Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bookselling in the Digital Age: Part 1

This is the first excerpt of the presentation given to the Swanwick Writers Summer School, 11th August,2009. By my wife Annie Quigley, owner of Biblophile Books. ‘Bookselling In A Digital Age.’

…One friend of mine is the professional sci fi writer, speaker and futurologist Ray Hammond.Ray is hired by large corporations to predict technological advances and is now a very well paid and respected consultant. He says: “A book in print is dead. It has to be alive electronically, or it’s dead.”

Ray may talk about the future but lives in the present. He said to me last week at a signing of his books at Bibliophile, “I am thrilled Bibliophile is recycling two of my books and having me here to sign them today. In this way it brings pleasure to readers who may otherwise not find them or could afford them at full price. “

These thoughts demonstrate today’s dilemma for writers. We are at a time of change and the reality is that both digital and physical books will live side by side for many years. Remember, books have to be alive electronically, or they’re dead.

How much will a digital book cost?

Some publishers predict the same price as a paperback. If like me you have an iPhone and use Ereader software like Stanza, you expect to pay a very small sum if anything for an E book.

Ray Hammond makes a living out of predicting future technologies and he say that he expects his books in digital form will be made available for free. In this case, how then are we all make money if it’s free? What Ray is describing is the conflict between extreme views but lets get real, change will not be overnight. I believe the glass is half full, not half empty, and that there are many opportunities for authors in today’s digital world and perhaps being less reliant on publishers is one of those realities.

Self publishing will be huge – and I don’t mean vanity publishing. You will need an understanding of copyright and marketing.

Will the digital revolution impact bookselling? - yes
I spoke at an International booksellers conference in South Africa three years ago on this topic and re reading that speech I had said: “I want to sell e-books and audio downloads in the future and therefore have to look for reliable suppliers and select titles at the right price. As soon as I can, I will offer them for sale them alongside physical books.” As I said, that was three years ago and in the meantime, publishers have been slow to announce and commit to a digital publishing programme, particularly in this recession.

We have to recognise digitisation is only just evolving. America’s largest booksellers Barnes & Noble is only just setting up digital store; Waterstones set up their ebook website 12 months ago and Borders UK and Blackwells have only just gone live on ebooks. Wholesaler Gardners can now supply any bookseller with some 100000 new ebooks, so any bookshop can join this scheme.

So we are the start of a journey and there are many conflicts to resolve. The one thing we can be certain of is that the future of bookselling will be quite different from today and I want to be part of it. Like myself, many other booksellers don’t want to lie down and give away our traditional hand selling market to the likes of Amazon, Google, Apple or even Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s and Asda. We want to sell physical and digital – we want to sell books.

Supermarkets today claim 20% of UK book sales, and Amazon another 20%. This was unheard of just 5 years ago. If another 40% of titles are deep discounted by publishers, how are authors going to make money? What percentage is left after the publishers’ costs for you to take as a slice of the pie? You may sell thousands of copies of books into a supermarket, but at what cost?

Here is a little of my life in bookselling.

Publishers send me reps to showcase their titles and in truth, for every 100 books I am shown, I select just one. The criteria I use varies, but I have to make sure its right for my members, be confident I can market it and sell it. I could easily be buying 100 different titles at a time and a minimum of 100 copies of each and if I do my job well, we can oversell and rush back for more stocks. After 25 years of bookselling, I cannot claim to know each of our 100,000 members but they certainly know me and share a discerning taste in literature on which they can rely.

My oldest customer Mr Martin Stern, asked his daughters to arrange to bring him to visit Bibliophile for his special 90th birthday treat. Here we are pouring over his favourite S J Perelman tome!

If I can be brutal here, I recognise that some books fail because the publisher’s blurb was poor or the jacket didn’t represent or sell the content. I endeavour to ensure that every Bibliophile review sells the book. Bookselling is certainly not just down to price!

I am often asked two questions, “What makes a book sell and what are your bestsellers”?

In brief, it is beautifully made art books, conspiracy theories, crime fiction and Signed books which I love to sell and collect, so I regularly organise author visits. By genre, it is predominantly non-fiction - art, history, religion, war, humour and erotica. Not necessarily in that order!

Bibliophile has a vast reservoir of independent book reviews going back 30 years for something like 60,000 titles. With valuable sales figures for each, we can consider re publishing from this rich backlist and knowledge...

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