The link below is to an article that considers the physical bookshop in the digital age.
The link below is to an article that looks at ‘honor system’ bookshops operating in Dubai. Could they work in your country? Comment below your thoughts.
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There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news. And it only brightened with the news that our National Bookshop Day was to be rebranded this year as Love Your Bookshop Day. Why not?
Saturday is that day. Expect to see your local bookshop buntinged, postered, streamered and perhaps offering special bargains. Assuming, of course, you have a local bookshop.
Store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding. Children’s book sales in particular are performing well. (“The bookshop is dead. Long live the bookshop,” reads a plaque at Embiggen Books in Melbourne’s CBD.)
But over the past couple of decades the sector has wrestled with the challenges of superstores, GST, the GFC, one-sided international post deals, ebooks and online-only undercutters.
Now the greatest of these online stores, certainly in terms of market share, will soon be competing with Australian bookstores from a new base here. Amazon has secured a massive distribution centre site near Dandenong in outer-eastern Melbourne. Dire predictions for parts of the Australian retail sector have already been made.
Local booksellers too will need to adjust to this new environment, in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.
Amazon has itself experimented with physical bookstores in recent times, to underwhelming reviews, but its primary focus has, of course, been on being able to offer “everything” at the “everyday low prices” of its American precursors (and sometime role models), Walmart and Costco.
Today’s booksellers must choose what to put on their shelves from around 7,000 new releases each month. As all of these will be on the “shelves” of Amazon, local booksellers will need to maintain an intimate knowledge of what will appeal to their customer base.
This curatorial role, which has always been part of what good booksellers do, takes on extra importance in the digital age. Curating, one might say, is the opposite approach to that of Amazon, which instead expertly removes barriers to purchasing, encouraging impulse buying. The extra services local booksellers provide, in addition to low prices and the range of stock, will likely need beefing up also. Community building will be the order of the day.
The current shrinkage of review pages of broadsheet newspapers will also hurt many bookshops, as they depend on a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.
Price instability may well grow in Australia with the arrival of Amazon. Publishers have argued over the decades that this instability also discourages consumer confidence.
The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).
In the face of aggressive price cutting from firms like … well, Amazon … regulatory bodies concerned with fair prices for consumers are yet to find an effective means of properly accounting for the fact that its success has been partly based on exploiting publicly developed (and funded) technology and infrastructure, determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation.
On Tuesday morning this past week, a crowd of parents and kids waited in the cold out the front of our local suburban bookshop till, at 9 o’clock, they could rush in and buy the latest Treehouse book, by Andy Griffiths. The bookseller handed out free copies of a quality cookbook to parents. Community spirit, human connectedness and customer loyalty all bloomed nicely.
As the legendary Collins bookseller, Michael Zifcack, recalled in his memoirs,
“I realised early on that customer service was the secret of successful bookselling.”
I’ll be heading to that local shop on Saturday, but can also, of course, appreciate the access to more or less every available product that online shopping provides. No doubt there is room for both retail models within our society.
What remains most important, when thinking about the health of the book industry here, is that no matter how cheap we make these products, there won’t be effective demand for them unless people have the time and desire to read.
This desire, in turn, rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society. For all of us, that challenge is ongoing and, broadly speaking, we will get the books and bookshops we deserve.
This National Bookshop Day, Australia’s one-time Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry, will be remembered for his words, not his deeds. A reader, bookbuyer and enthusiastic patron of terrestrial bookshops, in June 2011 Sherry told a conference on online business that,
In five years, other than a few speciality bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist.
Booksellers were livid, and I don’t just mean standing behind their counters muttering impolite thoughts about the minister down into their cardigans. They got pretty shouty. And determined to prove him wrong.
Australia’s inaugural National Bookshop Day was held two months later. The sixth, on August 13, will be the first to fall beyond the minister’s five-year time period. And bricks-and-mortar booksellers have outlasted VCR manufacturers, Kodachrome and Nokia’s dominance of the phone industry to still be alive and kicking.
As it turned out, the minister was wrong – he extrapolated too far – but there were reasons at the time to have reservations about the industry’s prospects. The REDGroup – parent company of Borders and Angus & Robertson – had just gone into receivership and there were concerns that much of its 20% share of the Australian book trade might simply be lost, with those dollars drifting away from books, or at least from Australian retailers.
Amazon had been on the rise since the 90s, and almost no one could price like it. It paid no high-street rents, it paid no counter staff, it had scale and much of the time it wasn’t even focused on profit, cutting prices even leaner to build its customer database and achieve market dominance.
When Sherry spoke, the GFC was still a recent memory, and books had started to look like discretionary purchases. Around the same time, the promise of e-reading was finally realised with the arrival of devices that people were actually happy to use, such as the Kindle and the iPad. US ebook sales had risen 1,260% between 2008 and 2010. The line on that graph goes to a crazy place pretty quickly, if you let it.
Factor in the time-sucking vortex of the internet – Facebook, YouTube, news, gossip, downloadable games, streaming video services, op-ed pieces like, um, this one – and its potential impact on book reading, and the environment looks extra tough. Charles Darwin, survival-of-the-fittest tough.
So in 2011, it was possible, if you stared wide-eyed and fearfully at nothing but recent statistics and an upended entertainment landscape, to envisage a contracted book industry comprising only ebooks and a single enormous warehouse that had paper books zipping along conveyor belts and packaged and mailed by robots in response to a customer’s click on the other side of the world.
In the short term, Sherry seemed dangerously close to the mark. In the year he made his prediction, Australian book sales ended up crashing 18% by value. That is, a billion-dollar industry saw sales slump by almost a fifth in a single year. The following year, the industry relied on Fifty Shades of Grey to mask another disastrous fall. Remove that trilogy from the stats and sales dropped a further 12.5% in 2012.
But it’s now 2016 and the scheduled apocalypse didn’t arrive. So, what happened?
Ebooks are here to stay, but paper books aren’t going away and, despite Amazon, neither is the astute neighbourhood bookseller – who realises that ebooks are not an enemy vanquished and that the landscape is not what it once was, but that the local bookshop has a place in it anyway. Recently, bookshop numbers have been rising rather than falling.
According to Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, “we’ve seen an increase over the past couple of years of about 5%.”
The ebook market will continue to evolve, and what ebooks are will continue to evolve too, but, in the absence of major drivers of new growth, sales are unlikely to grow at the rate they managed at the time of the Sherry prediction. The audiobook market will probably continue to expand.
While all panicked eyes were on ebooks, audio sales – now mostly digital downloads – were happily off to one side growing at double-digit speed year after year.
Meanwhile, back in the world of paper books, Amazon will not go away.
In fact, Amazon is opening bookshops of its own. Because maybe even it knows that “people who bought this also bought that” isn’t the same as browsing the shelves of a neighbourhood bookshop. It rates as an experience, and flicking through stamp-sized book cover images online really doesn’t.
Browsing in a bookshop feels like time well spent, while searching for a book online feel like squandered time – only the purchase counts.
A local bookshop is part of a community, working with schools and families and all nearby readers to link them with books they might come to love, connecting with its customers and bringing a human kind of expertise whenever it’s asked for. It is a hub for bookclubs and author events and the chance encounters that lead to the discovery of an unfamiliar writer who becomes a lifelong favourite. It remains far better than an algorithm when suggesting what book your eight-year-old niece or granddaughter might like for her birthday.
And, happy as I am to read ebooks or listen to audiobooks, the local bookshop’s product, paper books, rates as entertainment. The paper book is a value proposition. Twenty or thirty dollars buys you hours of deep, screen-free, distraction-free reading. Nothing pings, nothing beeps and your paper book doesn’t let you know about some random person’s Facebook update or a newly arrived spam email. In a world of multi-tasking and deliriously excessive inputs, reading a paper book is mono-tasking at its finest.
Paper books and the people in our neighbourhoods who sell them to us have not faded into the past and will not be going away any time soon. I’m sure Nick Sherry would be happy to be wrong about that, and will be as glad as any of us that we still have bookshops to celebrate at National Bookshop Day in 2016.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Victoria’s ‘Readings’ bookshop, which recently won ‘Bookstore of the Year’ at the London Book Fair.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at an innovative book store on wheels in the USA.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the world’s oldest bookshop – in Portugal.