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The future of bookshops

G17th February 2011

C11 Comments

Tgeneral, internet

With today’s news that Angus & Robertson and Borders have gone into voluntary administration, I reflect upon the value of bookshops in our lives.

Australia’s communications landscape is changing fast. What would have been unimaginable even a decade ago is now a reality; television network audience shares and profits are falling, the long-term viability of print newspapers is now in question and suddenly Australia’s two biggest book store chains have gone into voluntary administration.

I love books!

I have a large collection of books covering such varied topics as Australian politicians, history, architecture and travel  mixed in with tomes about plant physiology and molecular genetics. My personal and professional interests are co-mingled on a vast series of bookshelves. Whenever I want to check a fact, verify a claim, or just relax and read a story, my books are right there.

For that, I can thank the book shops (and let’s be fair, probably my education too). For myself, and millions of other Australians, looking through bookshops is an enjoyable task that introduces us all to new and  interesting titles. Yet apparently, the internet threatens the very survival of the bookshop as we know it.

For starters, let me say that I think talk of the ‘pending death of the bookshop’ is over-hyped. I simply don’t believe that bookshops will become redundant, although I realise that their market share (and perhaps commercial influence) will fall in time. There is much potential in the e-book, although there’s a lot lacking too. That said, the possible demise of REDGroup, which owns Angus & Robertson and Borders (in Australia only) is a very worrying development.

In Victoria, the books market seems to consist of Borders (which has the biggest range), Angus & Robertson (the biggest chain), Dymocks and Collins (two smaller chains) and a host of smaller, niche and specialist stores. There’s a gulf between the size of Borders and the smaller chains. Where Borders lacks in value, it compensates with range. And range is important.

Borders is very popular and on account of that, the company encourages a vast number of people to read. I firmly believe that reading, along with education, faith and public broadcasting are the key pathways to the development of an intellectual, enlightened and reasoned mind. I certainly don’t suggest that without Borders, society will be ruined. However, unlike most bookshops, Borders encourages dining and reading within their stores and so they effectively make books more accessible. That benefits us all.

The range of books I find at Borders is unmatched anywhere else. I cannot tell you how many books I have read because I saw them in Borders, where they weren’t stocked elsewhere.

I love reading about Australian political history. Aussie politics is admittedly not a topic that enjoys mainstream appeal. Whilst most bookshops would sell the popular volumes such as The Latham Diaries or Lazarus Rising (John Howard’s autobiography), they’re unlikely to sell The Long Slow Death of White Australia or Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia or Rudd’s Way. I know that these books are occasionally available elsewhere, but they’re much more difficult to locate and I know that I’d be very reluctant to buy them online without seeing them first.

The Australian book retailers often complain that internet booksellers are taking their market.

As the Australian dollar reaches parity with the United States dollar, there’s never been a better time to buy books online. Australia’s book industry is effectively protected behind a tariff wall, so books sold here are more expensive that those bought overseas. Because the Australian economy slowed (and hence discretionary spending fell) during the Global Financial Crisis, it’s no wonder that the book retailers may be ‘doing it tough’.

Yet the internet can never really replace bookshops for several important reasons: If it weren’t for bookshops, it would be much harder to know that certain titles even existed. People may discover that Amazon sells books much cheaper than Australian retail, but I suspect that most people buy books that they’ve already seen somewhere else, decided upon purchasing, then shopped online where the price is better. Bookshops provide customers with exposure.

The internet also won’t replace bookshops because browsing is much harder online. Think about how many times you’ve picked up a book that seemed so promising only to flick through its pages and discover otherwise. At least in such circumstances, you’ve not committed to purchasing the book.

There is some debate about whether e-books will simply make paper books obsolete. I suggest that they won’t, although I certainly see that for fiction (and newspapers or magazines) they may be better than the paper version. For non-fiction, I believe they’d make a poor substitute although I can see potential value even here (for instance, a plant physiology book that could incorporate a 3D model of a plant cell rather than a diagrammatic outline). I don’t think viewing detailed architectural plans or high-resolution images of an Australopithecus skull on a small screen would be much of a substitute for a high-gloss fold-out printed page.

For some, there is also the romantic notion of holding books, smelling the paper and feeling the texture of the page. Whilst that is a niche interest (similar to music buffs who insist on listening to vinyl or photographers who use film), I don’t see that as a mainstream concern.

Of course, in these changing times bookshops need to adjust and adapt. Perhaps like car manufacturers, television networks or hardware stores, there just isn’t as much room in the Australian market as there used to be for so many players.

If Borders and Angus & Robertson were to fail (and this is no certainty), it would be an unfortunate loss. Aside from the jobs directly lost, it would also likely hurt the Australian book publishing industry.

I have no doubt that like the newspaper and broadcasting industries, the book industry is entering a period of substantial change and possible consolidation. It will be fascinating to see what changes, both in a corporate and technological sense, emerge in the coming decade.

Whilst I firmly believe that e-books offer immense opportunities, I hope that I will always have the opportunity to browse real books in a real shop. After all, real books don’t need batteries, charging or firmware upgrades.

   

Comments:

11 responses to “The future of bookshops”

  • Written by Sorya Hang on 17 February 2011:

    dog gone Ipads! Electronic books aren’t the same as actual books with pages…doesn’t have the feel, smell and touch.

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 17 February 2011:

    Real books don’t need batteries or charging or firmware upgrades.

  • Written by Sorya Hang on 17 February 2011:

    Real books have old age value that can be passed on, and don’t make your eyes go all funny.

  • Written by Marlene Zammit Schiavone on 17 February 2011:

    nothing better than curling up with a good book – i refuse to put ebooks on mine and love to buy a good old fashioned book every now and then

  • Written by Zoe Fae Smith on 18 February 2011:

    Libraries are getting the oust over here – so sad 🙁

  • Written by Katrina on 18 February 2011:

    I love books and bookshops too, but Borders not so much. All good points, but for me Borders has never stocked what I wanted to buy. Actually few bookshops do in Australia, I tend to find out about new books via online browsing and email alerts and then source them online.
    I agree about the ramifications for the Australian publishing industry.
    I actually can see potential for e-books for non fiction, I already have some, especially for the type of non fiction books you don’t necessarily want to read cover to cover. I also love the idea of carrying my library around on a computer when I do overseas research, though I can see myself having paper and digital copies of some books.
    You might be interested in John Birmingham’s take on the situation http://www.cheeseburgergothic.com/archives/2212

  • Written by isobel on 18 February 2011:

    Another blog of interest, thoughtfully presented to the reader.
    As an avid reader of both political, and indeed, biographies of most kinds,I enjoy the actual pleasure of going to a bookshop (often Borders) and selecting a book, having it wrapped before bringing it home, anticipating the time when I can sit in a comfy chair and open it up and be lost in “another world” for awhile.
    I can not envisage having the same feeling about an
    e book

    On reading Katrina’s response though I must admit there is some merit in being able to access a passage or two if one needs to find a reference whilst travelling.
    But I hope there will always be a bookshop available to
    browse in while I am able to enjoy the experience.

  • Written by Donna on 18 February 2011:

    I’m a big fan of books as well and resisted e-readers for years. However I received one for Christmas and I like using it for fiction reading but haven’t stop buying paper books. I like the portability of the e-reader, as you need not be carrying around large tomes anymore, but I do miss the tangible nature of sitting down with a nice paper book. Certainly my toddler loves the touch and feel of all his paper and board books.

    I’m probably not a niche reader so most things I have wanted to read are readily available over the internet at substantially discounted prices to actual bookstores.

    I agree that the current basic e-readers are not suited for highly graphical books but like all technology, they will evolve over time and become more sophisticated.

    I like your view about bookshops providing an experience as I love browsing bookstores too, but ultimately they are a business and they are just not competitive in the market of mainstream readers.

    As you say, it will be very interesting to see what happens, not only to Borders, but to the smaller independent bookstores.

  • Written by Michelle on 21 March 2011:

    Had to check out this post when I saw it, Adam. You’ve summed it up very well. I am resisting the ebook because I like to have physical copies for ease of reading, though I am finding electronic versions of 19th century books and magazines indispensible to my research. For these, I’d really like to have an iPad to read them on rather than a laptop screen.

    I am a traitor in that I buy most of my books through Amazon, and will likely try the UK Book Depository (free shipping to Australia!) soon. I have such odd specialist interests (Victorian children’s literature) that I never really come across books I’m after in stores here. Yet I find that online suddenly my interests aren’t so weird and unusual.

  • Written by Sharon on 30 April 2011:

    What a great post Adam! I am studying Library and Information Services and have had many conversations about this topic in the last year.

    Have you ever been to the State Library of NSW? I can’t imagine what a room like the reading room in the Mitchell Library would look like if e-books were to be our future reading materials.

    Give me a real book any day!

  • Written by Booksforever on 20 January 2013:

    I have to agree, i think the ‘pending death of the bookshop’ is slightly over-hyped also. As you mention, of course their presence will decrease some, but that happens in many markets these days, as competition grows both off and mostly online, but it isn’t unique to bookstores.
    I think it will be a very long time, if at all when humans decide there is no longer a need for the old, but still very much wanted book.

    Many people love to browse a bookshop, sometimes they don’t buy, but the feeling of picking up a book, and flicking through the pages, you can’t replace online. I sell online, but i also understand the want people can have to see/touch a book first.

    As far as digital books are concerned, they can’t replace rare, out of print collectible books, they can’t be touched or placed on a shelf, or signed by the author, or inscribed to a family member, so they are/will play a part, but won’t replace paper books completely.

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