Are neighbourhood bookshops doomed?Posted: July 25, 2011
There’s a small, independent literary bookshop in my local shopping centre whose days, I fear, are numbered. I can’t see how it will survive the online challenge. Its likely demise will make the shopping centre even more monocultural. This isn’t a big shop like Readings in Carlton, so its scope to live on by “adding value” for customers is limited.
Some people really love their local bookshops. In Friday’s Crikey, Ben Eltham said “many independent bookshops offer…..character, passion and charm”. What they provide, he says, is:
An induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.
Not sure I like the “secret society” bit, but as a keen reader I understand the delights of browsing, even though I don’t make a lot of use of my local bookshop. Although Readings is further away, I’m much more likely to browse there because I can combine it with a visit to the movies and dinner. Readings is also bigger with a larger range of specialised books.
However the key reason I don’t spend a lot of time in the local store is because, like most people, I’m actually far more interested in reading than I am in the act of buying. The fact is the internet offers me a vastly superior buying/browsing experience and thereby gives me more time to get down to reading.
It goes without saying that I can get books much cheaper online than I can over the local counter. There’s no way even the big chains are competitive on price with Amazon-Book Depository, so my local indie has no chance. And there’s no way any bricks and mortar bookshop in Australia can compete on stock against the online behemoths, especially when it comes to technical books or out of print volumes. A smaller bookshop can’t afford to carry all the works of even popular literary authors. Its big advantage is immediate over-the-counter delivery, but that only works if it has stock.
Then there’s information. Although I hear a lot of talk about the expertise of dedicated bookshop staff, there’s no way they can have the sort of product knowledge that’s just a click away at Amazon. Maybe bookshops run by owner-managers that specialise in arcane topics do, but chances are it’ll be something I’m not interested in. My local is a more general, literary-oriented bookshop.
Somewhere like Amazon gives you instant reviews from literary sources and other readers across the world. Amazon even tailors recommendations for new books based on your search topics and previous purchases. Even on those occasions when I do buy a book from my local (usually a gift so new releases are preferred) I’ve already done my research and know what I’m after.
If I want a novel in a hurry I’ll go to my local bookstore, but unless it’s reasonably popular or new, chances are the proprietor won’t have it in inventory. I can either get the store to order it in or do it myself at substantially lower cost (as well as avoid another trip to the store). In fact these days I’m much more likely to get an electronic copy instantly and read it on my (Kobo) e-reader. A growing proportion of Australians are doing likewise.
Some argue that if we don’t patronise our local bookshops they won’t be there when we need them. They usually turn out to be people who are in the publishing and media business, like Ben Eltham or this writer. The “use it or lose it” argument is of course rubbish – no commercial operation is likely to survive, much less flourish, on this sort of shaky business model. It would be nice to have a local bookshop but it will hardly be the end of civilisation if mine disappears – I’ve got too many other options.
I have sympathy for the proprietor of my local but at the end of the day that’s the nature of commerce – the current business model simply isn’t sustainable. There are wider structural forces at play here. One of them, obviously enough, is new technology. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again and again – just ask VCR manufacturers. The other is the outrageous restrictions on publishing in Australia. Price discrimination – where publishers charge a much higher price in Australia than in other countries – raises book prices in Australia substantially and of course makes bookshops uncompetitive with overseas online suppliers.
The standard argument is price discrimination is warranted by unavoidable factors like higher transportation and distribution costs in Australia. Yet when Kwanghui-Lim looked at the prices of magazine subscriptions, he found the electronic version of National Geographic costs US customers US$19.99, but Australian customers pay AU$44.25. Similarly, The Economist costs US$126.99 in electronic form in the US and AU$266 in Australia. There’s no evident reason why it would be cheaper to supply electronic content to the US market than the Australian market.
I expect bookshops like Readings will be around for some time yet. There’s still a large, albeit diminishing, proportion of the population who won’t buy online and it has location and history on its side. Moreover, Readings has the critical mass to reinvent itself as a player in the business of reading rather than just in the business of book selling.
The thought of having a bookshop in my local centre to lend some variety and interest is nice – it won’t be as attractive without it. But I don’t imagine there are enough book-lovers around who are prepared to cop a loss so I can occasionally enjoy the ambience and the convenience. Unless something dramatic happens, like reform of price discrimination in the publishing industry, I think it’s unlikely my local bookstore can survive, at least in its current form. Maybe it could specialise, but then I won’t get much value from a bookshop that only sells books on (say) Warhammer or camping and caravanning.
Looking at the longer version of Kwanghui-Lim’s chart (here), of greater concern to the health of local shopping centres is the possible demise of newsagents, whose viability will surely be threatened by competition from online delivery of magazines and newspapers. Some readers of Elle are bound to prefer 47 cents for an electronic edition over $20.92 for the hardcopy edition.