The future of bookshops
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.