Friday, May 20, 2011

The Times Are a Changin' for Bookselling

Today we have three stories all of which demonstrate the changes that are reshaping bookselling. Each is a story in its own right and has its own implication, but when viewed collectively, they start to piece together a picture of significant change, potential threat and opportunity.

Barnes and Noble is again being openly chased by a suitor. Liberty Media has offered $17 per share in cash to acquire control of the company and this is contingent on the participation of founding chairman Leonard Riggio, both in terms of his continuing equity ownership and his continuing role in management. Shares have reacted positively rising some 20% and its clear the market believes this is probably just the opening salvo of bidding for the bookseller and higher offers are likely.

Barnes & Noble has a new ereader announcement planned for the 24th and has established a respectable position and digital market share and has the potential to cross the digital divide that haunts so many booksellers today. However it has to deal with the shrinking physical side of the business at the same time as investing in the digital and has lots of mouths to feed.

UK bookchain Waterstones is finally being sold by HMV to Alexander Mamut's A&NN Group for £53m. No surprises there. The move will see Dominic Myers stay with HMV Group and independent chain Daunt Books MD, James Daunt, become MD of Waterstones. Daunt Books itself will remain as now and run by its existing shop management. Mamut is reported in The Bookseller saying he aims to ‘reposition Waterstone’s as a regional and local community-orientated bookseller’.

The challenges Waterstones face are significant. Plans are one thing but execution is another and recently some would suggest that Waterstones have had plans but little or poor execution. It will be interesting to watch the direction they now take as the current one appears to be going nowhere. Will they downsize both in terms of stores and size and even loose the megastores? Will they adopt a more feminine concept and drop the heavy male and library feel? Will they embrace all books and be a bookseller? Will they be able to retain staff and develop them? Will they make up their mind about digital? A daunting task for Mr Daunt.

Sainsbury's has just been awarded the accolade as being the "Martina Cole general or chain bookselling company of the year award" by The Bookseller. The award recognises that the supermarket for "reinvigorating book zones, increasing book sales by more than 33% and attracting new book buyers to the market".

We have seen the rise in books within the UK supermarket channel with Asda, Tescos and Sainsburys all giving increased shelf space to books and of course also discounting deeply. Supermarkets will always cherry pick titles that will sell and bestsellers, thrillers, crime, romance, celebrities, children’s and cook books will always be found on their selves at low prices. We have reported on Asda selling books cheaper than greeting cards and probably merchandising them the same way.

The impact of all this on the local independent bookstore is inevitable, with many suffering the same demise to that the off-licence, grocer and butcher did previously. The added twist is that supermarkets also have excellent online stores, which can hold a huge inventory, offer even better pricing and so compete on all fronts.

Sam Jordison writing on the Guardian blog likened the award going to Sainsburys, to awarding awarding a peace prize to Tony Blair.

So have read these the observations on print bookselling and the trade today it begs the question – where next?

It is clear that traditional chains need new direction, but is their model merely broken by their inability to move to everyday low pricing and avoid insane discounting? In expanding the supermarket and niche channels has the trade effectively served notice on its chains?

We believe that booksellers finally have to wake and read what it says over their door and do it. ‘Bookselling’ is about selling books, not just front list on ‘safe’ sale or return terms but all books. Amazon log ago saw this and acquired companies and skills and extended their offer to sell used, rare, audio, etc. They understood that they were selling BOOKS.

Amazon now understands that they can go further up the chain and publish. The likes of Barnes and Noble have long had their own publishing and realised that the definition of bookselling is and should be always open to dispute. As agents, booksellers and self publishing grows then the trade will have to adjust and accommodate. Books after all are books.

It’s ironic that in Gower Street Waterstones already has part of the answer in its fight against supermarkets. However it appears to have not understood it. Merely refurbishing a shop and changing the layout is no longer good enough. Now is the time to return to basics.

No comments: