An interesting view from an author, Kannu. But I suspect it is a losing battle, bookshops will disappear from the high street and only highly specialised bookstores will remain. So if you are ever thinking about writing a book, remember this outlet.
Shed no tears for the bookshop
By Harry Mount
There should be an expression for shops we like the sound of, even if we do not use them much: charming lossmakers, perhaps. Butchers, bakers and – a long time ago – candlestick-makers: they all have a nice, wholesome feel to them. And most of them have been swept from our high streets.
Independent bookshops are joining the exodus: 100 disappeared in Britain in 2009; and, last week alone, four went, including the Harbour Bookshop, once run by the original Christopher Robin, A.A. Milne’s son. The Travel Bookshop in London’s Notting Hill – inspiration for Hugh Grant’s shop in the film of the same name – also cleared its shelves.
Independent bookshops have a double charm . Not only do they sell much-loved, high-minded objects; but also that word “independent” brings a warm glow of cheerfully resilient anti-corporatism, of the man in the half-moon specs and cardie who has spent half his life buried in goatskin-bound folios by Thomas Aquinas.
But the brutal truth is that independent bookshops are subject to the same market forces as the charmless end of the high street – the porn shops and the strip clubs.
Those forces are particularly brutal now. Last week, the CBI, the employers’ organisation, reported that retailers’ optimism was at its lowest for two years. Peter Marks, chief executive of the Co-operative grocery chain, said these were the worst trading conditions he had seen in 40 years. The message is clear: intellectual luxuries, such as undiscounted books, are out.
On top of everything else, independent bookshops had to deal with Amazon , the e-book, and ruthless discounting by chains. Even those chains are in trouble. Borders closed in 2009 . In May, a struggling Waterstone’s was bought by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. But the Waterstone’s story provides a pinprick of hope in the gloom. Mr Mamut has appointed James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books, as Waterstone’s managing director.
Mr Daunt might provide an answer to the problem. His seven stores have bucked the trend, making steadily increasing profits as other independents go to the wall. It is true Daunt stores are in London’s upmarket oases such as Chelsea. Still, the reasons for Daunt’s success – good, undiscounted books, knowledgeable staff and alluring shops – go beyond a rich clientele.
Daunt Books offers a wider choice than most independents – meaning staff will rarely say those words that are the death knell of smaller competitors: “We don’t have it in stock, but I can order it for you.”
Thanks to Amazon, I can order it myself. It will be delivered straight to my door. That is the insuperable advantage of internet book-buying over the high street. No single bookseller, independent or chain, can match the size and low overheads of a regional Amazon aircraft hangar crammed with books. That battle has been lost.
But it is not an either/or game. A growing internet market does not mean eradicating the high street bookshop. It just means the high street shop has to do different things from Amazon; in the same way that the dead tree book, newspaper and magazine must have qualities the online version does not have.
You can fit more books in an aircraft hangar but you cannot browse through them so enjoyably. As a pure disseminator of ideas, Amazon wins; as a quiet yet communal atmosphere in which to sift through those ideas, the best-run high street bookshops prevail.
If enough high street booksellers grasp this, then the new bookselling world will be an improvement on the old one: a bigger range of available books, and nicer places to browse. That blend would also remove the sentimental – if understandable – reaction to the disappearance of yet another independent bookseller. There is no need for them to be charming but lossmaking. If you play the game right, you can turn a profit precisely because you are charming, because you have the right choice of full-price books, and because you accept that Amazon will inevitably do some things better.
Thousands of candlestick-makers must have cursed Thomas Edison’s light bulb. The clever ones got to work on making more beautiful and desirable candlesticks.
The writer is author of ‘Amo, Amas, Amat and All That: How to Become a Latin lover’
The big problem with many bookshops is that they still see themselves as bookshops. They still focus on the product - not the customer. This is a fundamental weakness of many 'traditional' businesses, as Theodore Levitt illustrated in his Harvard Business Review article 'Marketing Myopia' (1960).
Bookshops (and commentators) also make the mistake of assuming Amazon is winning just because it offers discounts - and fail to take account of its many added value services. These include ease of use, an absence of snooty staff, a range of delivery options, gift wrapping, reader reviews, and reader recommended lists.
Amazon also uses the very clever trick of recommending ('up-selling') other goods that are similar to the one you are buying. This process is particularly effective since Amazon also tells you the percentage of other customers who bought those similar products. Some psychologists would describe this as providing "social proof" , which is the comfort of knowing that other people like you would approve of your choice.
If I were to launch a bookshop, I wouldn't start with the books.