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Bookshops: the final chapter?

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Decrying the death of the bookshop has practically become a cliché and not without good reason: between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2012 the number of high street bookshops in the UK halved and closures have continued. Beloved chains from Ottakar’s to Borders have disappeared from our streets and the number of independent bookshop declined from 1535 in 2008 to 987 in 2013.

The future of the bookshop is intrinsically and obviously linked to the future of the physical book. In 2014, value sales of print books fell by 1.3% to £1.39bn and volume sales by 1.9% to 180m – disappointingly, this was a pretty good year by industry standards following a 6.5% fall in sales value in 2013.

The outlook for adult fiction in print – for many the central metier of the bookshop – looks stark. Value sales fell by 5.3% in 2014 to £321.3m and sales of hardbacks specifically by a dramatic 11.6% to £67.9m. Consider that in 2009, the market for printed adult fiction was worth £476.16m – a 35% drop in six years.

If there is a silver lining for booksellers, it’s that despite the challenge the physical book has come under, despite Netflix, Twitter and Tinder, people are still reading. As 15th century scholar Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book.” And perhaps in an age of constant connectivity this holds true more than ever. It’s just that now we might equally say “in a corner with an eBook” or, indeed, in a nook with a Nook.

The culprits behind the decline in bookshops and sales of physical books are certainly not difficult to identify: Amazon and eReaders - often in tandem in the formidable proposition of the Kindle. Imagine the terror of booksellers when data was released by YouGov indicating that 1 in 40 adults in Great Britain received a Kindle for Christmas in 2011. Amazon, which actually began life in 1994 as an online bookstore, controls about 90% of the UK’s eBook market.

However, calls of the death of the physical book have now begun to look very premature. The Bookseller’s best estimate of eBook growth in the UK is 95% in 2012, 40% in 2013, and 13% in 2014 and this slowing growth is clearly good news for physical booksellers. All indicators point that, in line with the American market, where the take-up of eBooks is about a year ahead of here, the UK’s eBook market is likely to plateau at around 30-35% of the book market as a whole within the next couple of years.

Anecdotally, Waterstones reported that physical book sales rose 5% in December while sales of the Kindle, which it has stocked since 2012, have “disappeared to all intents and purposes”.

Nonetheless, these fundamental changes represent a very serious squeeze on the bookshop. Are they insurmountable?

James Daunt, founder of the small independent chain Daunt Books was made Managing Director of Waterstones, the UK’s last chain of ‘proper’ bookshops in 2011. Since, he has turned the fortunes of the chain around and, following years of successive losses, he reports that they are set to break even in the year to April.

Daunt is upfront about the continuing difficulty of competing with Amazon: “You can buy every single thing that we have from Amazon at the click of a mouse very quickly and efficiently” he tells Retail Gazette. And, it hardly needs to be mentioned, cheaply - sometimes much more cheaply.

To gauge this, Retail Gazette compared the prices of several books available from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles, a famous independent bookshop in London and now small chain. Those tested include a popular paperback, EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey; a classic, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and a hardback non-fiction work, Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History. The results are difficult to spin.

Waterstones and Foyles charged the RRP for all three: £7.99 for 50 Shades, £5-6.99 for the Dickens and £35 for the Tombs. Amazon was significantly cheaper: £3.59 and £1.99 for the paperbacks respectively and £22.75 for the Tombs.

Granted, there is certain innate pleasure in finding a book in store and taking it straight home but it is a pleasure you pay extra for, both time and money. If you already know what you want, why wouldn’t you buy from Amazon?

If the bookshop is to survive, what is needed is new ways of propositioning its unique advantages. According to Censuswide, 68% of shoppers still prefer to discover new books in bookshops while Enders Analysis estimates that ‘serendipity and discovery’ generate as much as two-thirds of UK general book sales. Certainly, these statistics are elusive but there is little doubt that the unique atmosphere of a bookshop promotes discovery better than the statistically-generated ‘serendipity’ of an algorithm. The importance of quality staff cannot be overestimated. Sam Husain, Chief Executive of Foyles, says this is key to differentiating themselves from online retailers.

“I think knowledgeable staff are vital. We spend quite a bit on training as well but the interview process is quite complex. We tend to interrogate people for a specific area.”

By illustration, one member of staff this journalist spoke to, who works in the Foreign Language section, converses in three languages and is also learning Chinese and Japanese.

Jeanette Cross, Manager of Foyles’ new Charing Cross Road store, which opened in June 2014, emphasised that celebrating the book itself was key: her store’s mission statement is “beautiful things presented beautifully.” The idea was to create an attractive space where people want to come ‘just to be’. This is reflected in the store that Foyles has created: flooded with light, uncluttered, open, and yet brimming with over 200,000 different titles.

Cross’ attitude is not unique. Daunt said his first priority for a new branch of Waterstones , after ensuring an economic rent, is simply this: “It’s got to look very nice.”

The fifth floor of the new Foyles also contains a thriving café, licensed to sell alcohol, and a dedicated art gallery. The sixth is a space dedicated to bookshop staples such as author signings and talks as well as live music and educational activities. Aside from simply getting customers through the door this is symptomatic of an effort going on all over the country to expand bookshops into cultural and social institutions, which customers will pay a premium to keep alive.

Everyone in the bookselling trade that Retail Gazette talked to, emphasised that to stay solvent bookshops needed to sell much more than just books. As Cross put it, only half-jokingly, “sticky tape is the future.” In Foyles, items such as high-end stationery is a given a prominent place in the store’s atrium and each section of the shop also sells non-literary items relevant to it, such as toys in the Children’s section. They even look to fill this section with employees who have experience in childcare.

Daunt commented that one of Waterstones’ successes “has been to raise the percentage of things that we sell that aren’t books dramatically higher” but highlighted the importance of doing so intelligently and with reference to location. “You can’t compromise your core identity as a bookshop, which is what you do if you identikit it.” He continued:

“I think the bookshop of the future is still unmistakably and principally a bookshop and a seller of physical books, because I think the physical book has enormous advantages and enormous appeal irrespective of moving into digital.”

Nonetheless, Daunt was honest about the prospects for bookshops if the eBook market did not plateau as predicted and particularly if subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited took off.

“Obviously we can’t endure much more of a haemorrhage. Any further decline would be extremely damaging for us and probably terminal.”

Bookshops still hold a strong place in public affections: Research carried out by the successful Books Are My Bag campaign indicates 88% of British book buyers are concerned that there are fewer bookshops on high streets than five years ago. But despite the stabilisation of the bricks-and-mortar bookselling industry in 2014 the future of the bookshop remains far from certain and the cruel realities of economics could yet relegate it to the realm of nostalgia.

Yet, as this journalist snooped around a Waterstones, recording prices of books in-store for comparison with Amazon, one moment made clear what all manner of statistics cannot. As a customer eyed up a copy of Jessie Burton’s bestselling debut The Miniaturist, a Waterstones employee offered in passing, “If you like that you’ll love Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I read it last month and…”

An animated discussion began and soon the pair, customer with both books in hand, were heading off to another corner of the store, in search of further solace from our ever more transient world.

Published on Friday 30 January by Editorial Assistant

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