Monday, October 12, 2009

Is Book Retailing Predicable?

So as we have been thinking a lot about music and the retail impact of digitization, we now wonder what will happen to bookstores in the future. Many accept that big is good, or inevitable, but then scream when they see that could mean just Amazon and Google. The Booksellers Association where right to object to Margret Hodge’s library dream factory and its thoughts on libraries competing head on with retail in selling books, but it will not go away without action. Some believe that the independent bookstore is dead, but then many have thought that for many years so what has changed.

What we see first is that universal consolidation that has decimated the music retail world with many big and small going to the wall. A hardcore of music stores remain and will always do so for these are real music stores, respected by their consumers and offering value added service. However those who were mere franchises for the labels, opening their doors and allowing the reps to merchandise their shelves have mainly gone. The same will happen with books and a continued belief in ‘sale or return’ will start sort to out the bookstores from the hobbyists.

So if we look at Music today we see Spotify, iTunes, Napster, Sky, Nokia and many new names entering the streaming and download world and Amazon, Walmart and big boys dominating the physical world. Why should books be any different? So we swap in Amazon, Google, Sony, B&N, throw in some aggregators with a white label offer such as Overdrive, Ingram etc. Then in the physical world there is Amazon, B&N, Waterstones, Book Depository and of course supermarkets and special sales channels such as the Book People. It may be different names but they share a lot of similarities.

So how do bookstores survive what is clearly going to be a hard winter?

We suggest by being bookstores and retailers and stop chasing the best seller rabbits that were never geared for them. Start to understand it’s not just about front and back list but books, old, used, remaindered, whatever. It’s about selection not based on the safety net of no risk returns, but on sale through and risk. It’s all about knowing the audience and where appropriate specializing and even creating vertical product sales. It’s about community reach and all the things that have been written by many and practiced by few.

Why are we so hard on bookstores if we believe that they are an endangered species? The answer is simple – we want them to survive, but to do so they have to think and act differently. Should they do other publishing roles such as run festivals, publish, reprint, package? It will work for some but not many. Should they embrace digital or leave it to the big boys like they left the internet to Amazon?

You can’t tell a retailer how to retail they have it or they don’t.

Take publisher branding which scores very low in the consumer world. Why not put all the penguin books together, all the HarperCollins ones together and forget that they all must be A-Z. The books may look pretty as a collection and appeal even more that the jumbled up different sizes, colours and designs we see on a shelf today. Why do books have to be spine out – if it’s just down to space fine, but stocking more inventory, more densely, doesn’t guarantee more sales – think about it. Shop windows and interior design layout is usually predicable, boring and clearly lacking imagination. Some excel and really make the effort others just put up shelves and fill them.

We can’t prescribe what to do but we can predict the potential future and more of the same isn’t going to change current trends and our following other sectors such as music.


Jocksyboy said...

Much of what you suggest is true. However, the bookselling industry in the Uk has known this now for the 20 years that I have been working in it and yet it still finds it easier to to moan and scream about how unfair life is rather than actually do something about it. Ironically the biggest culprits are actually the small independents who could change most easily!

Anonymous said...

I've advocated publisher branded sections for a long time now. Waterstones should look more like Boots - with branded concession stands stocked and merchandised in whatever way the publisher likes/will pay for.

A better product mix would be good, and some sense of dynamism in store design generally. Look at how Urban Outfitters does it... on which note, book sales will increasingly come from shops that don't specialise in books at all, but see them as value-added items.

However, mainly 'bookstores' should remember that they're not supposed to store books. They should consider themselves to be booksellers. They should employ Booksellers. They should train them, nurture them, and equip them with the skills and expertise to sell books. People are the key to competing with electronic and supermarket sales. Excellent people will bring in excellent sales.

Leigh Russell said...

As an author, I enjoy spending time talking to readers at book signings. Online suppliers can't offer readers the chance to chat to an author and buy a personally signed copy of their book. I talk to library book groups which offer likeminded people an opportunity to meet regularly and discuss books.

Libraries and bookshops have so much to offer which online suppliers cannot provide. In terms of convenience and price, bookshops cannot hope to compete with amazon and supermarkets. They are making a huge mistake if they try. They should focus instead on what they can do better to attract customers.

My own book consistently sells out at book signings. Everyone wins.