Monday, 1 July 2013

Just how valuable is the modern bookshop?

I moved house a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that on first sight, my new study/bedroom wasn't that appealing - it was dusty, not fully cleaned out, the floors were bare boards and not very well-finished. I worried for a while whether I would actually be able to get it to a state where it felt like home.

Then I put all my books on the bookcases in there, and suddenly everything was OK.

There is something powerfully attractive about a well-stacked bookcase, particularly for those of us of a literary persuasion (though I don't think it's limited to writers). My family home has always been a place of book-lined walls, a place where there were rooms that there wasn't much point wallpapering or painting because the decor was books, and it usually drew admiring comment from first-time guests.

So I understand why we hear so much love of and praise for bookshops, and why people are so upset about the possibility of them 'becoming extinct' (there's an argument to be had over just how possible it might be, but that's not my topic for today). One of the accusations levelled at ebooks is that the ebook will never be able to give you 'that bookshop experience'.

The thing is, when I go into an actual high-street bookshop these days, I'm not sure I get 'that bookshop experience'. The experience I get in the big Waterstones in the centre of Liverpool, for example, is more that of a coffee shop that happens to have some books in it, squeezed in between the board games, stationery and electronics racks. It's not exactly soulless, because there are still lots of books in there and you can't be soulless even with books as soulless as the rack of footballer 'autobiographies', but it's about as debookshopified as it can be.

Second-hand bookshops do a lot better from the point of view of 'that bookshop experience', though they're a sadly rare breed these days. Ask yourself this: which of the following two images is more pleasing from a bibliophilic perspective?

A modern Barnes and Noble:

or this:

That second one is actually a library, to be completely honest. I couldn't, on a quick search, find a good image of the inside of a second-hand bookshop. My point, though, is this: there's very little that a modern bookshop offers that a library doesn't.

And bookshops, unfortunately, are becoming a burden on the industry. It's just too expensive to run a high-street shop these days, which leads to bookshops - never a high-margin business - having to gouge publishers for placing, and having to return 50% or more of stock ordered. These costs go all the way up the supply chain, just as the costs of running publishing houses as if they're investment banks (New York rents, corporate investors, business lunches etc.) trickle all the way down. Small wonder, then, that actual authors get squeezed out so badly when it comes to the distribution of money.

There is a role for bookshops in the digital age, definitely, but it cannot be as the primary means of distribution for books. It's just too expensive. It's the same situation as with hardcopy books generally - there is a place for them, for high-quality, aesthetically beautiful, heirloom treasures, but clinging to them as the mainstay of the business is just costing far too much.

Bookshops can offer a tactile experience that an online retailer can't, and a human touch that an 'enter your VISA details here' box can't, but these are premium services, high-grade luxuries, and they belong with the boutiques of a fashion district, or the craft shops and art galleries of a tourist district, not the high street. Clinging to the bookshop in its current, gentrified form, and getting angry about ebooks 'destroying' it, is going to destroy the bookshop far more quickly than any technological shift can, by forcing us to forget why it is that we find bookshops so beautiful.

They say that if you love something, you should let it go... ;)


  1. Maybe a pic from Glad Day Bookshop would be a good comparison? Maybe something like this?

  2. Any chance of acknowledging the existence of independent bookshops in your analysis, hmm? Especially as it's this right now >

  3. Forgive the lapse in clarity - I thought it would be relatively obvious that any premium-service, high-grade luxury bookshop would be independent at least by modern standards ;)

  4. Sorry, still unclear - are you equating independent status (by the usual definition of being non-chain, whatever other 'modern standards' there may be!) with luxury? I don't see luxury in the independent bookshops I go in - though they do provide good service and a good bookshoppy experience in general. And are you saying the following applies to independent bookshops?:
    'It's just too expensive to run a high-street shop these days, which leads to bookshops - never a high-margin business - having to gouge publishers for placing, and having to return 50% or more of stock ordered.'
    I can't see many tiny independents having that kind of sway with publishers, in which case a different analysis would apply in their case. But correct me if I'm wrong.

  5. To the first question, I mean 'luxury' in quite a broad sense, and specifically to include 'good service' and 'a good bookshoppy experience' - analogous to the difference between shopping at Primark or BHS and going to a high-end tailor.

    To the second question, I don't see independent bookshops as having a high-street existence, precisely because they won't have that kind of sway with publishers. All the independent and second-hand bookshops I know of are in locations I would class as off the high street. When I say 'high street' (and maybe I'm a bit blinkered by a city-centre paradigm), I'm thinking of Waterstones shops in city-centre shopping centres rather than suburban shopping terraces (though I don't personally know of any independent bookshops in suburban shopping terraces either).

  6. I venture to suggest that a bit more research and delineation according to type of bookshop, location and operation is necessary here in order to really understand the place and potential of the bookshop in the present day.

    As one quick example, you'd need to take into account the practice of some independent bookshops to reinvent themselves as literary hubs - venues for readings and signings, book clubs etc. that also sell books - something that *some* libraries also do very well, but not all, and that chain bookstores don't really attempt in the same way (and couldn't?). When that practice goes well, the bookshop, while still offering the experience of hands-on book shopping, is not so much a burden on the publishing industry as an asset to the community it serves (and, since it still sells books and actively seeks new markets in which to do so, is surely an asset to the publishing industry, too?).

    (And we won't even get onto the tangential question of how much of a burden Amazon is on the whole country, when it doesn't pay its taxes... :-P )

  7. Well, it's a blog post, not an MBA thesis. At no point did I say that all bookshops should be allowed to go out of business (and certainly not to be replaced by a single, monopolistic online retailer). My point is primarily that when defenders of traditional publishing complain about ebooks and Amazon putting (for example) Borders out of business, it's a very facile and empty complaint - particularly when, five to ten years ago, there was much hand-wringing about how Borders was the evil empire that was going to put bookshops out of business.

  8. Exactly - it's a blog post, not a thesis, so you're not going to have time and space to adequately defend categorical statements like 'there's very little that a modern bookshop offers that a library doesn't' or 'And bookshops, unfortunately, are becoming a burden on the industry', which strike me as false, as it happens.
    Which is why you end up with hecklers like me ;-)

  9. But there also isn't space to state every caveat and hedge necessary to eliminate every possible heckle, so either one has to put some of them aside or not say anything at all. The features of the industry that I picked out - return rates and coop prices for display space - are increasingly regarded as deeply problematic (check out Joe Konrath's blog - he's much more up on this stuff than I am, and return rates are a particular complaint of his), and I think it's pretty plausible that they're a consequence of the rising price of high-street operations.

    Yes, I could have been clearer that in the sentences you picked out I was talking about chain bookshops, or bookshops that engage in these problematic practices, but context really ought to have made that clear.

  10. It wouldn't up the word count too much to briefly qualify some of your more all-encompassing terms and statements. That would make things clearer straightaway.