The survival of independent booksellers

While studying on Anglia Ruskin University’s Publishing course, Bob Cox-Wrightson researched independent book-selling. In this, the second of our guest posts, Bob outlines his views on how and why booksellers can survive:

Picture the scene from the ‘Patron of the Arts’ episode of the popular BBC sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Cabinet Secretary, is explaining to the Minister why the arts deserve funding:

We have a great heritage to support – pictures hardly anyone wants to see, music hardly anyone wants to hear, plays hardly anyone wants to watch. You can’t let them die just because nobody’s interested. […] It’s a bit like the Church of England – people don’t go to church, but they feel better because it’s there. The arts are just the same. As long as they’re going on, you can feel part of a civilised nation.

The same could be said of independent bookshops.

A hundred years ago most UK bookshops were what we would now think of as independent. By the end of the century the picture was very different. Chains such as Borders and Waterstones began to consolidate the high-street market. Books began to be sold in supermarkets, and, with the end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, prices began to be slashed.

The growth of internet booksellers such as Amazon, offering a huge range of stock at discounted prices, could have finished off the independents, just as the MP3 finished off the high street record shop. Add in the Kindle and other e-readers, and bookshops should be finished. But bookshops are still here, and in the case of independent bookshops, many are thriving. 

Why is this? One of the reasons is that customers are not totally committed to any one book format, in the way that they are to MP3s as a format for music. Readers are sharing their buying habits, depending on the context of the purchase and their budget at any given time.

For example, let’s look at how one book can be purchased in many different ways – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

First, this book is available for free. Most libraries will have this classic title in stock, and it is available for free download to the Kindle. If Pride and Prejudice is borrowed or downloaded, the reader is making no claim of ownership: they just want the text.

Next, there is the second-hand market. As Pride and Prejudice has been in print so long, it is a safe bet that most second-hand bookshops will have a copy. However, second-hand prices can vary. If the customer is willing to wait a couple of days for delivery, a ‘very good’ copy is at available at present, via Amazon.co.uk, for £2.48, including postage. If the customer is prepared to pay £10 for postage, a first edition is available, via abebooks.co.uk, for £49,676. With both editions, and at all the price-points in-between, the customer is investing in the book-as-object as well as the book-as-text.

Thirdly, new copies of Austen’s classic can be purchased, and, as with the second-hand market, prices vary depending on the quality. A cheaply produced, printed-on-cheap-paper edition is available from Penguin Popular Classics for £2, whilst a lavishly produced, designer-jacketed hardback Clothbound Classics imprint is available from the same publisher for £14.99.

It is remarkable that, given that this title is widely available for free, some customers are prepared to pay £14.99 for a copy. But they do, and the Clothbound Classics series has been a success for Penguin. Equally remarkably, someone, somewhere, will pay £49,676 for a first edition. The reason is, in both cases, the customer is making an investment in the book as object. The text itself is important, but so is the book’s provenance, and means of production. The weight, the binding, the paper – even the smell – these are the ways in which a book connects with the senses and with history.

Moreover,many books are bought as gifts, given either to a loved one or oneself. There’s something about a well-designed book that makes people want to pick them up, to handle them, to touch and feel them, in a way that a CD, say, could never replicate.

The tactile nature of what constitutes ‘a book’ can be packaged and produced in a myriad of enticing ways, whereas the music market has had its physical products sealed in uniformly boring plastic boxes for decades. Books, in short, have a resonance that’s hard-wired into us, and the bond is hard to break.  

To physically produce a book is to forever entwine it in the contexts and technology of its time. A 1970s copy of Pride and Prejudice will be as distinct as a 1990s copy, and will invest the book with layers of contextual meaning. It is these intertwined contextual meanings that define the book as object, and it is the book as object that independent bookshops must seek to embrace.

But how do they do this in the face of so much competition? Bookshops do not have a right to exist simply because they have always been there. An independent bookshop must do whatever it can to think creatively about fulfilling the needs of its customers. Successful independent bookshops have become destinations in their own right, creating unique retail experiences, happy to leave other areas to the competition.

But selling is only one aspect of book-selling – just as important is browsing. When I make a purchase from an independent bookshop, I often end up with a book that I didn’t expect to find. The owner of the bookshop has second-guessed the books that browsers like me will be surprised and excited by. This ‘joy of browsing’ is something that cannot easily be replicated in busy supermarkets and chain stores.

True book browsing – finding yourself wandering into a section you never expected to be in – is also difficult to replicate on websites such as Amazon, even with their ‘you might also like’ recommendations. If independent bookshops can make the browsing experience as comfortable and rewarding as possible, shoppers will interact with, and hopefully buy, books that they didn’t know existed.

As with the Church of England (according to Sir Humphrey), the bookselling industry could be said to exist in a state of permanently questioning its own future. With much of the world in recession, bookshops cannot exist just because book-lovers think they should be there.

As more and more shopping areas lose their individuality, independent bookshops have an important role to play in defining a sense of place. As books furnish a room, so bookshops furnish a town, and you can tell a lot about a place by the type of bookshops it has.

Bookshops must serve a purpose, and make a profit, in order to survive. They need to understand the needs of their customers, and then supply those needs. That, after all, is what put bookshops on the high street in the first place. The successful ones have grasped the opportunities to change the way they stock, market, promote, support, display and sell their products, making sure that they welcome both seasoned book-lovers and casual browsers. By adding value to what they do and by offering innovative ways to interact with books and authors, they will remain an important part of the high street, and people will feel better because they are there. 

© Bob Cox-Wrightson

Bob blogs at http://bobsbookblog.wordpress.com/

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4 Responses to “The survival of independent booksellers”

  1. Well said. I am only semi-facetiously thinking about starting a Society for the Preservation of the Internet, because we know that books and bookshops are going to be around in 50 years, but what will have happened to Web 83.0, or whatever it is by then?

    If I may also be excused some shameless if, I also hope, entirely relevant piggybacking, Cambridge Publishing Society are having an excellent talk from Alan Leitch (of the John Smith’s Group) on academic bookselling, at 6 pm 8 November at Anglia Ruskin University – see http://groupspaces.com/cambridgepublishingsociety/item/169717

  2. […] article as a guest-blogger! It’s about the survival of independent booksellers. Check it out here at Anthony Haynes’ Monographer’s […]

  3. […] writes: In a coda to his guest post on the survival of independent booksellers (20 Oct), Bob Cox-Wrightson registers his impressions of WH […]

  4. Some good points, especially about the multisensory experience of browsing, as well as the tactile relationship to a physical book.

    I would add to the point about free downloads that no Kindle or e-reader is necessary; one can get many if not most classics such as Pride and Prejudice online. Project Gutenberg is a prime example: at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1342, one can access this text in multiple formats including HTML, PDF, Plain Text UTF-8, and more. BUT… one doesn’t get the rest of the package, the context of the edition etc. from reading online, and I doubt we will anytime soon. Hence, the need for both physical books and the stores in which to browse them.

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