Bookshops in the digital age

As an advocate of digital, I have watched the changes in bookselling clear-eyed, albeit with some nostalgia. Is the independent bookshop viable? Recently, I listened to Jemma Birrell’s interview with Sylvie Whitman, owner of Shakespeare & Company, that famous bookshop on the banks of the Seine in Paris, and it prompted some thoughts. 

As technology replaces bits and pieces of the product and traditional publishing processes are inexorably changed, social media pleas to support your local indie bookshop, to buy print, to keep them in business, are rife. While I understand the sentiment, it strikes me as an odd way for the market to operate. I learnt that independent bookshops in France are supported through a tax subsidy—a recognition of their cultural value, like opera.

When a retailer depends on heartstrings pulled, or touting their valued community, or offering titbits on the side, or seeking subsidies to sell products that can be bought cheaper elsewhere, it may be a heads-up that that industry needs to adapt. Lures like this are used in sales everywhere, of everything, but the difference with books is that technological competition could literally make print books, and the shelves on which they sit, redundant.

But publishing has never been agile. Between the 1960s and 1980s, corporate management theories propelled waves of mergers and acquisitions as publishing and global media swallowed competitors. The conglomeration of the industry led to a cowed conservatism where the marketing department ruled and editors became product managers working towards revenue targets. Yet while they continue to look for rational strategies in selecting books for publication, they were no closer to predicting success. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive. 

The rise of publishing conglomerates was accompanied by bookselling moving from a high street mix of independent and chain stores, to the megastores with massively increased shelf space. Multinational publishers mirrored the approach in other sectors: squeezing out competitors and reverting to populist market dominance instead of looking for creative solutions. Window blocking where large publishers paid chain stores to showcase a book in window displays was one such tactic. The megastores killed off many an indie bookshop but failed to produce the returns that strategists expected. Even with the lure of ‘lifestyle’ products – candles, cards, soaps, cafes, wine bars – a diversion from their core product –the megastores were, themselves, replaced within a decade. Hello Jeff Bezos. 

Now we don’t need to step outside to buy any book our heart desires, and more cheaply. While he had no love for literature, Bezos understood that books could be warehoused and shipped more easily than other products. And it opened up readers to many new authors—another industry gatekeeper is the distributor. If a publishing house is small, or an author independent, getting books into bookshops is near impossible. This is especially so in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. Amazon gave indie authors and small presses new readers.

While Amazon’s business model and impact on the industry has been extreme and tax loopholes that advantage it over other retailers should be closed, it’s clear that there’s no going back. And we haven’t even got to ebooks yet. 

Indie bookshops joining forces to sell online through shared services in direct competition with Amazon is a start. Much more print on demand, cutting ties with distributors and networking directly with publishers may be other solutions. Could bookshops provide a browsing experience, then take a cut of ebook sales for those who prefer to buy digitally? Spineless Wonders, a small multi-platform company specialising in Australian short fiction encourages readers to order its books through their local bookshop but also sells through its website. Similarly, Tablo an online independent publishing platform provides uses local printers to supply a network of 40,000 retailers, and 30,000 libraries, with print-on-demand books on the platform.

I think the answer is in the technology and we have to be prepared to live with fewer bookshops, which coexist symbiotically with a reading and writing community which is also online. Like record stores today, they will be sought out niche places, staffed by people with knowledge and passion about their products. And, like Shakespeare & Company, they need to support authors directly, if not with a bed or a meal, as it famously provided, then by grasping the need for change and pushing a reluctant industry along. Policy mechanisms to provide a standard for universal service provision, to oblige publishers to keep information in the public domain, and to support libraries, are all key issues. I look forward to more debate.