A new year and a new decade are upon us. There have been many blogs, columns and articles written recently either reviewing the last ten years in the book industry or trying to predict the next ten. While these predictions can sometimes be insightful they are about as accurate as trying to predict the weather. Rather than make my own questionable predictions about where bookselling will be in ten years time I thought I would share where I wish bookselling will be by the end of this new decade.
My big hope is that traditional bookshops can hold or even claw back their market share (independents 20%, chain stores 54%) against the Discount Department Stores (DDS). Over the last ten years books have become an ever more valued commodity and other retailers are increasingly entering the market. The big sales turnover of Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and more recently Steig Larsson mean that traditional booksellers are competing with more and more players in the market. This is only going to increase with international supermarket chains entering the market, international online retailers focusing more on our market and giants like Apple and Google entering the fray.
Booksellers are a critical part of the book industry and an important element that would be missed if the book market was totally dominated by DDSs or supermarkets. Just ask anyone in the UK publishing industry. During the Parallel Import debates last year some sought to reduce the role of a bookseller to simply being an “arbiter or manager of the books being made available”. That would be the role of the manager of a book department at a DDS or supermarket. Booksellers provide a much greater role than managing the books that become available. We do not simply unpack books, place them on display and walk back to our registers to mindlessly scan items and place them in a bag. We read books and we talk about books. We are also proficient at researching books and being able to source them. We are the point of contact between readers and the books they want to read. We engage with customers and get involved in our local communities. A major supermarket, DDS or online retailer cannot do these things.
The advent of eBooks is going to have a dramatic impact on the book industry but it is not going to revolutionize bookselling. All the things that good booksellers need to do are still go to apply to selling eBooks. There will just be new ways to do those things. EBooks are not going to replace the printed book. Unlike music where MP3 and the IPod made the experience of listening to and purchasing music substantially better the printed book and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop cannot be improved by the digital world. EBooks will provide booksellers an opportunity to expand their market and reach new readers. But eBooks do not mean the end of the printed book. Far from it. Good booksellers are going to be able to specialize in bookselling even more than they do now and provide readers with services they are not going to get anywhere else. An eBook will be for convenience, a printed book will be forever.
However the advent of eBooks is going to revolutionize publishing. It is already beginning to happen in the US where there is a major shift in the balance of power within the book industry. By no means does this shift in power spell the end of publishers as the printed book will remain to be the number one commodity. But there will be a shift in power to authors, but only to the handful of writers who absolutely dominate the bestselling charts. This is beginning to happen with some authors going over or around their traditional publisher and signing exclusive eBook rights deals with retailers. The next step will be authors like Dan Brown selling eBooks from their own retail site. With Apple entering the eBook market and publishers going down the road of staggering print and eBook release dates this will continue to be a more regular occurrence.
So where do booksellers fit into this shift in power? Booksellers will remain THE point of contact between readers and the book they want to read. This point of contact will continue to mean that booksellers are the first to know what readers are looking for and what they are dissatisfied with. The best booksellers will continue to use their relationships and knowledge to grow authors and sales. That elusive ‘word-of-mouth’ factor begins and is nurtured in a bookshop. Any shift in power is likely to ignore traditional booksellers to begin with. But the savvy publisher or writer will realize that the traditional bookshop cannot be by-passed and hopefully not before it’s too late.