Are Bookstores Here to Stay?
April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
Two days ago on 15th April 2013, at The London Book Fair, Authoright’s Gareth Howard conducted the discussion entitled ‘Are Bookstores Here to Stay?’ between Sam Husain (C.E.O. of Foyles) and Philip Jones (Editor of The Bookseller).
On the whole the word bookshops was used rather than bookstores. We, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, tend to use the word ‘shop’ more than the word ‘store’.
In recent years many independent bookshops and some large chains have closed in the UK. Can bookshops survive? Both Sam Husain and Philip Jones agree that they can but not as they are now.
It must be remembered, Sam Husain said, that a bookshop is a business, but it is a business that must do more than merely sell books to people. Bookshops must add value. In other words, the bookshop must create an experience for the book buyer. How is this done? To a degree, by training staff. Foyles invests resources in educating its staff. If staff are knowledgeable about books, they can sell them better. And to survive, Mr Husain believes, bookshops must become better at selling books.
Philip Jones buys books from bookshops that he did not know (when he went into the bookshop) he wanted to buy. Trained staff can open up the world of books to buyers, can introduce unknown writers to buyers. But there is no staff to guide Philip Jones online. Who can advise him there? What has he to go on? Only, if anything, the purchase patterns of other buyers. For him, buying online is a narrowing experience. He is unlikely to discover books he did not know about before going online.
But knowledgeable bookselling is not enough. Bookshops, like everyone else in the publishing world, must expand their remit. Bookshops, Sam Husain believes, must create a cultural space. The era of ‘curating’ a bookshop has dawned.
Now, in bookshops a broader range of events (than the traditional book signing) is emerging. Such events must pay for themselves. Should there be a fee? Or should the admission be the purchase of the author’s book in hardback or paperback? So far, it appears, audiences find it more acceptable to buy an author’s book rather than pay an admission fee. Clearly in different parts of the United Kingdom, there will be different attitudes about what is an acceptable admission charge. Booksellers are finding out, by trial and error, what works best in their area.
It was also suggested that bookshops should be involved earlier in the product (book). It is an interesting idea but it does make the bookshop’s job a more involved one.
Some time ago (perhaps in The Bookseller) I read that 75% of books sold in bookshops are from display stands near the entrance. Therefore, many books on shelves do not get a look in. Sam Husain is developing his backlist: another area to be exploited.
Philip Jones sees no reason why there would not be room for all, for the bookshop and for online purchases. But he does feel that bookshops need help: the government, to encourage their growth and to preserve a high street, should introduce financial incentives. After all, bookshops enrich our culture. The more informed and supported booksellers are, the more enriched we book buyers are.
After listening to this discussion, a member of the audience quibbled about the price of books. How, he wondered, could bookshops justify charging so much more for books than an online shop. He suggested buying a book (or was it renting a book?) for five pounds and returning it after a month. Sam Husain’s response was that such a transaction, not being a purchase, would not work in a bookshop.
The question surprised me. The seminar had just provided answers. Bookshops charge more because they must pay enormously high rents, certainly in London, train staff and discharge all the usual overheads of a high street business.
Is it simply that people baulk at paying a reasonable price for books? Is it still the case, as George Orwell found it to be, that people prefer to spend money on cigarettes than books? Alison Baverstock in The Naked Author came to a similar conclusion. People appear to have less trouble paying for a round of drinks than a book.
Perhaps bookshops need to educate the reading public about book pricing: what exactly are they paying for? The better buyers understand and experience the process, the readier they will be to pay for it.
In the book world, things are changing fast. There are unexploited opportunities for bookshops. But bookshops, like literary agents and writers, must do more and be more to survive.