Bookshops Are Dead: And I Killed Them


2009 was a weak year for me in book reading terms. I read perhaps 26 or so (with some extra I’m fairly sure I have forgotten):

    1) Europe Between The Oceans
    2) A Fire Upon The Deep
    3) The Ascent of Money
    4) Blood of the Mantis
    5) The Training Ground
    6) Dragonfly Falling
    7) The Blade itself
    8) Millennium
    9) Before They Are Hanged
    10) Ireland in 2050
    11) Gutenberg Revolution
    12) Empire in Black & Gold
    13) Empire of the Sea
    14) Edward I: A Great & Terrible Kind
    15) The Last Argument of Kings
    16) The Steel Remains
    17) The Dreaming Void
    18) The Adamantine Palace
    19) Defying Empire
    20) The Darkness That Comes Before
    21) A Shadow in Summer
    22) A Betrayal in Winter
    23) An Autumn War
    24) Young Miles
    25) The Stars My Destination
    26) Earthman, Come Home

On the other hand I bought quite a few more than that, perhaps something like 50 or 60 books. I’m hoping to push the read figure up towards 45 or so and if I’m really lucky, I might even average one a week.

Serious thoughts
I was thinking while calculating this poor reading effort of the changes that Seth Godin pointed to in a recent post:

iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.

He drew a comparison with books and Amazon’s recent somewhat questionable Kindle news, that they sold more books via Kindle than in paper on Christmas day:

Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.

I think Seth is right and yet wrong. He is right, bookstores as we’ve known them are dead. But Amazon killed them long before they released the Kindle. Cheap books delivered through the mail are the way forward for those of is who buy in large numbers (I’m probably a medium rank buyer of books).

The Book Depository sucks up a good 60% of my book buying at the moment and accounts for almost all my new book purchases with 10% or less spent in chain stores or supermarkets. The rest is spread very unevenly as follows: 25% in second-hand and car-boot sale locations (Ravenbooks features here and I suspect in 2010 will feature even more) which is made up almost exclusively of out of print and pre-2000 books, the last 5% or so gets spent fairly randomly everywhere from good independents, to local shops with self published titles and random online direct purchases and ebooks (I’m still primary print and suspect I will always be so, despite a belief and passion for digital text).

He is wrong, however, when he says that the top rank of book buyers are gone for ever from print, because many of those buying books on Kindle will buy some, get some free and eventually return to print books, many more of the top buyers will simply ignore digital books in favour of print because they like it.

This is not a defence of print against digital (like this op-ed from Jonathan Galassi president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) as, ultimately, I believe the bulk of books will be read digitally before the end of the teens, but it is not as simple a case as music when whether or not you had a cd or an mp3 makes little difference to the listener, the quality was just the same and the process of using it fairly similar too. Books on the other hand are usable on their own without input from a device of any kind and with the proviso that there is light. Those readers who, like me, still enjoy the experience of reading in print will still buy in print even as the price of print books rises.

So there will be demand for print books but at a much reduced level (because many others will shift to digital as will casual readers and new readers) and the economics of bookshops will become completely skewed favouring the online Emporia. Booksellers can react by hand-selling to customers and making themselves relevant as Ravenbooks has (I am increasingly sure of finding a pile of relevant books there every time I walk in) and no doubt this will mean concentrating on older books, out-of-print books and second-hand books, books that appeal directly to the customer, and print-on-demand books printed directly on site (though I am less convinced of the economic case for this).

Whatever way you look at it though, by not buying in chain stores, and rarely enough in independents, I killed the chain bookshop and I got away with it!

More to come today!
Eoin

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27 comments

  1. I don’t know why people argue with Godin’s point as you have. When your best customers — the ones who drop the most money — leave, what’s left? You’re correct that Amazon started the process before the K, but someone dropping over $200 on a *device* just to be able to *read* is above and beyond the average book buyer right there. And numerous surveys have shown that once people buy any such device, they tend to read more — and buy more too. More sales lost to the stores.

    1. Mike,

      I’m only asking him how sure he is of this flight. I’m fairly certain a large section of that group will move to digital but not everyone. It’s not that it makes a difference to the outcome in any case, but we should at least try and get a grip on the scope of the problem.

      Eoin

      1. Ah, I understand your point now. We don’t know if most of those people are actually paper fetishists who haven’t switched — and might never.

  2. I don’t think Jonathan Galassi is arguing against digital books or even against digital publishing. What he is arguing for, I think, is the publisher permanently owning a percentage of a book once they publish it. He has a point about editing, but most contracts aren’t written to distinguish between the book as received by the publishing house and the book as published by them. Now that publishers know that digital books are viable and are worth something, contracts are being written with very different language. But for older books, once the rights revert to the author, the publishing house often has nothing.

    I would disagree with Grodin at some level. I don’t think ALL the best customers have disappeared. There are folks who love print books, buy lots of them, and are not interested in digital. I just don’t think there are enough of them to save bookstores. And I think the online shopping phenomenon is hurting more than bookstores. The web has become one big huge marketplace that’s open 365 days a year, rain or shine,

    1. Karen,

      Spot on re: 365 market!

      Speaking as a publisher I say fair game if our contracts allow an author or their estate to squeeze free, the power on signature is generally with the publisher, so some slippage is no bad thing. If the rights aren’t held and you want them, pay for them or be quiet!

      Eoin

  3. “Amazon killed them long before they released the Kindle.”

    Exactly! Nice to see someone else noting Godin is missing the big picture. eCommerce is the real threat to local booksellers, not eBooks, and as long as Amazon is able to get away with not charging taxes in most states, they have the upper hand.

    That said, a great bookstore can trump shopping online as long as it plays to its strengths — community roots, customer relationships, and serendipity. I just discovered a great bookstore in Ithaca, NY, Buffalo Street Books, that’s a great example. Not unlike Amazon, diversification is also key; just selling books isn’t going to be enough for most bookstores to survive.

    1. Wake up and smell the extinction, Guy!

      http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/2009/12/skyline-books.html

      A bookstore I’ve bought from. A bookstore I’ve browsed in *a lot*.

      Will I miss them? Sorry, but no. Just another in a long line of them that have died. There was a mass extinction of used bookstores on Fourth Ave in NYC at the turn of the decade from 70s to 80s. And that wasn’t prompted by the Net — it was greedy landlords. Life is all about death.

      1. Running any kind of niche retail in NYC is tough these days, and nationwide, I’m sure we’ll see a lot more stores of all kinds closing in 2010. That doesn’t mean bookstores aren’t a viable business anymore, though. If anything, I think nimble indies are better-suited to survive in most areas than the superstores because those are the primary customers Amazon is stealing away.

        Unlike records, which digitization made both impractical and unnecessary, I firmly believe that books and eBooks can co-exist and there’s a big enough market for both to support physical retailers and etailers. It’s not a zero-sum scenario for me.

  4. Like most things Godin, this is theoretically smart, bullet-point-ready, and wrong:

    “iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. ”

    The record industry killed Tower Records by putting short-term profits and deals ahead of long-term industry health. (To see this ‘bigger picture’ in full gore, read Steve Knopper’s book, Appetite for Self-Destruction.) But even that’s beside the point.

    If bookstores have been surviving by purveying crap content then they’re finished because that’s all going digital. See also the newspaper industry. If they can figure out how to survive by selling books people still want to buy, and/or a mix of related services, they’ll stick around. (A book people will still want to buy: Obata’s Yosemite, which I got for Happy Holiday Day.)

    Like any war, the big picture in publishing will be resolved by a thousand small experiments — not by grand strategies or pontificators of same.

  5. You know, I had thought by “Amazon and the Kindle” that Godin meant Amazon’s 15-yr-old print store as well as the new Kindle, not just Amazon-as-seller-of-the-Kindle.

    I could be wrong, but that’s how I parsed it — maybe because to me, that statement seems obviously true. It’s definitely true for me, particularly once you add Abe books and other used booksellers into the equation.

    1. Welcome,

      I use a note keeping tool called VoodooPad for everything I sketch down digitally. I try to set 3 monthly goals for reading (I buy so many sometimes it helps to remember what I wanted to read two months ago).

      Eoin

  6. Happy New Year, Eoin! I know I go on about this, but someone has to keep sticking up for paper. What do you think of the lastest neurological research that argues reading on screen, as well as the general focus-fragmenting scan of tweets, mobiles, and rapidly accumulating data in other forms, is resulting in ‘constant partial stupidity’ – the inability to concentrate or recall accurately? Reading on paper remains a far more serene, contemplative activity that any form of screen reading, which suggests that if people read for that relaxing experience, they will end up choosing paper over ereaders. I still think publishers will be shooting themselves in the foot (again) if they move into digital without thinking carefully about what their readers want and what makes reading an experience people choose. Sure, people will read news online, and magazine-style articles, and any sort of fragmented prose. But for analysis and fiction, paper remains the better experience.

    1. Litlove,

      Thanks for your comment and a very excellent New Year to you! I love and use print exactly as you describe.

      I don’t know the science but I suspect this loss of concentration is the effect of adaption. I should really do more reading in that direction.

      I hope it will improve as younger native screen readers speed ahead of us in their capacities.

      I suspect that books will exist in print forever. More expensive than now and possible more beautiful (a trend which has already begun) but digital offers many advantages that we overlook at our peril.
      Eoin

      1. If I could weigh in, I think those concerns about dis tractability and less concentration are valid if you’re talking about people reading on netbooks. But an e-ink eReader does not have that background flicker that makes LCD screen tiring for the human eye. And generally, when you’re reading a good book, you mostly forget about the device. The most you might do is move the cursor to a word to look up its meaning. The rest of the time, it’s virtual paper. I don’t have any trouble concentrating when reading on my Kindle. I don’t read the Kindle, after all, I read the book.

        That said, I do think it will be a long while before paper goes away, because for one thing technology is not yet able to replace it as far as color and variations in page size. That day might come, but until then, I think both are viable.

      2. Here’s the best compilation of scientific responses I can find:

        http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/

        The general feeling is that the jury is still out because ereaders are in their infancy, but there are several concerns that I would go along with, ereaders, monitors or whatever. And I still want paper in my hands that I can write on, dog ear the corners of, watch the pages as they transfer from one side to the other. Sorry, but I really don’t want ebooks. At present I must buy a hundred and fifty or so books a year, but I won’t buy any if digital is all that’s on offer. I know I’m not alone in feeling this, and that others with similar responses are also heavy book buyers. I can only keep urging the publishing world to satisfy the customers it has got, not chase elusive unknown customers it hasn’t.

  7. Great to find your post Eoin and all the interesting comments. I better declare an interest: I’m son of a bookseller. The sale of books put shirts on my back and food in my mouth. My brother owns O’Mahony’s bookshop in Limerick Ireland. I get a family discount on books I buy thru that shop. Each year I buy over 100 books (though I have never counted), most of them from other bookshops.

    The bookshop is dead – “just selling books isn’t going to be enough for most bookstores to survive.” Long live the bookshop.

    The world of bookselling has changed irrevocably because the whole world has been transformed by the internet. One of the results of bookreading is that so many people are literate today, they have learned to look abroad. The local community is no longer a local community. The bookshop of the future is being designed as we speak. Bookshop entrepreneurs are trying out new things. Any shop that complacently expects customers to carry on as before is stupidly led.

    I don’t know enough about the US market. This recession will shake out lots of businesses that have had their day. This is a good time for alert and inspired booksellers to link better with readers.

    Is any bookshop using Twitter in an impressive way? The content available to bookshops is massive. I imagine the bookshop of the future being staffed by consultants who help you draw value from the book. What stance are bookshops taking on book clubs? It’s not enough to simply give a small discount to book club members?

    I wish you well on this discussion because I have need of bookshops for the rest of my life…

    1. Paul,

      Thanks for the comment and for the perspective!
      Ravenbooks uses Twitter very effectively. The Edingburgh bookshop has an excellent web presence.

      I agree that it’ll be the entrepreneurs that bring the change and succeed. On the other hand, one has to accept sometimes that innovation has a second edge obsolescence. We have few blacksmiths these days and no cartwrights that I know of.

      Sometimes change passes a tradition held sacred for centuries by and there is no saving it, It may hurt but holding back the sea is a task not to be relished.

      All the best,
      Eoin

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