The Future of Bookshops
This month, we’ll be putting a spotlight on the future of bookshops in the modern world. Having worked with publishers for many years, we’re acutely aware of the seismic changes that the book industry has experienced in recent times.
Our content for this month will look at the role of the bookshop, and whether it’s still relevant in today’s market.
This is a 15 minute read…
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Over 500 independent bookshops closed in the UK between 2005 – 2014, with the number falling below 1000 for the first time since records began. By 2014, Waterstones was down to 280 stores (from 300), and long-term prospects were looking grim. In 2011, TechCrunch predicted that bookshops would be extinct by 2018, with a major “cull” of publishers to occur in 2019. Is this due to happen? In short, no.
There’s much better news, although publishers and booksellers are not out of the woods yet. According to the Publishers Association, physical book sales are on the rise. The value of the UK physical book market rose by 2% in 2015, with Nielsen Bookscan reporting that in the total consumer market, the value of retail sales increased by 6.6%, with volume sales up 3.3%.
At the same time, there was a 5% increase in the number of VAT-paying publishers in the UK. Digital sales growth went into reverse. But what does this mean for bookshops? Overall, these are still tough and tumultuous market conditions providing harsh challenges to bookshops, but the outlook is generally much more positive.
Waterstones’ James Daunt has been outspoken on his mission to transform a homogenous nationwide brand into a locally-focused chain of individual bookstores, and it seems to be working.
Building character and charm into the bookshop experience reaps rewards, and ensures they can compete in a post-digital world.
Can bookshops survive?
For years, we’ve heard dismal stories of a contracting book industry. Independent shops, and larger chains alike have been struggling. Long-established bookshops, many of which were local landmarks, are closing and morphing into Pret a Mangers.
Yet it’s not as if reading itself is losing its attraction. More that the book retail industry, like everything else, has to deal with the advance of technology. This has created a perfect storm for established businesses with the rise of electronic reading formats combined with online retailers that can supply a range of books that even the biggest of shops would struggle to match.
But for many book buyers there’s still a desire to visit a traditional bookshop, and it’s difficult to see a world in which they no longer exist in some form. After all, for many a reader, nothing beats flicking through the pages before making a purchase. This has been overlooked for some time.
What went wrong?
The sheer convenience of online book buying and eBook downloads is key. If you know what you want, you can log onto Amazon, buy the product for less than you’d spend in a shop, and it’ll be through your letterbox within the next forty-eight hours, or delivered to your Kindle immediately. It has difficult for bookshops to compete on that front.
Furthermore, there’s the heavy discounting of the latest bestsellers by large supermarkets. It’s only a relatively small number of publications, but it’s usually the big names that many small bookshops would rely on through the year; money that would go almost unnoticed by the average supermarket chain.
Electronic formats too, now account for as much as 50% of sales in some genres. This has had a big impact on book retailing, but the positive is that it’s beginning to look like the eBook market has stopped expanding for now, with sales of Kindle having collapsed.
Whilst the long-predicted dramatic decline in readership hasn’t yet materialised, there’s still plenty of concern as to whether the social media generation will have the staying power for a long novel, and this is a cause of worry across the whole publishing industry.
The growth of eBooks so far: An infographic
How the battle can be won
Independent retailers are not without opportunities for survival, and this has been proven by many success stories. There will always be a market for the paper book, and as the big book chains retrench in the face of the online retailers, there’s an opportunity for smaller shops to grow and prosper if they’re imaginative.
Making friends with digital:
The internet may seem adversary, but it should be seen as a friend, too. Using social media to promote works and inform customers presents a lot of opportunities. Furthermore, such platforms can be used to create a community around a business, so hold literary events and market them online. If there’s plenty of interest, start a book group to stimulate readership in the local area.
As a small retailer it’s important not to appear too static and staid. Be sure to do something different every week – a theme or a talk maybe. Anything that’ll make the browsing experience more interesting, or possibly attract a new and different set of customers.
It can be a good idea to specialise too. You may be most interested in a certain genre, so why not become the go-to regional supplier for that group of readers? Another good move is to stock books by local authors, and plenty of local history publications. These are always popular, and harder to find among the mighty multi-national eRetailers.
Add value with knowledge:
Finally, be able to offer expert knowledge to your customers – this is the real advantage that small retailers have. Know your business and read plenty of books. Be able to recommend things that your customers might enjoy. It’s these added extras that attract a loyal clientele and, at the end of the day, that’s what you need to get customers to avoid the big stock-shifters and pay the full price in a community bookshop.
With the current flat-lining of the digital book market, the prospects for printed book sales are looking better than they have done for many years. It’s now becoming apparent that in many areas traditional book retailing is undergoing something of a renaissance, and this is to be welcomed. However, those years of retrenchment by book retailers have left a much smaller independent retail sector to pick up these increasing sales.
In recent years, much of the paper book-buying business has gone to the big online retailers, but even they are not having the best of times. Disaffection with them among the reading public is common, and increasing fast. Their commercial tactics (and tax avoidance) often breeds distrust and resentment and, for a clientele that by its very nature is well-informed, the willingness to look elsewhere is becoming something of a fashion statement.
Besides, for the committed reader, what’s gained through cost and convenience can easily be lost through missing the chance to browse the stock and discover new treasures. This has left the way open for the growth of hybrid or, as they’re frequently known, enhanced bookshops.
What is an enhanced bookshop?
For those book retailers who’ve survived the lean years, the desire to avoid making the same mistakes again is paramount. No bookseller wants to rest on their laurels and allow trade to drift in and out. Selling the experience as well as the product is essential for survival.
So, though not universally welcomed by literary aficionados, the days of going into dusty, cramped bookshops and browsing shelves and boxes of disordered tomes are gone. Bookshops of that type solicit affection from a small minority, but frustration among those without the time to stand and stare. And generally, the latter spend more money than the former, so ease of use is something that must now be prioritised. This is especially important when set against the ultra-convenience of the internet.
On the modern high street, the enhanced bookshop is becoming more common, and these do so much more than simply offering books to buy. Buying books needs to be seen in the context of what’s going on in the rest of the high street, and when it comes to buying groceries and almost anything else, supermarkets and out-of-town retail sites are kings.
In short, the town centre bookshop may be the only independent shop left among rundown charity shops and flat conversions. The passing trade is gone so the bookshop needs to sell itself as a destination in its own right.
Creating an experience
Nowadays, a ten-minute flick through the latest releases on the way between the greengrocers and the chemist has been replaced by a journey, a car parking charge, or a bus fare. This means that a bookshop has to offer a little more besides, to make that commitment from the reader worthwhile.
If customers are going to come in for an hour at a time to browse, bookshops should offer a loo for them to use, a tea/coffee room, some music, a reading section, and more. Somewhere to sit and flick through the pages whilst enjoying a refreshment is key. Essentially, anything coherent that can bring in more trade to the core business presents a further sales opportunity.
With this in mind, the more forward-thinking bookshops are starting to sell far more than just books. Guides and maps to the local area are a start, but associated goods such as writing materials, and stationery are an obvious diversification. Some bookshops in small towns and villages might look at selling artistic and musical products too, or provide a shop window for a local artist to sell their work. They may even double as an antiques dealer with price tags tied to chairs and table legs.
All of these adjustments to the book-buying experience provide ample opportunities to conjure up passing trade, whilst widening and deepening the customer base. It’s about providing a real remarkable experience; one that cannot be matched anywhere else. This is how bookshops can battle the digital Goliath.
The future of bookshops has brightened, and long may this positive outlook continue.
Here’s a video highlighting the growth of the eBook industry before now
- Publishing Focus – An interview with Alison Jones
- The future of monetising digital content
- Should large publishers buy smaller ones?