Sunday, September 24, 2017

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

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