As we have hurtled forward through the information revolution several once seemingly integral parts of our day to day life have been consigned to the rubbish bin of history. It’s only about 20 years ago I was reasonably familiar with the use and ubiquity of the telex machine. Microfiche readers were dotted throughout the floors of my university library and I would avail myself to their use regularly. Typewriters, manual or electronic were the basis of all things beyond the handwritten letter when it came to writing, and of course the social form of corresponding to friends and family via the post office now seems an almost dim and forlorn memory.
Now, thanks to the recent financial woes and the demise of the corporate owners of the Borders, Angus & Robertson and Whitcoulls chains much debate has been had over the decline and possibly inevitable fall of the bookshop. The shift away from the traditional form of the book, inherently unchanged since the days of Gutenberg has gathered immense pace in the last decade or so, what with E-Readers, downloadable content from the internet, Google Books, the spoken word book etc etc. Publishers looking to extend profits have moved away from bulk print runs of glossy mass market titles, beginning to reach out to their customers through direct sales or by becoming more specialised in their product and philosophy. Authors can and do become more independent thanks to the likes of Lulu and other self or garage publishing companies, cutting out the middleman to go direct to their reading public. Online stores such as the Book Depository and of course the elephant in the room, Amazon, can build a monolithic stock listing without ever putting up a shop front in the high street or shopping mall.
In summary there is a world of change and hurt for the bookshops we’ve known for years both in terms of the basic product it sells and the sprouting of new rivals, so the question has to be asked; is the bookshop dying? Is the likes of Dymocks on life support, or shall we see the likes of those remaining Borders and A&R stores here in Australia dwindling like refugees on the run from an invading rapacious horde of predators? Having worked in the book game for over twenty two years I still think the bookshop has a life. However to paraphrase Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy from ‘Star Trek’, it’ll be life Jim but not as we know it now.
The first thing all bookshop operators must understand is that the reading public generally do not have the time as we once did to give over to the simple pleasures or the academic rigour of sitting down with a book and pouring over the text. Thanks to the rapid expansion of new media, the demands placed upon those of us in the work force by a far more aggressively anti-social employment environment, a television industry that now spews forth dozens of new channels, more and more pressure to be the engaged parent or hop on the social merry-go-round, travel not to relax but to experience the locals’ lifestyle and many other factors the days when you could tell the world to go hang and stick your head in the latest Patricia Cornwell or spend hours seeking out the nuances in a DH Lawrence novel are dead and buried for most of us. My writing of this blog is but a single simple illustration of this point. Instead of increasing the verbiage online I could be reading that copy of ‘Tristram Shandy’ that has remained unfinished since 1985. The bookshop operator can’t expect his or her product to be as integral a part of our lives as it once was.
Next, the advent of the online/electronic/audio/alternate media form of the book has effectively raised questions about the actual raison d’etre of the book’s form. Why buy something that doesn’t allow you to update it’s contents thanks to the discovery of new information or a faster, better way to access the material? Why read a paperback on the train when you can log in via your IPad to the 3G network and access the same content online with the benefit of electronic addenda integrated into the e-book? Love the idea of picking up the new book from Anthony Bourdain? Well as he has a digital version of that same book available for purchase so you can put it on your personal MP3 player and listen to him read it himself why bother? Haven’t got time to wade through the Penuin Classics edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’? No worries, you can always watch the Blu-Ray version of the five or six movie or TV productions that can be bought online or even downloaded thanks to to Bittorrent. The actual printed word on paper has become what some would consider laborious old tech that does little more than fill up shelves.
Another issue facing the world of the bookshop operation is the capabilities and interests of the staff and owners of the shops. For decades if not centuries bookshops were owned and operated by people who wanted to make money whilst selling a product that had more than its physical, commercial value as its selling point. A book represents so much more than the sum of its pages. There is the creative spark behind the book, the craft and the intellect that goes into its publication. Then once it is in the store the staff who have the role of selling it were once probably avid readers themselves, understanding that whilst the wages may be low the pleasure taken in finding that one customer who appreciates your recommendation of Boris Akunin or can talk to you about Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’ is a real perk of the job.
Sad to say nowadays the bookshops that most people deal with on a semi-regular basis have become soulless places where the same stock is carried across every branch or every outlet and the shop assistant is either too busy doing daily stock takes or chained behind a counter relying on a computer to give them every bit of knowledge they need. For every Abbeys or Gleebooks there has been a dozen A&R, Dymocks, Collins etc etc, and of course the apotheosis of the bookshop as supermarket, Borders. Instead of selling books because it is a passion or a way of life, or something beyond just another box of Corn Flakes or dental hygiene goods, the majority of bricks and mortar bookshops have become generic, disinterested in more than your wallet and selling some knick-knack or loyalty program or online newsletter. Throw in the unrealistic expectations of the investors who think that setting up American style superstores that will arguably stock everything but won’t create the environment where you feel like your interests and your queries will be fielded by a knowledgeable, considerate staff member, who will then shove you onto a self-serve computer interface is the perfect way to make an absolute motza…well there is some seriously fucked up attitudes to bookselling.
Then there is the cost of the book and the availability of it. A bookshop in Australia unfortunately cannot compete on price and availability when it comes to the dogged book buyer’s needs nowadays. If I want the latest Lindsey Davis Falco novel I am more likely to go online and buy from the Book Depository based on price alone. I have consciously shifted my dollar overseas and online because the local book store may sell the same book up to thirty per cent more expensive. Right now with the Aussie dollar buying about $1.05 US and the economies of scale via Amazon mean you can make a huge saving there, why wander into a bookshop when you can get the title you desire probably cheaper and possibly faster?
Now these are but a selection of some fairly basic problems the bricks and mortar bookshop faces, and it is easy to understand why some are predicting the death of this way of selling and purchasing books. I haven’t even begun to consider publisher margins, authors’ rights, academic bookselling and the changing face of education material across all three levels of schooling. The question is, how do we revive this arguably dying activity?
The first and best option available to all bookshops is to actually try and define who you are and how that relates to your local market. If you are a megaplex designed to be everything to all people then don’t be surprised that you fail. The customers who shop there won’t stay because of loyalty or product knowledge; they will quickly move on to the next big thing that is possibly cheaper or easier to buy from. I’m not going to make a quid carrying thousands of books about sport, cooking and travel if my local returning customers prefer crime and/or graphic novels. For that matter opening any type of bookshop in an area that is economically or socially disadvantaged, or with low literacy levels or poor English will also impede profits. Plus lower your fiscal expectations; show me a man or woman who has made huge amounts of money from selling books from a store in the last decade and I’ll show you a nice way to make a few bucks out of buying the Sydney Opera House. My advice is to find a location that is amenable to the customer you want, not vice versa and then concentrate on squeezing a decent (not ginormous) living from selling either lots of books in bursts (such as at Christmas or in the academic context during enrollments) or lesser quantities to a more stable customer base.
The next thing; don’t be scared of pushing your barrow by being more selective with your product and then integrating the publishers and authors into the process. Wonder why Gleebooks and Abbeys are still in business when Borders Parramatta is closing? It’s because these types of bookshops will carry more learned or more specialised books and then get the authors to engage in launches and book signings on a regular basis. You won’t find cappucino machines and Maxim magazines in these bookshops, but you will find a selection of interesting commentaries from the likes of Noam Chomsky or PJ O’Rourke. When was the last time A&R in your city had a book club session with a major local or visiting author? Brilliant self and/or publishing promoting authors such as Peter FitzSimons has churned out a bucket of books that are popular, and I know that the Dymocks chain has made a decent quid out of getting him and his publishers to tout for business with those bookshops in mind. Same goes for the SBS affiliation that Dymocks has.
Then there is the willingness of some shops to be just the place to go because they are the gurus for one subject. For example, for the hard core military history buff in Sydney they wouldn’t dream of going to Borders to get their fix…it’d be Napoleons or Battlebridge bookshops in the CBD and Parramatta respectively. Small and selective stock holdings combined with interested staff and a decent blend of a browsing and buying environment means they should be able to meet their customer’s expectations. Love your sci-fi in Sydney? It has to be Galaxy Books next door to Abbeys. Manga and illustrated/graphic books? Kinokunya or the Art Gallery of NSW bookshop. Film? Perhaps the ACMI Bookshop in Federation Sqaure, Melbourne. The general purpose bookshop has its place and may continue to exist in lesser numbers; the niche bookseller on the other hand can flourish if again they bring the appropriate level of sales skill, passion, market knowledge and fiscal expectations to the table.
As for the actual question over the physical nature of the book and its possible perception of obsolescence sometimes ‘old tech’ is the best. What’s wrong with the idea of selling a book based on the idea that it is a never changing simple construct? A beautifully bound first edition of something more important than a trashy pop culture novel is going to be a more rewarding product to sell at a higher price than a few e-readers. Or what about emphasizing the low-tech requirements of the book itself…all you need is eyes, literacy and a light to read it by. No need to download 350 megabytes of updating software. No batteries, no device that might break when drop, can;t be used by a small child or an infirm, technophobe grandparent. A book is at heart an assemblage of ideas, not a gadget that makes the user cool or with it. It can transport you to Periclean Athens or Hogwarts Academy whilst you’re on the toilet, in bed, traveling to work on the train or down the back of the bus on a journey from Brisbane to Perth, and you don’t need to plug it in or change the batteries.
Conversely if there is a customer base for the print on demand or the e-book go down that path, but don’t expect to be called a bookshop as most folk would understand. You are now part of the e-commerce or digital economy, selling something less about books and more about technology. This may attract many younger users (and it may be snobbery but I don’t think these types of customers are ‘readers’, the traditional basis of the bookseller’s market), however they won’t be the kind to engage with your lovingly maintained shelves of Dickens novels. Don’t pretend to be a bookshop when you are in fact an internet cafe with more bookshelves.
Or what about building bridges with clients earlier in their life. The whole ‘Harry Potter…’ phenomenon has seen an explosion in children who read books. Or, as I experienced when I was much, much younger there were book clubs designed to sell children’s novels direct to kids in the school. Why not gather in the children and just as importantly their parents with well managed, carefully selected stock of quality kids book’s that can be looked at in a child friendly environment. Again the margins may not be there to start with, but if you start the child associating pleasure with going to the bookshop then years down the track the adult will feel the same.
I could prattle on, try and divulge some secrets about publisher’s margins or staff conditions in the book trade. That’s not my place nor is it something I fully understand myself. However the above summary of a very complex and long-running issue does I think answer some fairly fundamental questions with soem straight forward answers. The bookshop isn’t dead, nor indeed is the book itself. Price and convenience as well as service levels and market demographics will always shape the casual buyer of books, and they won’t be the ones to form the basis of the sustenance of the bookshop’s continued existence. It will instead be the reader who is encouraged to engage with not just a passionate and informed bookseller but also appreciates what they are doing when they walk into your store that will keep the tills moderately filled with money. Don;t expect to make a killing from this people; respect them as you would the books you sell. And don’t try to be all things to all people; let the Amazons of the book world do that. Instead concentrate on what you care about, what your customers want and the lifestyle that comes with selling and reading books, instead of some monolithic greed-based commercial operation.