The future of real-world bookselling

"How Waterstones killed bookselling" and "How Waterstones crushed the publishing industry" are two articles in today's Guardian (website and G2 – the second possibly not available online) that have been aired and rehashed all over the Internet, unsurprisingly. The has a good, measured analysis of the Guardian pieces, including pertinent examples of dissenting comments made by readers at the Guardian website.

The Guardian article, by Stuart Jeffries, attacks Waterstones for centralisation of its stock (little autonomy of staff in branches), complex pricing, and lack of specialist choice of books for readers. About half way through, he gets around to the reasoning behind these moves: the first of two huge changes for the UK book publishing and selling industry was the court-induced abolition of the national net book agreement (NNBA, already under pressure in any event) which opened the floodgates for book megastores. These massive shops did pretty well for readers as well as booksellers and publishers, until the second huge change – the Internet, and specifically Amazon, an unstoppable force from which "conventional" booksellers are still reeling, possibly never to recover, even as they create their own bookselling websites (not a patch on Amazon for pricing or stock).

To me, it seems ludicrous to "blame" Waterstones for this state of affairs. True, Waterstones has expanded, centralised, and sells a lot of bland fare that does not differ much from what you can get in a supermarket. But it does also offer a huge range of books for the interested browser or specialist enthusiast, and I know at least two people who like the Costa coffee shop in the basement of the Piccadilly store (as well as the lovely restaurant at the top of the shop). For his article, Stuart Jeffries interviews a few standard book industry people (for example, Tim Coates, ex-MD of Waterstones now well-known for his library campaigns; and Nicholas Clee of Bookbrunch, ex-editor of the Bookseller), but they come up with no realistic alternative for Waterstones – probably because there isn't one.

Factors to consider are that many people who like reading and who buy a lot of books will continue to use real bookstores as well as online retailers in combination. These people like browsing in bookshops but will often go online for either price or stock reasons, or both. I think Waterstones' stock in my own local branch is not bad, but I have to buy almost all the crime fiction I like to read online, because translated or backlist fiction is not cost-effective to store on the shelves – this was true even before the Internet was thought of and while the NNBA was in full force, when I worked in vacations in a bookshop and learnt some basic economics of the cost of keeping unsold, low-priced stock (an individual book) for considerable time. A lot of other people either don't buy many books over a year, and/or use the library.

A much better article than the Guardian's blaming broadside, in my opinion, is this one at the Idea Logical blog (8 November): "Can the chains provide us with better small bookstores?"  In this piece, Mike Shatzkin analyses the rise and fall of the huge bookstore in the USA, concluding that, in the post-Internet retreat of the giant megabookseller, a great stock is no longer the answer for profitability. He suggests that a solution that might work for the future is a mini-B&N or Borders sited within another large retailer. "This will require a different kind of inventory management than the chains exercise now; more of a rack-jobbing approach. But their capabilities: to source books, select books, organize books for presentation, and to deliver books all over the United States, will have more consumer demand than they’ll be able to satisfy with only their own very large stores." Waterstones might take note of this idea – instead of the Costa or Starbucks within the bookshop, the bookshop becomes within the Costa or Starbucks!

Already the bookselling industry in the real (not online) world has separated out into the "top 1000" books, sold at heavily discounted rates often in supermarkets (which only stock "top" titles); and "the rest". The question is, will it be profitable enough for booksellers to continue to sell "the rest"? And will it be profitable enough for publishers to continue to publish "the rest" of authors? People who love reading and buy a lot of books will read a higher proportion of "the rest" than of the "top 1000". But whether collectively we read and buy enough to support these industries is a question to which I don't know the answer. I do know, though, that the suggestions in the Guardian article (comfy chairs, etc) aren't going to stimulate or sustain the traditional bookselling business to the extent necessary for survival – especially with technologies such as e-readers and print-on-demand machines on the scene.

Thanks to Bernadette for sharing the link to the Guardian article at Friend Feed.

See also: The Third Player, an excellent post at The Digitalist blog, looking at the future of the e-reader and e-book market, and the possibility of Google's dominance of the whole supply chain.


8 thoughts on “The future of real-world bookselling

  1. I am still mulling all of this over too Maxine as I don’t know what the answer is. I do wonder why more small specialist shops don’t thrive – I’d love a physical place to go to discuss crime fiction books, look through catalogues, browse etc. There wouldn’t have to be huge stock as I wouldn’t mind waiting for orders (I wait now as almost everything I read except Aussie authors comes from online orders). They wouldn’t be selling books so much as their expertise – which is what we’ve lost here anyway from our book stores – the two chains employ morons who (I think) can’t actually read and the one independent store remaining here looks down its nose at crime fiction and only sells worthy books.

  2. What is staggering too is the number of people now writing and getting published. Bookstores must also wonder how to back a winner, and often go for the big publicity names. I wonder how many of them are putting in those “print on demand” machines? They must surely be useful if you are running an online warehouse, but perhaps the licenses to print the books are prohibitive.
    Comfy chairs in a bookshop don’t influence me – I don’t find them particularly conducive places for reading – if I am going to start reading I like to be on my own premises.

  3. Now and then my conscience bothers me when I think of all my second-hand paperbacks. I don´t feel very author or bookshop friendly.
    But what do you do when you live in the wrong language zone, very far from a proper bookshop, in a country where hardbacks typically cost £ 30-40? (The four I ordered today cost me £ 14.71, and they are not sloppy translations, but the real thing).

  4. Fascinating subject. There are many complex issues here. From the perspective of a mid-list writer, I tend to think that the conventional commercial routes – Waterstones erc, are becoming ever more problematic. The internet may offer more possibilities for writers, because the best way of breaking out remains ‘word of mouth’, and internet recommendations can help little known writers to achieve a profile, even if it’s not that easy for them to get their books into the big shops.

  5. Excellent post, Maxine. Like you, I thought that the Guardian piece was rather tough on Waterstones (although I did agree with the point about the rather convoluted ‘offers’). I don’t really know how viable the original Waterstones business model is now – I suspect it can really only be sustained, if at all, for a few flagship stores alongside the Blackwells/Heffers and Foyles main shops. But equally the smaller Waterstones stores now fall awkwardly between two stools – struggling to compete on price with the likes of Tesco at the populist end of the market, but too small to attract the more specialist reader. And of course Amazon competes very effectively on both fronts.
    I suspect that, if high street book retailing has a future, it will have to be more targeted. The best independents (as well quirkier enterprises like the LRB shop in London or the QI shop in Oxford) seem to be succeeding by attracting customers who want to read beyond the bestsellers and who are keen for guidance and inspiration. I hope there’s a niche there for booksellers who are interested in leading, rather than just following, public taste. The notion of bookshop franchises is also an interesting one, particularly if combined with a more distinctive range (i.e., not just W H Smiths books) – the Foyles outlets on the South Bank and St Pancras feel like a step in that direction.
    But I’m sure Martin’s right about the internet, and I suspect before long we’ll see similar developments, for good or ill, to those that are evident in the music industry. The internet may well be killing the traditional record shop, but it’s also enabling less populist artists to connect directly with their audiences in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. I think the current publishing/bookselling model has been problematic for some time, so I’m cautiously optimistic that there may be some better alternatives out there.

  6. Thanks for all these comments, all very interesting to read. Martin and Michael, to me it seems that the big changes (NNBA going and the Internet/Amazon) have made it much harder for “real” authors (as opposed to ghosted celebs) to get published. As you say, the Internet has opened up various ways for authors to find new readers, but probably overall their number is quite small compared with the old days I remember from my childhood and early adulthood when everyone (it seemed!) browsed in bookshops all the time, and as Bernadette says, paid attention to recommendations of knowledgeable local booksellers who weren’t subject to centralised marketing deals for what they sold. Obviously those days are over, and I am sure conventional publishing models will feel the pinch even more……I think that some combination of internet marketing by publishers, using either print-on-demand or e-format, is the best way forward for real authors (and readers!).Quite a few publishers are now issuing backlists by print on demand. However, maybe Michael Bashir of the digitalist is right and it will all end up being controlled from beginning to end by Google. Just so long as Google doesn’t actually write the books as well!

  7. I feel I need to stand up for booksellers here. I know there’s been a move towards commerciality in the chains but I think it’s been necessary, in the face of competition from Amazon. Most towns don’t have an independent bookstore anymore that you can support, but if we don’t support the likes of Waterstones then many towns won’t have a bookshop at all. And I know that not all booksellers have enough knowledge but there are still some of us out there with the knowledge and love of books, who want to provide the best service we can for our customers. We do still have some buying power locally and try to add to our standard stock to suit our customer base, and don’t forget, even though we may not stock every book you would like, we can order them for you! If we don’t shop locally, either in an independent, if we’re lucky enough to have one, or in our local Waterstones, then we may end up with no bookshops at all – and how tragic would that be.

  8. I agree, Pat – my post was defending Waterstones against that what I saw as pointless (and incorrect) attack by the Guardian.

Comments are closed.