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.

Why we need to read digital

 

Someone with a pretty sizeable following tweeted recently that reading digitally wasn’t really reading. Go read a book, you animals, she said. I wonder. What is a book?

The words. It’s the words, folks. Who is more deeply moved by the quality of the paper, than the words printed on it?

Yes, I understand that one can appreciate the tactile, but the paper and ink and glue is not why we read. To hold onto that is a sentimental romanticising — or a fetish.

What makes a book?

A book becomes ‘publishable’ when, after writing, it has been edited, designed, illustrated and typeset. Marketing and promotion start in the lead-up and continue after release. So, then what? What else makes a book?

First, we build and run machines to print words onto sheets of paper. That brings considerable environmental baggage starting with the trees, of course, but also from toxicity of inks and dyes and bleach. Then we cut those paper sheets into small rectangles and glue these printed sheets between thicker sheets. Sometimes we bind them into a solid casing needing more glue or stitching. More machines.

The supply chain

These printed and bound wads of paper need to be shipped. From printers, which may be anywhere in the world, to distributors’ warehouses to booksellers’ warehouses and then to retail booksellers. And bookselling is the great unknown. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive.

If the bookseller is a shop, the books then go onto shelves. If it’s an online store, more warehousing. When they aren’t sold, they are returned: ‘remaindered’. More logistics, and warehousing is expensive.  A publisher never wants to print too many. These are pulped. Great for the environment, that step. Sometimes they’re pulped because the publisher doesn’t have room, and even though this book might have a readership, it becomes ‘out of print’. Time to move on. Shiny new authors are always around the corner. Sometimes books are pulped because they have an error. It might be a typographical error that is just too embarrassing (book production is a human process) or it might be a legal issue. More pulping. After corrections, then more printing. More packing, distribution and warehousing.

Profits are in volume

Sometimes the publishing house is very tiny, or the author is independent. The distribution of books between factory to warehouse and into bookshop is difficult, especially in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. It’s expensive and exclusive. If you can’t get a distributor, you can’t get your book into bookshops. There’s a reason that publishing houses have become huge conglomerates (80 percent of books sales are controlled by only a few firms): this system benefits from economics of scale. Operators with volume.

Every one of these steps costs money. And none, none of the above, has anything to do with writing.

Digital is better for authors and for readers

When the financial returns to authors are so small, most make less than AUD$12,000 each year, what steps can be cut out?

Digital is better for readers who can download immediately and read more. We need more, better and cheaper ereaders and we need to be able to buy ebooks from multiple sources. I don’t want Amazon to have any more power than it already has. And we need more options to ‘gift’ ebooks than we have in Australia now.

It’s happened with music

This isn’t even new—we’ve crossed this threshold with music. Most music is streamed now and we’re all still standing, albeit with some nostalgia. I heard Zan Rowe interview Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on Triple J recently. Cook seemed aware of an inherent contradiction between his desire for music to be played, and a certain wistfulness about today’s world. We can find and listen to anything anywhere anytime. But has something been lost, he mused? Has the passion gone? Growing up, he recalled the joy of finding copies of records which might only exist in one or two places and he loved them all the more because of the struggle to get them.

We will always need some print books: for libraries, for people with special needs, and for collectors. And books of photography, art, and design, of course. For this, there is print on demand. But for the bulk of trade, or consumer, books, we need to be buying digitally.

Is exclusivity part of the deal? Nope. It’s not. And I think most struggling authors would agree with me.