retailers captured 30% of the money spent on books last year, just edging out bookstore chains as the single largest outlet for book purchases. When all types of bookstores are combined, bookstores still accounted for more spending than online retailers, but with the downsizing of Borders and the rapid growth of Amazon, it is likely that in 2011 e-commerce will overtake all bricks-and-mortar bookselling as the largest channel for books. If that happens, online retailers will need to do a better job of providing buyers with an easier way to browse through different titles or the industry faces the prospect of book buying becoming more concentrated around well-known authors, something that would truly be ironic in the age of the long tail.

For more information on the report, which will be finished in early June, e-mail: