My Role in the Demise of the High Street Bookstore

In 2009, my answer to the question ‘Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed?’ underwent a subtle but significant change. (No one has actually asked me that specific question, by the way – after all, who cares what I think? Well, I do, so I have regularly asked myself the question).

Anyway, up until some time in 2009, when pondering an answer to this weighty self-inflicted question, I would have to think about it a bit. Kick a few ideas and scenarios around in my head. Weigh up the exact wording of my response. And end up with: ‘Probably.’ Which I would then dress up with various caveats and qualifications.

For a while now, however, my answer has not been something I need to think about too much. Are bricks and mortar bookshops doomed? Yeah, pretty much.

I’m still going to stick one or two qualifications on there, though, just to be picky. By ‘bookshops’ I mean mostly – but by no means exclusively – the big stores that reside in every town centre in the UK. By ‘doomed’ I mean headed for a potentially savage reduction in numbers and, for the surviving outlets, a future rather different from their recent past. Timescale-wise, I’m no real futurist so who knows? The evidence in the UK would seem to suggest that it’s already underway: Borders UK – a small but not insignificant chain – went under late last year. Waterstone’s, the last big dedicated bookselling chain, has just announced really horrible Christmas trading figures, at a time when most other high street retailers have been posting surprisingly good numbers. (I’ve no idea how WH Smiths, the other long-established biggish beast of high street book sales is doing, but they’re not solely reliant on books for revenue so may not be so vulnerable).

I really, really like bookshops, so this is not a change I instinctively welcome, but it would be silly to ignore my personal contribution to the hammering these bookstores have been taking. Because I’m definitely part of the problem. A tiny, tiny itsy-bitsy little part of the problem, for sure, but I’m in there doing my bit to destroy their business model. I’m only human, and the forces arrayed against the poor old bricks and mortar bookstore are powerful enough to suck even me along in their seductive wake.

The price- and convenience-appeal of online shopping (not just for books, of course) is too much for me to resist, a lot of the time. Although I’m far from poor, I’m not rich enough these days to be entirely uninterested in the unit cost of my reading habit, and there’s a lot to be said for being able to acquire the objects of my desire without having to even leave my house. Result: it’s at least possible that in 2009 I spent more buying coffee in bookshops than I did buying actual books. And much as I like coffee (and tediously expensive as it is in such places) I don’t spend nearly enough on it to keep Waterstones or any other cafe-equipped bookstore in business for long.

If it was only the competition from online sellers that the stores had to face, they could probably hang on in there. But the supermarkets have driven a coach and horses through the established price structure for bestsellers, destroying what used to be a central plank in the financial viability of dedicated bookstores. I am, at least, innocent of any complicity in this development, since I have never bought a book in a supermarket, and hope I never will. (Which is fairly easy for me to say since, to date, they don’t sell the kind of books I tend to read).

And there’s the third, and probably most dangerous, club bludgeoning the bookstores about the head: e-readers. Late last year I played around with one in a shop, the first time I’ve ever really done so with proper attention. And – sacrilege! – I found myself thinking: ‘You know, I could actually read a novel like this. It’s quite a pleasing bit of kit, all in all. And it would be kind of cool to have hundreds of books in your pocket …’ I might even buy one, one day. (They’ll have to be both even better and cheaper, though). And that’s really bad news for bookstores, because I’m a paper and ink guy through and through. If even I’m wavering … well, the end is surely nigh. The real breakthrough for digital books is a little way off yet, but one things for sure: the market for them isn’t about to start shrinking any time soon..

I expect there will still be some shops that make enough money solely from selling books to keep going – quite possibly they’ll be local, brilliantly managed independent shops with a specialist interest. And there will no doubt be plenty of places that sell books alongside all kinds of other stuff. But I’m pretty sure we’re in the twilight of the ubiquitous, big, dedicated bookshops in prime retail locations we’ve all grown up with. Eventually lots of them will go the same way so many of the music stores have gone, and the way the movie rental shops and the video game stores will probably go in due course. (Is it my imagination, or do all these places, when they close down, get replaced with mobile phone shops? Is there some law about this I’m unaware of? Is there no upper limit on the density of mobile phone emporia an area can support?)

It’s just change. It’s the way of things these days. Business models, even whole industries, come and go. No point in getting gloomy about it, or too nostalgic for the way things used to be – particularly when I, along with millions of other perfectly well-intentioned folk, am helping to propel the change. But there’s no getting away from the fact I’ll miss knowing that I can find, somewhere in the centre of every reasonable-sized town in the UK, a big open shop filled with rank upon rank of shelves stuffed with thousands and thousands of books (and pretty much nothing but books), and having the sense of being on the threshold of a great storehouse of knowledge and entertainment and craft. And cruising the aisles touching the books and turning them over in my hands, admiring them as objects. I hope that when these places are gone – or at least much rarer than they used to be – their absence won’t be an excuse for people to forget how important and magical books with paper pages are (were?).

But as I said before, I’m no futurist. So who knows?

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9 comments

  1. MConrad’s avatar

    I don't think brick and mortar book stores are necessarily finished, but they will have to change the way they operate. I received a Sony eReader as a Christmas present this year, and it is glorious. I love it. eReaders will most likely be the nail in the coffin. I think that for bookstores to survive they'll need to become more like intellectual centers. A place where digital information such as books, movies and music can be shared and downloaded. The money to be made would have to be from value added services such as helping the less-than tech savy maximize their digital media experience, or providing good atmosphere, author/musician events, coffee, etc…

  2. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    It was a Sony e-reader I was fiddling about with before Christmas, and like I say I was more impressed with it than I expected to be. Really a nice bit of kit, so I'm just ever so slightly jealous of you having been given one.

    The intellectual centre idea is certainly one that gets floated now and again, but I'm not sure I buy it as a practical proposition. I just can't see nearly enough revenue in it. If it was really viable as a business model, I'd have thought it was even better suited to music than to books (and the music stores face an even more immediate problem than the book industry, so you'd think they'd try anything), and there's not much sign of it taking off in that market as far as I know.

    The whole point of the digital thing in many ways is disintermediation, so trying to survive by artifically
    'intermediating' yourself into the process is trying to swim against the current, I think.

  3. MConrad’s avatar

    Unfortunately for the music industry, they totally missed the boat. While the RIAA was suing 10 year old girls all over America, and desperately reaching for ways to make money on digital music files, Apple was educating consumers on the ins and outs of downloading music and using digital music players. By the time record stores realized they had a problem, grandkids everywhere were already teaching their grandparents how use an ipod. I don't know that intellectual centers are the answer, but I do think that brick and mortar book stores are in deep, deep trouble. I think most Americans certainly are not as attached to their hardcover novels as publishers would like to think. The convenience of these devices just cannot be ignored.

    I have the Sony Touch eReader by the way. Very nice. I liked that it supports multiple formats too, not just locked into one thing like the Kindle. The next generation are coming down the pipe in 2010, and make my eReader look quite pedestrian by comparison. Color screens, wifi enabled, there's even one that's as flat as maybe 10 or 15 sheets of notebook paper with a flexible steel background you know, for that real paper feel.

  4. Simon’s avatar

    Either you are a Times reader or by a quirk of fate Waterstones just announced a shake up of their business model which the Times duly reported: http://entertainment.timesonli.....988775.ece

    I really hope Bookshops remain as widespread as they currently are. I often go into one knowing full well that I cannot afford to buy a book but I just like the smell of the new books and knowing that within those walls is a great body of Human knowledge. I can spend hours perusing the shelves, just as I can in Music shops flicking through CDs. I too use the internet to buy books and music and things, but the shop will always remain my favourite place for shopping.

  5. Brian Ruckley’s avatar

    Simon: the full link for that article isn't showing up in your comment for some reason – it's here if anyone's interested.

    I'd not seen that news. Sounds like a good idea, but can't imagine it's going to make any great difference, unfortunately. As the article says, it's 'one last throw of the dice' by Waterstone's, but it won't save them I fear. The more I think about it, the more I think we're actually very close to the end …

  6. Nic’s avatar

    I know I am a bit late to comment that specific post, but I see similar developments here in Germany.

    I have to admit that this is only similar for imported books. German books as sold in Austria, Switzerland and here in Germany are covered through the “Fixed Book Price Agreement”.
    You can’t sell books under the given price on the cover except that they are damaged or totally out-of-print (not only low in stock).

    That is totally different for imported books. Imported novels that are sold in bookstores, be it smaller ones or chains, are normally at least one third if not even 2 times as expensive as in comparsion to prices at Amazon or bol.de.
    That alone is very, very tempting for me to buy online. Not to mention that I have to explain to my wife why I bought a specific novel at a bookstore for nearly 2 times the price online.

    And then we have the exchange rates for books or better said the value. 2 or 3 years back books from the UK were extremly expensive here in Germany. For example a book that did cost 6 bucks in the UK could go up to 15 – 20 € here in Germany. Similar effects (not so hefty) did happen to US books (but there you have to see the shipping rates also).

    I still buy books at my favorite book store. They are small. They have very good recommendations. They are a bit homey. But instead of 5 books a month, it decreased to one in a month or in two months.

    I am also a paper guy, but I see really big advantages for authors when it comes to ebook readers.
    Direct distribution is a magic word here. You can publish ebooks without a publisher between the author and the consumer. (Don’t throw stones at me…)
    The author could grip the whole revenue, no splitting with others. No searching for publishers. The author publishes all himself. He is the exclusive decider. And the key argument most authors could even make a good living with that.

    So how are the experiences with the ebook readers so far and which one would you recommend?

  7. Brian’s avatar

    Nic: the UK had something vaguely similar to the Fixed Book Price Agreement you describe until the mid-1990s, when it collapsed. A lot of folks would say that was the beginning of the end for high street bookstores – a lot of small independent bookstores certainly found it a struggle to stay in business without that protection.

    “And the key argument most authors could even make a good living with that.” I’m sceptical about that, though it’s too early in the revolution to be sure about how any of this is going to shake out. Certainly at the moment, and for a while yet, I don’t think the opportunity for authors to digitally publish their own books is a direct route to riches for any but a small minority of writers. I have little doubt that if I tried to do that at the moment, for example, it would be difficult for me to match my current income from writing, even with my publisher between me and the reader. Not necessarily impossible, I guess, but certainly difficult.

    I’m still not using an ebook reader, but the temptation is slowly growing. The day will come, sooner or later …

  8. Nic’s avatar

    Brian:

    ““And the key argument most authors could even make a good living with that.” I’m sceptical about that, though it’s too early in the revolution to be sure about how any of this is going to shake out. Certainly at the moment, and for a while yet, I don’t think the opportunity for authors to digitally publish their own books is a direct route to riches for any but a small minority of writers.”

    I think the Taz.de or the Spiegel wrote an article about this and mentioned a handfull of english authors that sold between 100.000 to 400.000 eletronic copies of their novels.
    I didn’t meant a rich living, but a good living. Okay that lies in the eye of the watcher.

    But I think that e-publishing will grew stronger and stronger. You can see that in the RPG-scene. Take White Wolf (Vampire the requiem or Werewolf the Frosaken) for example. Since about 2009 they are publishing new sourcebook for game lines primarily as e-books. If the sales figures will be high enough there will be a printed version.

    Even thought that I am no fan of electronic books I think the future lies there.
    Why? Because all the youngsters out there are growing up with all that electronic gimmicks money can buy. From video handys to ipads.

    Brian:

    “the UK had something vaguely similar to the Fixed Book Price Agreement you describe until the mid-1990s, when it collapsed. A lot of folks would say that was the beginning of the end for high street bookstores – a lot of small independent bookstores certainly found it a struggle to stay in business without that protection.”

    The big chains here bypass the “Fixed Book Price Agreement” through some very ugly actions. Apparently they demand from the publishers some bonus if they should sell their books. This was a big bomb here in the media. The bonus the chains wanted ranged from renovating money to higher discounts.

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