The Digital Bookworld Conference took place last week in New York and as usual produced some fascinating discussion and ideas about the future of digital publishing. Front and centre this year was issue of online book discoverability and sales and the challenges publishers now face in promoting their books to readers. One of the more disturbing undercurrents of the conference, however, was the implicit acceptance of what Quarto CEO Marcus Leaver referred to as “post-bookstore book world”. While speculation about the demise of the bookshop is nothing new, the bluntness with which publishers are now openly discussing and planning for life after bookstores is particularly ominous. But is a post-bookstore world inevitable? Do bookshops offer enough value to the community of readers, publisher and authors to be worth protecting? And what can bookshops do to regain their relevance?
I am a passionate advocate for bookstores, having once run a family bookshop myself, and I’m a firm believer that their value extends far beyond the number of books sold or annual revenue. While the internet does provide convenient access to books along with comprehensive search and space for discussion, there is a crucial physical dimension to the relationships and interactions we experience in bookshops that Amazon, Google and Goodreads simply cannot ever replicate. The best bookshops are so much more than mere retail outlets; they are cultural outposts and community centres; they are temples of discovery and sanctuaries within shopping centres; they carve out their own history and become part of their customer’s lives; they are among our most cherished shared spaces and we mourn their passing for a reason.
Unfortunately it’s clear that, under the current industry structure and economic climate, brick and mortar bookstores are struggling to compete. The bookshop that my father and I started in the suburbs of Sydney closed its doors a few months ago, just short of its tenth Christmas, after the new owner, a dear friend of ours, realised the local market simply wasn’t strong enough to support the business anymore. Buying behaviour is changing, driven by price sensitivity, and a diverse group of local bookshops simply can’t muster the efficiencies and economy of scale to win a pricing war against an oligopoly of large online retailers. And it’s not only pricing that’s working against bookstores. Stand in a small independent bookshop these days and eavesdrop on conversations and you will hear the following exchange:
Customer (after browsing the shelf): Do you have this book by so and so?
Shopkeeper (after consulting the computer): No, I’m sorry we don’t have it in stock at the moment. But we can order it in for you …
Customer (disappointed but resigned): No that’s ok, thanks for checking.
We can all guess how the story plays out from here; the customer goes home and purchases the book online (if they purchase it at all). Today’s book buyers have been conditioned by online retail and big box stores to expect to find exactly what they’re looking for immediately. So while the carefully selected range of books in an indie bookshop was once its defining feature, shaping the store’s character and linking it to its community, the majority of their customers no longer take advantage of the curatorial expertise of their local bookseller to browse, discover and buy new books. A bookstore only has value to a buyer if the book they want is in stock now—immediacy not discoverability.
At least, that’s been the prevailing wisdom in book marketing circles over the past few years and as Marcus Leaver’s comments at the DBW conference show, publishers are moving further and further away from their once close partnership with booksellers. Five years ago all the major publishers were still paying lip service to their commitment to physical bookstores. However, the taboo that once stopped publisher selling direct to customers has now been well and truly broken and publishers are redeploying resources away from bookshops and into digital promotion. With online retail continuing to account for a larger and larger proportion of book sales the assumption has been that readers must be discovering more books online as well, and therefore that more marketing dollars should be spent in the digital space.
However, as separate presentations by Codex and Bowker demonstrated, book discovery in online retailers such as Amazon has stalled over the last few years. Book discovery in brick and mortar stores has certainly decreased, down to around 20% (as might be expected with the loss of so many stores following the Borders collapse) but in-store displays are still introducing more reader to new books than online retailers, bloggers and communities like Goodreads. What this shows is that bookshops still do have great value for readers and publishers alike as a way to promote and discover new books. Unfortunately, as long as readers continue to discover books in store then purchase them online—a process known as Show Rooming—then the number bookshops will continue to fall dramatically.
In his presentation on discoverability at the DBW Conference, Peter Hildick-Smith, founder and CEO of Codex Group, noted that “in the past, we [publishers] got a free ride from our retailers”, referring to the huge amount in-store display space that was taken for granted by publishers. To be fair, publishers have always spent a great deal of time and effort competing for precious space in bookshops, but considering the challenges and expense of online marketing, publishers had a pretty good deal going with bookshops, in hindsight. Hildick-Smith went on to argue that “physical retail works if you protect it” and argued that “publishers are not doing enough to help bookstores.”
While I agree with Hildick-Smith that it is in publishers’ best interests to do more to protect bookshops, the reality is that booksellers cannot wait for anyone else to come to their rescue. Publishers will put their marketing resources where they believe it will have the biggest impact and the long term trend is unmistakably towards online. You can see the attraction for publishers to the efficiencies of online retail, with enhanced metadata feeds that ensure entire lists of books are displayed on virtual shelves around the world without the costs of sales reps and merchandisers or having to ship physical copies into thousands of stores with a 25% return rate.
Bookshops are not only fighting a battle for relevance with customers, they are fighting for relevance with publishers too. Publishers would love to see bookshops remain profitable and regain the ground they’ve lost in recent years to store closure and digital migration but the initiative and ideas are going to have to come from booksellers themselves. And what better place to start looking for ideas than from the online competition themselves?
Here’s my list of five online retail concepts that could be adapted to help brick and mortar bookshops fight back:
1: Use Bundled eBooks to fulfill an order immediately even when the physical book is not in stock
There are a number of white label eBook services now available for booksellers, including in Australia Read Cloud and Book.sh. They are very soon to be joined by The Copia, which promises an even greater range of titles. Having eBooks available to sell helps solve the problem of not having a physical copy in stock. A number of Australian bookstores have already begun to use such services but results so far have been very modest due to lack of awareness, pricing and a lack of ability to Bundle eBooks and physical books effectively.
Booksellers need to option to sell both the eBook and Print book together at the print book price. Imagine the conversation between the customer and the bookseller above if the bookshop was able to sell bundled eBooks. Rather than simply offering to order in the physical book, the bookseller could provide an eBook version, emailed immediately to the customer and then order in the physical book to be picked up or delivered at a later date. This would of course require cooperation from the publishers to create a system to provide eBook bundles at a discounted price and only concerted pressure from booksellers is going to encourage this.
2: Bookshop Subscription Services
Book subscription services, like Oyster, are beginning to appear online, mimicking music sites such as Spotify. The concept behind them is simple: users pay a monthly fee for the privilege of downloading all the eBooks they can read. Obviously this concept needs to be modified to work in a physical bookstore, but the general idea of providing an extra special deal for monthly subscribers is a powerful one. In fact, mail order reading clubs already work in a similar way. For example, a $50 subscriber may be able to pre-order up to four new releases each month from a range of 20-30 titles hand-picked by the bookseller. Another model might allow customers to select their own books, within certain limitations. The idea is to turn the loyalty system around into a user pays first model that benefits both the bookseller and the customer.
3: Reward customer reviews and use them everywhere
One of Amazon’s greatest strengths is its review scheme, which provides tangible rewards for customers who give feedback on the products they buy. This fosters customer loyalty, but more importantly it provides Amazon with a relatively cheap supply one of the most precious commodities in the digital economy: Content. By offering rewards to your customers to review the books they buy, you not only encourage them to come back in your store but you then get great original content that can be used in-store, on your website or for social media campaigns. It also develops a sense of community, with customers able to share their thoughts and recommendations with their friends and neighbours.
4: Don’t just give self-published authors a break – create an “Independent Author Platform”
One of the smartest moves Amazon ever made was opening the door wide to self-published authors and making it easy for them to sell and promote their books on their website. Self-published authors are relentless promoters, driving customers and traffic to Amazon in huge numbers. Independent bookshops have generally been generous to self-published authors, stocking their books for a few months and perhaps opening their doors to a launch party with very little hope of sales in return. But self-publishing is growing and taken on a whole new level of respectability. While there are still plenty of unprofessional authors out there peddling their unsellable gibberish, many experienced authors and talented writers are choosing to self-publish. These authors need distribution options in Australia and there is a great opportunity for booksellers to provide them with a structured programme to promote, display and sell their book in-store.
5: Be aggressive about sourcing new customers
If there’s one thing the big online bookstores do well it’s promote themselves aggressively. The Australian online store, Booktopia, began largely as an exercise in SEO and SEM, quickly dominating the major key words on Australian search engines and driving readers to their rapidly growing site. Book Depository took advantage of international postal union agreements, favourable exchange rates and several tax loopholes to provide cut price books and free shipping in their bid to dominate the Australian market.
Many booksellers I have known are too passive or simply overwhelmed when it comes to marketing and promoting their business, especially beyond their immediate community. The days of letting customers find their own way into your door are long gone however and the traditional seasonal catalogue, ads in local newspapers and an irregular email newsletter simply won’t cut it. To survive bookshops need to be a highly visible, talked about and valued destination. Booksellers need to therefore get out of their own stores and be seen, start the conversations and tell everyone what’s so special about their shop. There are any number of ways you can do this—engage in local communities, start a writer’s festival, run competitions, drive social media campaigns—as long as you are loud and persistent.