What is the future for bookshops? And indeed for books? This is a commonly asked question – and a particularly relevant one for me, since I own a bookshop and I write books. I ask it again this week because I have just read that Stephen King, an ebook pioneer 10 years ago, has released his new novel in physical format only, because he wants to get people back into bookstores rather than online.
when it comes to bookshops versus Amazon, bookshops are in an impossible position. Our staff are knowledgeable, charming and brilliant. The shop is beautiful, and we sell proper cakes and coffee. What happens? People lounge around and chat and browse for a couple of hours, spend £2.50, then buy books online they have researched in our shop.
Why? Because they are so much cheaper. Why are they cheaper? Because in 1997, in a fit of free-market liberalism, we did away with the Net Book Agreement, which had prohibited booksellers from discounting. It was a pleasingly guild-like system, one that is still used today by lawyers, doctors and drugs companies – those professional groups that still look after their own.
One problem in all this is that publishers no longer seem to like books. They think of themselves as groovy Californian libertarian tech-heads. I winced when I read that the chairman of Penguin said that books could change in the future and be filled “with cool stuff”. I think “cool stuff” as a phrase should be banned if you are the head of a venerable English publishing company. [my emphasis]
Publishing CEOs have two main tasks: reducing costs and maximising revenues. Hence, they impoverish their staff and writers. And to do the latter, they lick the bottoms of Amazon, WH Smith and Tesco while ignoring independents. Here is a very depressing quote from the head of Bloomsbury: “Fewer books are being sold through high-street shops as ebook sales are continuing to grow. However, there will be a place for the physical book for many more years albeit mainly sold online.”
For our part, we have tried to inject life into the literary scene by running a non-stop programme of events and courses. These are pretty well attended but the combined sales of books and events barely cover our basic costs. So we feel that we are slaving away, enriching other people. On the upside, our online sales are increasing. That leads us to conclude that the sensible option would be to operate from a warehouse on a Swindon industrial estate rather than a groovy boutique in west London. But where’s the romance in that?