The substitution of online for bookstore distribution of books will provide a substantial social saving and, as I said, increase the demand for books by reducing their retail price. As for the effect on publishers and authors of books, there is concern that it will be adverse, but that seems unlikely. A seller tries to minimize his cost of distribution, just as he tries to minimize his other costs; the publisher is the ultimate seller, and the bookstore part of the chain of distribution. But there is an important, and potentially relevant, exception, and that is where a distributor provides point-of-sale services that increase the demand for the product. This is the rationale for resale price maintenance: manufacturers of some goods place a floor under the retail price of the goods, thus deliberately increasing the retailers’ margin, but hoping by doing so to induce them to engage in nonprice competition that will increase the demand for the goods. Bookstore staffs, by decisions they make concerning choice and display of books to carry, and by making purchasing suggestions to customers, can, in principle, increase the demand for books. But these services cannot guarantee the survival of many bookstores, because unless the services are valued by a greater margin than seems realistic to expect, there will be too few customers to defray the bookstore’s fixed costs at acceptable prices.

The question then becomes whether the loss of point-of-sale services that bookstores provide will hurt publishers (and therefore authors, whose prosperity is linked to that of publishers) more than it will help them by reducing their distribution costs. That too is doubtful. As technology continues its forward march, online booksellers will find it increasingly feasible to duplicate and indeed improve on the point-of-sale services that bookstores offer. Bookstores will decline, and perhaps vanish when the current older generation, consisting of people habituated to printed books (as to printed newspapers), dies off. Yet this may well represent genuine economic progress, just as department stores and supermarkets represent progress though they cause the demise of countless small retailers