Sunday, February 23, 2014
On one side of the pond the ABA (American Booksellers Association) proudly proclaimed that some 44 new independent bookstores opened for business in 2013 and that 10 of these were in the technology state of California. In addition they also announce that 14 stores were bought by new owners. On the other side of the pond the BA (Booksellers Association of UK and Ireland) announced that the number of independent bookstore had dropped below 1000 to 987 and that in less than 10 years they had dropped by around a third from 1,535 in 2005 to today’s figure.
Both markets have lost major bookchains and now only one recognised national bookchain, but both face the same threat from technology, the internet and price discounting. Is the US showing signs of recovery or learning to adapt and change? So is it a case of the glass half full in the US versus the glass half empty in the UK?
The UK has some challenges from the subsidised charity shops and in particular Oxfam’s Bookstore, but these don’t sell new books, they sell used books, but they do enjoy rent and business rates advantage over the bookstores. The bookshops also face growing and targeted competition from supermarkets who stock a narrow range of highly attractive titles at deep discount. They face going competition from newspapers and others who sell off page reviews and have them distributed by the same wholesalers who support the bookshops. The High Streets continue to show signs of slow decline and have lost out to out of town stores and destination malls.
There are however many bookshop success stories and many who have embraced a wider remit than just books and coffee. There are some like Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay on Wye whose owner Elizabeth Haycox also has a café, a cinema and even facilitates weddings, but it is a unique location and an unusual lady.
However, in the main the independent bookshops we read about are sellers of only limited front list titles, which are displayed on the sale or return ‘safe’ model. The offer still has to compete with those that they will always find it hard to compete with in a price conscious and virtual internet shelf marketplace. Few have ventured into the bargain market, let alone the used and antiquarian ones and in essence they remain one trick ponies and increasingly vulnerable. Many sell on Amazon, eBay and other marketplaces but this is hardly a sustainable model and one where they have control over the margin.
Earlier this year we wrote about the sales boom that the Strand bookstore in New York run by Fred Bass has experienced over the festive period. Fred sells new, old, used, rare and even review copies. He does distinguish between any and sees only books and customers who want books, but he too has a vibrant and highly profitable merchandising offer selling his branded products and accommodates many filming shoots in the store. To top that the Strand building he owns is prime Manhattan real estate.
Government, local councils can make life easier for bookshops, but so can the industry. Do the publishers really do enough to help make this channel viable, or are they now too preoccupied chasing the high volume, low margin business or even in giving books away to promote reading. Have they forgotten the shop window that the bookshops give them, or has their view and disposal towards the traditional book retail channel been tainted by the demands made by the chains?
If Bookstores are to survive they must change and adapt. They must embrace all books and in doing so take some risks. They must widen their appeal and offer complimentary services and goods and they must start to see the glass half full and not half empty.