Symtio is the hot topic in bookselling this week. Basically, it’s a plastic card (like a gift card) sold in a rack (at least as currently being tested in CBA stores) which you take up to the cash wrap and purchase. Then you take it home, input the code into your computer and download an electronic audio file or an ebook of the book you wish to “read.” The bookseller gets a percentage of the sale.  To me this is a simple (and pretty good) idea made needlessly complicated.

For one thing, most bookstores are small spaces and adding a large fixture (as shown in the video) would either further clutter the sales environment or displace shelves of real books. I don’t see many bookstores taking the gamble of replacing a proven desired commodity (the physical book) for something that seems of such limited utility. Maybe as a shelftalker displayed alongside the book the card might seem simply another option, but then again this would only heighten the contrast between the instant gratification of the physical book and the nebulous uncertainly of the delayed download.

Short shelf life of tech
I can already see the cards being replaced (far more cheaply) by QR codes on shelf talkers, or even plain old barcodes. Take a picture of the QR or barcode with an app you download to your smartphone for free and be taken to a page to buy and download the ebook. The store could get a cut, the shelftalker would be cheaper (and greener) than packaged plastic cards and they could be bundled as part of a coop program. Yes, plastic cards are shiny and doubtless rugged, but so what? How long is the viable shelf life of the average frontlist book? (Don’t answer that. You’ll only cry.)

Tech is changing so fast that I foresee reluctance on consumers’ parts to commit to another unfamiliar technical thingummy – and being asked to do so in the narrow aisles of a crowded store would not inspire confidence. I think many would prefer to go home and think on the purchase; and, once home they’d find all the info they need online and would likely make the purchase there. The card is just another intermediary between the book and the reader. The nature of digital communication is to remove the intermediaries: readers already interested in electronic texts will download them online, readers vaguely curious about electronic texts are more likely to be chased back to the known quantity by new and  unfamiliar intermediaries, and, bookstores don’t want another account to manage when they already do business with the books’ original publishers.

It’s the right idea (give the bookstore a cut of the electronic sale and get POS placement), but I think it’s the wrong implementation.

Promotional video for Symtio:

Harper Studio blog post about Symtio