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16 June 2011

The future of the book shop: some thoughts.

This is purely an opinion piece based on my current inexpert knowledge and with my own personal experiences as a customer over the last 15 years.

I've been reading all these articles lately about the demise of the physical book shop in Australia. They (the generalised voice of the conversation) say that the demise has been caused by the sale of ebooks and stores like The Book Depository and Amazon with their reduced shipping fees and undercut prices. To my knowledge (and no, I haven’t researched it, I just felt like blogging) the two big chains that recently imploded, Borders and Angus and Robertson, are both run by RedGroup. I haven’t heard of other large chains closing all their stores in Australia. Like I said, I haven’t researched that fact, however, the panic I have seen revolves around those two book shop chains. Are the other chains like Dymocks threatening to close their doors, or is the fact that RedGroup ran both Borders and Angus and Robertson being underplayed for the sake of a sensationalist headline?

I really think there is a place for book shops in the Australian communities I have lived in. And I have to say, as someone who lived in regional Australia, I was never suitably impressed with these big chains. They clogged our shopping centres but sold the same books. There was no specialisation. Well, Dymocks stocks a great reference section, but generally, the chains stock the same 50 or 100 books per genre. So for speculative fiction, there are the new releases and then the big authors like Tolkein and Gemmell. That is NOT a lot of variety. It is fine if you read 5 books a year – you are rarely after variety when you read that many books. But for someone who reads 5 books a week, it was as frustrating as hell. If I wanted a book, I had to order it in. The process for that was very involving, and the staff usually huffed and puffed because it took time. And yes, I used to go through this process quite a bit. It was NOT a satisfying buying experience, and I am sure I would have bought up more books if I had have had access to them instead of waiting 6 weeks and paying higher prices. I ended up buying most of my books second hand because a local second hand book shop was run by a lady who loved speculative fiction. I could always find something new to read, and the range was extensive and eclectic enough that I could even find books by Charles de Lint (he is my yardstick author because he isn’t so easy to find). I also preferred buying there because the books were cheaper and the owner was familiar with her stock and could recommend others.

Specialisation and knowing what the customer wants.

Flash forward a few years. I moved to Sydney. The Big Smoke. I was so excited by the possibility of large book stores filled with gems just waiting to be discovered! And I was largely disappointed. I went to Borders and while they had a few more books than the regional smaller book shops, I still wasn’t impressed with their range. I started buying Nora Roberts books because all the book shops stocked them. It wasn’t until a year after moving to Sydney that I rediscovered Galaxy Bookshop and found my heart-home. I really think the way of the future is the indie book shops who specialise. I could walk into Galaxy and there would be row after row after row after row of speculative fiction. In fact, the WHOLE shop was dedicated to it! No wonder I would spend hours browsing! And the staff knew who I was because I quickly became a familiar face. They knew the books I read and could recommend others. I became part of the speculative fiction community just by being a frequent customer and meeting others, making friends and sharing recommendations. They run a book club for paranormal romance and we feed each other’s book addictions by recommending new authors – which of course, we then have to go and buy. I buy more books as a Galaxy customer than I ever did as a customer at Borders, Angus and Robertson, Dymocks or QDB and I believe that is because they catered to diversity. They create a community atmosphere and their love of their genres is shared with their customers, this in turn creates more sales. These are the things that are missing in the chains. I know they left a vacuum behind them, but I think there is a place for book shops in Australia in the future, but a place for indies, for genre specific shops and for shops with heart. Books are very personal. The things that hit your switches don’t hit someone elses. No person likes the exact same 50 books, and the fact that the chains tried to guess those books is one of the things that I believe lead to the demise of RedGroup. I also wouldn’t be surprised if had something to do with management and spreading themselves too thin – and the jamming of 5 book shops to a shopping centre probably doesn’t help!

Ebooks and online sales may be impacting book sales, but I doubt they are selling more books than physical books sold in Australia (remember, I haven’t researched this, I am just going on comments friends have made about their own buying habits). Most of the bibliophiles I know who buy ebooks still buy physical books – in fact, a lot of them, like myself, still buy physical copies even if we have bought the ebook! So we are spending MORE money in the book industry than we used too. Book Depository and Amazon may be a problem if the book shops in Australia don’t step up their own campaign for online sales. I think partly it is the convenience, and partly the price. I refuse to buy from either. I have made a pact to myself. I support indie book shops, and I won’t take my custom somewhere else for my paperbacks. I know that both companies have agreements in place about their shipping and this is why local stores can’t compete, however, I think they need to do more to lure back the customers. The sales experience is difficult. I find the CMS of the big online chains are easier to navigate than say, Angus and Robertson’s, which lagged, didn’t have a full catalogue and had missing metadata, covers and blurbs. I do not believe in Nationalism, but maybe calling up a feeling of national pride in our Australian book industry will help boost the book shop industry and guilt some customers back from buying at Amazon or Book Depository. I don’t know. It is just an idea I was having. Basically, these two companies worry me where ebooks don’t. Ebooks are different from physical books, and you buy them for different reasons. I can’t think to predict what the format of choice will be in 50 or 100 years, but I think books are safe for the next 10 to 20 years in the very least. I have read too much science fiction to think it will remain that way for the next thousand years, but I would like to think they will. There is so much more to get out of a physical book! But that is a discussion for another day.

I also think it would be really interesting to see how big a role second hand and online second hand book shops play in the future of the industry!

Thank you for putting up with my ramble on this topic. As I have said, I am saying all this as a reader, not anyone of standing in the book industry. I could have spent weeks researching this article, but then it would sit languishing in my drafts folder like all the other unfinished posts I have left half written. So, for the sake of expediency, these are my thoughts verbatim, without further research, polishing or input. You can take this as the thoughts of a reader you pass in the street, a conversation you might overhear in a café. I hope it made sense.

So how do you think the book industry will change in the next 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?


staticsan said...

Points for posting while it's current.

Dymocks are quoted somewhere as saying sales have picked up with closures of nearby A&R.

From watching the collapse, it looks like the Red Group had no knowledge about running retail bookstores, they were just in it for money. Introducing Borders as a competitor to their own existing chain was a bizarre move. I suspect they simply over-extended themselves without differentiating the new brand.

Sean said...

Rings true with me. Could be my personality type but if a customer service rep, goes out of their way to help me, remembers who I am, recommends books then I buy something from them.

Glenda Larke said...

I know for sure that Australian sales of my present trilogy have been appalling, c/f to earlier trilogies. Also in contrast: this latest trilogy has been selling extra well in US and UK (which seems to hint the story itself is not to blame).

When I ask people in the industry in Australia (publishers, authors, distributors, booksellers) they tend to say, "It's not you -- book sales from shops are down, across the board." I've no figures to back that up, mind. They also say that in Australia, eBook sales are still not a significant part of the equation.

They too are more worried about Amazon and Book Depository.

My guess is that if publishers want to turn the industry around, they have to work out a way to produce cheaper books -- without destroying the Australian publishing industry along the way. They have to look at printing costs.

If the chains want to make their shops more buyer friendly, then they have to get rid of the central ordering and allow individual shops to do their own buying.

I suspect what will happen is something much more appalling. I just don't know what yet.

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