Taking Pictures at the Bookstore

Josie Leavitt - March 8, 2016

It’s been happening more and more: customers are snapping pictures of books at the bookstore. I know some of these photos are purely for memory. We’ve all done that. Sometimes taking a photo is easier than writing down a title. And sometimes, taking a picture of a book is an easy way to go home and order it on Amazon. Customers who use bricks and mortar stores as a showroom for Amazon are doing a disservice to everyone. And there’s seemingly nothing I can do about it.I find that customers who are innocently taking photos for their own memory are upfront and almost sheepish about it. They’re not sneaking around snapping pictures in a way they hope no one will notice. Some customers actually have a book cover album on their phone to help them remember what books they’ve seen that might make great gifts for someone at a later date. These customers then use their phone album to order books from us, or another independent bookstore. Then there are the other customers who have little regard for what an independent bookstore actually does. 
These are the customers who are surreptitiously clicking away at books while they steadfastly refuse to make eye contact with anyone on staff who offers help. These customers actually act like they’re shoplifting, and in a way they totally are. All independent bookstores carefully curate their selections. They reflect the unique taste of the store’s buyers and staffers. It is galling that people come in, get inspired by the books they see, and take a picture so they can buy it somewhere else. If the Amazon algorithm doesn’t suggest some of the wonderful books that indies carry maybe there’s a reason. Maybe a real live human being can suggest books and make links to other books that a computer can’t. And perhaps that special connection should be rewarded with a purchase.
I know many people have monetary struggles, and I do not mean to suggest that people shouldn’t shop around. Many indies discount many more books than folks are aware. And Amazon, by so steeply discounting the 100 most popular titles, gives the illusion of deeply discounting every title, and this just isn’t the case. I am tired of having to defend my store and my pricing against a corporation that really doesn’t value reading and sees books only as a bottom line.
Booksellers: what are your thoughts on customers taking photos of books? And, do you have a policy about it?

20 thoughts on “Taking Pictures at the Bookstore

  1. Val

    I take pics so I can get stuff from the library. I’m not rich enough to buy everything I want to read. Thoughts? I do buy stuff by my favorite authors, usually at my local bookstore.

  2. Kathy

    I recently attended a conference for the field of child therapy and noticed the bookstore vendor had “No photos please” signs posted throughout their booth. Their tables of books were arranged by topic. Seeing the signs made me aware of the struggle they face to protect their collection and it motivated me to purchase from them.

  3. Laura Harrison

    It would be impossible to enforce such a photo taking policy. It is just a different way of jotting down a title/author. Perhaps the customers will purchase the book at another time. More likely it will be bought on Amazon. It is indeed sad. Particularly if the titles were suggested by a professional bookseller.

  4. Cathy

    I used to write down titles & authors in the bookstore, and now I take cover photos of books in my local bookstore. I am the organizer for our book club, and everyone leaves it to me to come up with interesting suggestions for members to choose from each month, and also at our year end. I send out my suggestion list with photos, then books are usually chosen from these, and I return to place an order or purchase for all of our ladies to share a few copies around our group.
    I know that the photo-takers are a problem and that many are doing this to purchase from others on-line. Even though this is not an honest practice, there is nothing really to be done about this. However, do not always assume that the photo takers are not returning to shop. Research or even personal books lists are so much easier to do now with our smartphones.

  5. Summer Laurie

    I try and approach any customers snapping pics, first with an offer to help or with other suggestions. Or I offer to put the book in question on hold for them so they don’t have to remember it later. On very, very few occasions I can actually have a conversation about the importance of indies vs. online vendors. At the very least, I can remind–and all too often inform–them that books can be purchased on our website from the comfort of their homes. Sigh.

  6. Brandon

    A person can just as easily jot down an ISBN with pen and paper. Would you prohibit a potential customer from writing in your store? Would attempting to prohibit a potential customer from using the single most useful piece of technology in recent history make your store a desirable place to be or build a positive relationship?
    I take pictures with my phone to:
    – remember a title or cover image
    – shop around online and offline
    – make lists so I can borrow from my library
    – research whether or not a book is worth my money
    A retailer that dictates how I’m allowed to shop will not get my business, regardless of their intentions. Sell service and a relationship with your customers; that’s your strength.

  7. Ann Jacobus

    I’ve taken photos at bookstores to post so that debut author friends can see their books “in the wild.” And I appreciate it when friends and readers photograph my book anywhere and post. If you haven’t, check out Instagram which is overflowing with pictures of books (often YA)–read, to be read, loved, hated, etc. (try #anyYAtitle, or #YAbooks) Some of these are artfully arranged with other props as “still lifes” wherever, presumably with the poster’s purchased copy, but some are taken in stores. For authors, this is on the ground enthusiasm, social media buzz and free advertising…

  8. Cora Z

    I take shelfies whenever I go to the bookstore. ^_^ It’s so I’ll remember what to buy later. I also take shelfies of friends’ books I find “in the wild.” I don’t have local in-town bookstore, but I shop at the nearest BAM every chance I get. It’s helpful when I go into a physical bookstore to have an album list of books for easy shopping. There’s nothing worse than driving two hours round trip on a book shopping excursion, only to realize I’ve forgotten a book I very much wanted to read once I get home.

  9. Barbara Johansen Newman

    I love to snap pictures at book stores, libraries, doctor’s office, etc. merely to show my fellow author/illustrators that their books are “spotted in the wild.” That’s the thrill of it. It never would occur to me that there is anything wrong with this.

  10. Andrew Wood

    Stealing?!?! From whom?
    If there is a copyright on the cover, it belongs to the author/publisher, not the book seller. So the legal definition of stealing is not met.
    I take photos of covers as a simple, quick alternative to writing down the title and author. Objective? – to read any reviews of the specific book, the author and their other work. The result? – I may that book and/or other work by that author. So the author/publisher potentially win. That is the real objective of the cover – to attract my attention and turn me into a potential buyer.
    I realy don’t see the issue here. If the photo taker is only using the photo as a means of recording information as a short- term personal memory aid, and the net result is a potential sale, where is the problem?
    Ah – I see it. The author of this article doesn’t want the photo taker buying the book elsewhere. They would rather we made a snap decision based upon the jacket blurb, skimming a few pages and how attractive the cover is. Me? I’ll continue to make careful choices on how I spend my hard-earned and limited money. And I’ll make those purchases at stores that support me in that objective.

    1. Sergio R.

      It looks like you haven’t read the author’s words carefully. She is not asking customers to make a “snap decision.” In fact, she doesn’t mind if “customers actually have a book cover album on their phone to help them remember what books they’ve seen that might make great gifts for someone at a later date. These customers then use their phone album to order books from us, or another independent bookstore.”

    2. Bob

      Wow, bro, way to take someone’s genuine concern and try to twist it into an admonishment of their business ethic. I bet you are a warmly loved individual.
      Believe it or not, retail operators provide a service. Using them to gather information for your ‘careful choices’ only to buy from someone else is taking advantage of that service. This kind of jackass behavior is why bookstores have to fight tooth and nail just to survive.

  11. Chris Barton

    I sometimes take a photo while I’m in a bookstore and text it to my wife or other family members to see whether they think that book would make a good gift for someone. If it isn’t, I may repeat until I find something that is a winner, and then I’ll buy it on the spot.
    I wonder if there’s a way for an indie bookseller to tolerate — or even encourage — the taking of photos for purposes that benefit the store (or are at least neutral) while discouraging the practice of showrooming. I suspect that the average shopper wouldn’t make the connection between a “No photos” sign and the risks posed to the store (and local economy) when the bookseller’s efforts pay off for online retailers.

  12. Elena Meredith

    If I’m taking a photo in a bookstore, it’s for Twitter or Instagram … usually a shout-out to an author/client. A “no photos” sign would be a bummer for those of us in book PR.

  13. Susanne Gervay

    There are a whole lot of reasons booklovers taking photos in bookstores. It’s often based on creativity, interest, being in a book club to use of new digital technology for convenience and sharing – the phone rather than the pencil – but I totally understand the worry by the bookshop owner to keep the bookstore viable. It’d be a disaster to have a NO PHOTO policy – as that translates to booklover as a NO WELCOME sign which is the opposite the bookshop owner wants. Suggest new strategies for a new world – bookshops are becoming community centres with inhouse bookclubs, play corners for kids while mothers look around, special events – booklovers become connected to the indie bookstore and there you have a life long customer who spread the news about your bookshop and the books.

  14. Sally

    It seems fairly obvious to me which of the respondents are taking pictures in order to order from Amazon later. They sound quite angry when someone suggests that a bookseller’s hard work goes to support an organization who doesn’t need it.
    I too will take pictures of books in order to remember titles later . To buy (from an indie bookstore) or to borrow from a library.

  15. :Donna

    Josie, I can understand where you’re coming from and why the feeling that they’re “stealing” is what you see it as 🙁 Of course, it’s not actually stealing, but the people who are “using” your store in that way and knowing they have no intention of buying there are “taking” from you in the way of your time, effort and, of course, not contributing to your overhead.
    My book purchasing is probably a 70/30 thing whereas I purchase probably a good 70% at book festivals and writer events from Indies, then the rest from B&N at the store, online or through Amazon. It all depends. When I’m catching up on my “new release” picture book reading, it’s usually a couple dozen books. I used to record them on paper so I’d have a record of what I read and typically log it (and sometimes review) on Goodreads. Then one time when I didn’t have a pen and paper with me, a friend at B&N said “take a picture.” I thought that was a great idea ’cause then I’d also have the covers to look at and refresh me.
    I also take pics of books by people I know—friends both offline and on—and often post them or email the pics ’cause it’s so much fun, not just for them, but for me, to see their books on the bookstore shelves 😀
    Also, I think Indie bookstores should have signs in obvious places that alert people that they can order books from them online, too. And anything that can help nudge people to buy from Indies—reminders of why—is a good thing. I hate that Amazon is taking over the world AND I can’t stand that, because I’m broke, I end up purchasing misc. items from them when I can’t find them anywhere else or their price is the best. When I can, I ignore the price difference when it’s small and I’ll give the business to someone else!


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