Last week I questioned whether a post-bookstore world was inevitable and suggested 5 ways bookstores might be able to fight back. The future of bookselling has be en a hot topic for a number of years now but with each fresh round of store closures the prospects for our remaining bookshops seem bleaker and bleaker. So what’s the industry buzz about bookstores in 2013? Here’s a quick round up of some of the views put forward by publishing commentators in the last week.
Even the most ardent eBook fan will admit to having a favourite bookshop. While it’s difficult to put a dollar value on it, the physical space of a bookstore (not to mention the human face of the bookseller behind the counter) has a personality and character that connects and resonates with us in a way online retail simply cannot. This is not to say that online retailers don’t provide their own meaningful channels of communication and interaction, but that there is something unique and valuable in bookshops that we collectively fear to lose. Book Riot alludes to this feeling in two separate posts; the first, by Elizabeth Bastos, celebrates the common experience of two hours in a suburban bookstore cafe, while in the second Jeff O’Neal delights in the existence of the world’s smallest bookstore, a well stocked 10ft x 10ft shed on a quiet country road 100 miles out of Toronto that sell books for $3 each on the honour system.
If there is something almost nostalgic about the Book Riot posts, then Matryn Daniels brings it back to business on his Brave New World blog. He asks the very real question that many publishers are only now starting to wrestle with: How will shrinking shelf space impact publishing? He points out that, like the music industry (who lost most of their physical showroom space), “we may well see fewer but bigger hits [and] also see an overall drop in the ‘also rans’ who simply don’t get that same exposure the old model afforded.” This creates unpredictability that, when combined with the gradual erosion of price points, inevitably increases the risks of publishing any given book.
It’s more bad news from Edward Nawotka too, editor of Publishing Perspectives, who points to the demographic cliff awaiting booksellers who rely on physical book sales. His survey asks the question “How long can bookstores survive as purveyors of print?”, pointing out that a new generation of readers is being brought up on digital and that they will not replenish the demand for physical books that their preceding generations still sustain. For what it’s worth, the survey result suggests that there is still some optimism out there for booksellers, with over half the votes giving booksellers at least another 10 years or more.
Mike Shatzkin can always be relied on for some detailed analysis and he lays out the existential problem facing bookshops in terms of inventory management. His article, titled Buying is a hard thing for bookstores to do effectively, and that becomes an increasingly important reality for publishers, does a great job of explaining the business model at the core of traditional bookselling and why it has always been difficult manage, especially for independents. Digital distribution is a far more efficient system, both for retailers and publishers, as it doesn’t tie up cash in unsold books or waste margin on “revenue-less costs” such as labour, packaging and freight for returns. He points out that this model worked best with large chain who could pool their sales data to make better buying decisions, but with Barnes & Noble continuing to close stores, this competitive advantage will be reduced.
It’s not all doom and gloom however with Richard Curtis reporting at Digital Book World that Virtual E-Kiosks are one giant step closer. This isn’t necessarily good news for booksellers—DVD Kiosks seem to be the final nail in the coffin for the old Video Rental stores like Blockbuster—but they (or something like them) may offer bookshops the chance to maintain all the advantages of the physical showroom while providing access to the digital distribution platform. As I argued in my own post last week, eBook bundling with physical books is something that bookstores will have to start offering. To do this, however, they are going to need both the support of publishers and a delivery system capable of tracking the bundles and E-Kiosks such as this might be a good place to start.
So what does 2013 have in store for bookshops? It looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better (if if ever does). But never doubt the ingenuity of booksellers to adapt and survive. In 2013 I’m going to be on the lookout for innovation from booksellers and reporting it here. I’ll also be sharing some of my favourite bookshops around the country and running a series of interview with booksellers to see firsthand how they are responding to the new publishing environment.