Thursday, 7 April 2011

Bookstores - Done and Dusted?

Poor Borders. They're really not having a good 2011. Though they didn't have a very good 2010 either, or 2009, 2008, 2007... they've been struggling for a while and it's arguably only due to the overall unstable economy throughout the world that made everyone see just how bad things were for them. And they're not alone - other book chains are also suffering and we face the very real possibility that within a few years there will be no book stores on the high street.

Recent news about Borders has been that another 16 stores are closing in Australia, following the closure of many stores in the U.S., and it seems that even publishers have lost faith in the company and are no longer willing to give them books to sell unless they can pay for them immediately. Personally I think this is all terrible news for readers and authors both. What's happening at Borders now is likely going to happen to other bookstores soon, and this is not good for anyone.

I know I've talked about the self-publishing "revolution" and the choices authors have in going down the traditional publishing route or doing it themselves. And it's very vogue at the moment to see the death of bookstores as a sign of the power moving to the hands of authors, rather than publishers, and that this will "democratise" the whole book industry. I will dare to stick my head up over the parapet here and say that this view is wrong, and that the closure of bookstores is a very bad thing for authors and readers alike. Here's why:

  • To my mind if we lose high street bookstores then authors lose readers. Why? Because not everyone will buy ebooks. My mum is highly unconvinced by them, and doesn't shop online at all. She buys books from shops, especially our local Waterstones as they have a larger selection of Fantasy and Science-Fiction than supermarkets or smaller shops that sell books along with stationary, sweets and magazines. Now I have no doubt that a lot of people (my mum included) will adopt ebooks at some point. But there will always be people throughout Britain (which I will focus on as I live here, though I suspect the same is true in Europe, America and elsewhere) that have no or very limited Internet access. This may change, as people take up 3G or the Internet infrastructure is improved worldwide, but I don't think everyone will be willing or able to adopt non-physical books. With no bookstores these customers are lost or become dependent on a publish on demand system, where the prices have to be higher to cover the costs.
  • Bookstores can offer an enjoyable experience, that can't be replicated by ebooks. A bit like a library, you can browse the shelves, pick up the books, feel them, smell them and flick through the first few pages. Maybe it's just me but I love doing this, and I am a total ebook person since I got my Kindle last year. But I still like going into stores. And I still like buying physical books. For example I bought China Mieville's Kracken only a few months ago when I was in Forbidden Planet (I love that store - it's like they took everything I adore and put it all under one roof!) for no other reason than because it was there in front of me, I like the writer and I thought I may as well get something. I would really like to think future generations can experience that.
  • You can get advice. Yeah, I know the reviews on Amazon can help you make a decision but it's nothing like communicating with an actual human being who knows and loves books. That's something these stores also need to remember as I have experienced the occasional clueless assistant - why work in a bookstore when you have no interest in books?!
  • You can find treasures, literature treasures anyway. I have done a wander along aisles I normally don't have an interest in (Romance for instance...) but from time to time there will be a book that catches my eye. I pick it up, read the back and think I'll give this a go. Even more so if it's under £6.00 (my personal "this isn't expensive" limit. I have no idea why it's £6.00)
These are just some of the reasons I would like bookstores to remain. Then there's the whole thing about wanting to be a published writer. I would love, love, love to see a book I'd written on a shelf next to other writers that I have grown up with. Not so much for the ego boost (though that's a factor, I won't lie)  but because it would be so cool! So the loss of bookstores would not, in my opinion, be a good thing for authors, no matter what some self-publishing advocates would have us believe. But unless these companies accept they have to adapt and offer an experience to their customers, an experience that can't be replicated in the interweb, we may well see the day when the only book shops will be small, poorly stocked second hand ones. Which would be better than nothing, but I hope we don't have to settle for that.

What about you, readers and writers? Do you think bookstores have had their day and we're entering a new golden age? Or are we sleepwalking into disaster? (Hey, I'm a writer, hyperbole is practically mandatory.)


  1. Uh-huh, oh yeah. Of course, the death of bookstores would be an horrendous disaster (should we be talking 'bookshops' here?) Because (and there are so many reasons, most of which you've covered admirably well above) it's akin in some ways to what's 'wrong' about having a PVR/SKY+/whatever to determine your viewing choices; you remove the chance of the 'accidental gem'. If you're always in control, in charge of what you read, watch, listen to, then you'll always choose what you 'like' and end up with a narrowed focus on what is your thing. There won't be that moment where you're bored, sit down and happen to watch that classic Mamet thriller you've never heard of, just cos it was on; just cos you were there. So you won't pick up that book, just cos of the title, or the jacket, or whatever. Or just cos that nice looking guy/girl was standing on that aisle and you thought they might speak to you. Life is about the accidental, and we have to let those possibilities arise. They say evolution is caused by the accident of a gamma ray breaking and mutating a chromosome; well I say life is what happens in those accidental moments when we just weren't looking. And anything that lessens those moments should be fought against.

    Not that bookshops (I've committed) are essential to that. I recently bought 'Case Histories' because I was struck by the title of "Started early. Took my dog", which I saw on Amazon. But that's just one example. Opportunities. That's what we'll be losing. And that lovely, glorious smell, and quiet stillness. And maybe Meg Ryan will be opening a little bookshop around the corner.

    I think, like a decent round of vinyl, there is something lovely about the touch, feel, smell of books. You can spot a well-thumbed book from the smudges on the page ends. You've swapped atoms with it. You're bonded. I'm no fan of Kindles and their ilk (for many reasons), and life shouldn't always be about "less storage; less clutter". It should be about the moments we treasures, enraptured and lost in wonderful prose in fantastical lands, and stores on Denmark Street.

  2. Very well said and too true Mike. It is those random moments when life is at its best. And I agree that limiting people's opportunities to find books out of their comfort zone is one of many things that will be lost should bookstores disappear.

    And as for the bookstore vs bookshop question? I think of bookshops as those small, cool shops, tucked away in corners where you find all sorts of unusual and wonderful books, old and new. I think these will survive what's happening, though they will likely decrease in number. Bookstores are the likes of Waterstones and Borders, and they're the ones that really need to change if they want to still be around in ten years time. And that's me being optimistic!

  3. Well, I think even the big stores still have life left in them. Remember, with the bankrupcy of Borders, all the survivors have just enjoyed a big bump in market share. And nothing says "wake-up call" like a competitor suddenly dropping out of sight.

    The big booksotres I walk into have plenty of customers. As long as that's true, the business model can be saved, somehow. I'm not the guy to ask, but there's always a way as long as the stores have people coming in the door.

    Pricing, marketing, packaging, budgeting, hiring, firing, strategizing --- all the rest of that can be played with. Once you have no customers you're done.