Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Death of Independent Bookshops

The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive.
Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph mourns the loss of yet another independent London bookshop, and wonders whether the writing on the wall for literature in a piece aptly called Apoca-Lit:
We are living through a moment when all the balls have been thrown in the air and no one is sure where they will land. In the digital age, will publishers and agents survive in their current form? Derek Johns argues that “authors need agents as first readers and financial advisers” and someone will have to collate and distribute books whether in bound or ebook form. But will they? How long can it be before Tesco (which already has a 10 per cent share of the book market) stops dealing with fussy publishers and brands its own books? The ebook is also changing things dramatically. The iPad arrives in this country next month and looks set to put the Sony Reader out of commission. Perhaps more significantly, ebooks will allow writers to bypass agents, publishers and bookshops by launching their work on the web or exchanging it quickly among themselves. The extra costs involved in manufacturing books will inevitably come to make them seem a luxury and make the bound book as obsolete as vinyl. ... Without some form of institutional support, there is a risk that only the trashy and the brilliant will thrive. That might sound like a bracingly efficient way of doing things, but the wonder of books is that no one can ever be sure how important they might be – or who might start slowly and then turn, eventually, into a genius. The careers of many authors show that the mercurial and the eccentric often take a long time to be appreciated. Abolishing the gatekeepers – however excessive or peculiar they may be – will not help reveal all those hidden talents to public view. Instead, the danger is our bookshelves will come to resemble a long line of branded baked beans.
In case you think this is an alarmist view look at what Simon-Peter Trimarco, manager, of the Kilburn Bookshops says about the business shutting down:
I'm trying to put down my thoughts about where I see the industry going, and realize that I think the whole industry is going to fail in the next couple of years. Dillons, Ottakar's, Hammicks have all gone; Borders went bankrupt in December; Waterstone's has obviously been struggling for ages; most independents have closed, or will do soon; and those stalwarts and new shops which (we are told) are "thriving" are situated in out-of-the-way places and in very affluent neighbourhoods with no competition for the mass market.

Soon there won't be enough shops for publishers to get a new title stocked and sold - then they'll start failing too. We’ve had to suffer the online folk like Amazon and the big chains and supermarkets demanding huge discounts in order to discount themselves to oblivion. 
And he foresees that :
... once almost all the bookshops have closed, Amazon, or some similar mega-company, will start opening little Browsing Bookshops. It'll be like TescoMetro or Starbucks: first put all the other shops and suppliers out of business, then go in there yourself and tell everyone what a great job you do, a great service to the "consumer", that we‘ve never had it so good.

Previous posts about Independent bookshops here.


Greenbottle said...

it is alarmist. i think as in all other things book trade will evolve and adapt.i'm not worried if borders and others go bankrupt and have to resort to supermarkets or amazon to buy my's just another form of darwinian evolution. adaptation and survival of the fittest and all that.

the main thing is i'm sure books will continue to exist. it'll be just like is here to stay.
human has this curious instict to inflict pain on themselves. these masochistic unfortunates who can't sit still will continue to write even when there're no publishers around.there will always be books.forever.

Frank, Wong said...

Maybe the independent bookstores owners should stop playing victims here and seriously think about this: WHY YOU SCREWED UP? Since I stay in Malaysia, I think I better stick to local cases when discussing. Say, you are in a mall, it's getting late and the deli is offering buy one free one deals in pastries and rolls. So you get a tray and start picking happily, knowing that tomorrow morning, with a little work on oven, you will get a decent breakfast at a very affordable price. Making sense here aren't we? These customers, with their totally logical reasoning, might include a couple of booksellers from major bookstores too. Now if you ask them, why can't you do the same thing on your merchandise too, to help pushing the old stocks away? You are most likely to see scowling faces as if I have asked something obscene. And they will start to comment on poor reading habit among locals and high operation costs of their shops blatadaaaa... What makes your books holier than a couple of deli rolls? Nobody is immune from this eternal law in business: An unsold product is as good as nothing. But they won't understand this until the day when some more enlightened book dealers like Bookxcess comes into existence. So now they are trembling, now they are closing their shops, now they see the book-buying crowd at BIGBADWOLF sale. And too bad, it's a bit too late ain't it? What's the morale of the story? Well, belittle your customers and you are as well as dead. End of story.

bibliobibuli said...

Greenbottle, i really don't know. this story deeply saddens me, and while i would love both writers to have got things wrong, there is the worry that they might indeed be showing us the future of bookselling.

and if so, something precious and important will have been lost.

Frank - bookselling is a tough business and profit margins are low so small bookshops clearly can't afford to be as generous as the supermarkets who buy cheap and stack up best sellers like baked beans, but don't stock a range of books or have staff who can help you make informed choices, or order you in a certain title, or organise readings and storytelling sessions.

Enjoy your Bookxcess books. the days of remaindered books are numbered too. Jacky, Andrew and I had an interesting chat they other day speculating how long it would be before supplies dried up. once ebook readers become commonplace, i'm pretty sure that will happen. five years? i don't think as long as ten?

i guess then we will look for cheap second-hand books to keep us supplied.

actually one thing that keeps me from worrying is that i have enough unread books to last me for years!

Frank, Wong said...

The last time I counted, (I collect English and Chinese books, thank god I didn't get a chance early enough to master Japanese hehe), my book collection is up to around 3000++. So I guess we share the same experience here Sharon. :)
I am a regular at Kinokuniya too. You see, I don't mind to name names when it comes to this. Kino's strategy is always my cup of tea. They are not afraid to give discount on newer items, and they have a long-term plans to market their books. So you just need to wait until a certain time of year to get your 20% off the expensive graphic novels, for instance. But they have all these under a sophisticated balance. From a reader's point of views, they are trying their very best to be SINCERE to customers in their trade.
But what about MPH and the infamous Popular Chain Stores? Over the last few years, it seems like they are losing the sense of it all. Stationery has become priority. SPM and PMR reference invading more shelves than ever. I tried to call their marketing people and all I got was irrelevant feedback. So who is to blame if they are losing the battle?
I do believe one thing though: FORM might change, but GOOD CONTENT stays. Books as in paper form might disappear or become rarity, but words will continue to flourish. So I am not worrying about books. The business needs to adapt to the market. I just wish the bookshop operators in our country can really listen to their customers.
Hope you can pass the message around among the publishers and book traders given a chance :)