There's been a lot of media attention focused on bricks and mortar booksellers recently. Hardly surprising given the storms rocking high streets the world over. We're only two months into 2011 and already this year in the US Borders has gone into Chapter 11 (its British cousin having failed some time back); Waterstones/HMV in the UK is closing stores and laying off head office staff; British Bookshops & Stationers (the chain) is in administration, and in Australia RedGroup Retail has gone to the wall owing over $44million Australian dollars.
On 21 February, online journalism pioneer Robert Niles blogged on "imagining the 21st Century's Digital Bookstore". The publishing industry's big mistake, according to Niles, has been to view print and digital as two separate businesses. He goes on to envisage bookstores as chill-out zones and social spaces where customers can engage with digital and print product, experience live narrative, and pay for it all on their credit cards. Monday's Guardian carried an interesting piece by Robert McCrum urging authors to engage in social media (or be left high and dry by their audience). McCrum dryly observed that the days when a book being available in bookstores on a predetermined and well-advertised publication day was enough to guarantee sales seem "as remote as the Regency". The same day's New York Times contained an article by Stephanie Clifford and Julie Bosman highlighting the growing trend for publishers to work with non-traditional high street retailers to boost sales, citing Anthropologie, Target and Cracker Barrel as examples of stores upping the ante when it comes to their book offering. In the meantime back in the UK the online Bookseller reported on the Big Green Bookshop's appeal for 1,000 customers as a bid to ensure their survival (in a campaign reminiscent of Salt Publishing's 2009 Just One Book).
All of these pieces are fascinating. But none of them interrogate consumer preferences. Are bookshops struggling because people's buying habits have changed so much that they prefer to buy books online, or because the prices offered online are lower?
The reality, I suspect, is a mixture of the two. I'm usually very wary of using myself as a research sample - those of us who are closely connected with the book industry have a very different relationship with books as desirable objects and sources of pleasure than most other potential customers. However something we all know - whether we work in the industry or not - is that the experience of buying books online is totally different to browsing in a physical book store. Online purchases tend to be prompted by need (a textbook or professional reference book), desire (a favourite author) or recommendation (for example from Amazon's recommendations, or from other online prompts such as recommendations on Twitter). These are all valid and effective pulls and pushes towards books. But they do not replicate the experience of spending an hour in a well stocked bookshop. I'm fortunate enough to live near to the Ely Topping & Co bookstore where I invariably buy books I had no idea I wanted until I encountered them there. I may not have previously known about the books I purchase in Topping - but after the fact I am invariably glad to have found them.
Of course not everyone behaves on impulse, and consumers do not have an obligation to buy in store. Those from outside the book industry do not necessarily feel a responsibility to support their local shop if the prices there are higher than online. In a recession customers are much more likely to browse, and then go home an buy online to save money. The key questions therefore are how else can physical bookstores monetize what they offer? And, should publishers be much more proactive in supporting them through increased discount and other measures?
There are three elephants in the room here. Namely order turnaround time, discounts and returns. Publishers are usually alert to returns & discount. It is well known that when it comes to returns, bricks and mortar booksellers feel that they deserve equal discounts to those enjoyed by the online retailers whilst also maintaining that in order to offer range, they must have the right to return. What this ignores is that although the online retailers theoretically have the right to return, they almost never exercise it. Returns from online resellers run at less than 1% of invoice value. From the high street it is usually well in excess of 10% and often very very much higher. Returns are a drain on publishers' resources. Not just in terms of the cost of the book which is often unsaleable - but in terms of the cost of administration.
That's the easy bit. What many don't add into the balance is the fact that when it comes to order turnaround, it is the online booksellers placing far greater pressures - and therefore cost burdens - onto the supply chain. Online retailers often require individually tailored data feeds (and in the case of Amazon, the EDI protocol they use is not industry standard). Books from a range of deep backlist must be constantly available for instant supply, which has big allocation of pick-space implications for distribution. Whereas publishers often supply in bulk, or at least several units per isbn to the bricks and mortar trade, many online retailers have pushed just-in-time-supply to its very limits by eliminating all stock holdings. All orders are responses to their customer orders and must be supplied within a very tight time frame for the online retailer to be competitive. Thus savvy online booksellers are pushing the logistical costs of their business models onto their suppliers. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. What is worrying is that many publishers are not alert to it and therefore do not factor these costs into their decisions about discount.
For publishers to make informed and sound choices about whether or not they are prepared to stand by and watch high street bookshops continue to close at such an alarming rate they need to understand that while online retailers are saving them money on returns, they are pushing up the cost of supply. Without such a recognition the danger is that bookshops will continue to close at a frightening pace, and publishers' end consumers will be denied the opportunity to make purchasing decisions based on the complex emotional, psychological and visceral mixture that makes up the bookshop browsing experience. Without this experience and opportunity available, publishers may find themselves driven towards rising supply costs and a much narrower range of products.
Robert McCrum in the Guardian
Clifford and Julie Bosman in the NYT
Robert Niles' Blog on reimagining bookstores
The Bookseller on The Big Green Bookshop
Thanks as always to @jafurtado for useful feeds & links via Twitter
And if you have never been to a branch of Topping & Co (Bath and Ely) - go visit - you won't be disappointed...