Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bookselling Now Faces the Need to Change

The BBC recently ran a series of programmes which brought home the changes in High Street retail and how retailers have had to adapt to cultural, competitive and economic changes over the ages. It is easy to now see the next big step change taking place today, as Internet shopping grows and increasingly grabs the consumer and the cash. This is a very real challenge to bookshops who find they are facing a similar changing landscape to that which faced the High street baker, butcher and greengrocer when the supermarkets stepped up their game. They always misguidedly believed that it was the tactile nature of the business that guaranteed their survival. Unfortunately that is no longer the case.

They now not only have the Internet, which many have entered too late, or simply failed to realistically grapple with, they have a digital explosion, that to date, they have they thought wasn’t their business and to make matters worse they now find themselves competing with supermarkets who are wanting to cream off the volume traffic. Many small grocery retailers survived the supermarket explosion, but in doing so, had to also step up their game and realise that there was no divine right to retail. .

Some argue that the ones that will suffer most are the chains and it is clear that they are suffering. However it would be very arrogant to presume that the slack will be merely taken up by the independents, it won't. Booksellers need to focus on what it says over the door and sell books, used, new, classics, remainders and not just continue to be hoodwinked into believing that the consumer only wants the latest release.

It’s interesting that the only clear beneficiary from the demise of Borders was Kobo who had effectively used the brand to capture the digital footfall and when Borders stumbled into Chapter 11 still continued their business as usual with the customers Borders had effectively given them. Overdrive have built a strong and expanding library business on the back of the library community’s inability to build their own service. There are a number of aggregated ‘white label’ offers but few co-operative ones and it’s easy to hand over customers and business as an affiliate but its hard to get them back once change happens.

It is always important to own both the brand and the customer and not merely hand them over and the future to others. Many say it is impossible to compete and see doors as closed.However it is these players who will loose long term.

It is not all doom and gloom on the High Street and neither is the super Highway paved in gold. There are many positives and shoots of new opportunities and the only certainty is the tomorrow will be very different from today and learning to adapt to change is the key.


Darrel Ince said...

I wonder whether this is an opportunity for the small bookseller. Not only in selling the stuff mentioned in your post, but also configuring themselves around literary matters: organizing book clubs, reading clubs, offering premises etc. It really depends on how booksellers handle the bulk discount issues. If there's a more level playing field I can see a resurgence for the small book business given that stocking costs will be zero.

Martyn Daniels said...

you are right in your thinking but to make the step change we must realise that booksellers must redefine bookselling and do what it says on the tin. Sell BOOKS all books.

Once we break that old chestnut they must own the relationship with the customer and offer the services to engage with them, not just display shelves of books. KOBO isn't the first to build a service on others branding, ABE, Amazon have all done it before but at least did it under an affiliate relationship. Giving away customers is easy getting them back is often impossible.

As you say they must engage with the community and that is more than the physical one, but understanding the virtual one that supports it today. Communication takes many forms and not to use these is naive. However if you don't know your customers, how can you communicate with them?

Finally, they need to cut the shackles that have inhibited them and start to learn to live and die on their own selection not on the easy street 'sale or return'.

History is on the side of the bookseller, but history shows us right back to Robert Dodsley that they also must adapt.

Vanessa Robertson said...

I think you're right Martyn. We have - like most indie bookshops - limited space and a customer base which is highly computer literate. Consequently, there is no point in blindly stocking the new release - if Jamie Oliver is being sold by Amazon at 50% or more discount then then I'm not wasting my space or my cashflow (because it will have to be paid for at least 2 or 3 months before it can be returned) on stocking it.

We look at the less common, the mid-list and back list authors and find that customers respond well to that - many say that they like the fact that we don't just stock new releases and that they find titles they wouldn't have seen elsewhere when they come to us. That's not to say that new titles don't do well - The Hare With The Amber Eyes and Maggie O'Farrell's new paperback are going out of the door daily - but getting the stock selection right is incredibly important and increasingly so.