The Fate of Over-Beloved Bookstores

16 May 2016

The smell of books is one like no other. Some could describe it as dusty mothballs or cleaning product mixed with sawdust but for us book-lovers, we generally opt for the word heaven. There is nothing quite like the experience of a bookshop – the ongoing sea of shelves that surround us, the feel of the paper, the excitement of a riveting blurb and the very possibility of walking away with a whole new collection to add to your very own bookshelf. Despite this undeniable euphoria, the question of how bookstores can possibly survive in this modern era still looms.

Bookstores have been facing the guillotine for decades now but we are yet to see that final cut. In 2011, Nick Sherry, the Minister for Small Business, predicted that bookstores would be long gone by the year 2016. Pffft is all I can say to Mr Sherry because here we are in 2016 and I can still head down to my local bookstore whenever I feel those bookworm senses tingling. But could it be that Nick Sherry was just a little off with his calculation? Are bookstores here to stay, or is their downfall inevitable?

The Great Depression could well be the greatest contributor to the survival of bookstores so far. During this period, booksellers faced the real possibility of extinction. With everyone pinching their pockets and books becoming bottom of the shopping list, publishers proposed a different model of purchasing books. By allowing bookstores to only pay for the books they actually sold, publishers were able to ensure the distribution of their stock while keeping bookstores afloat. Somehow this model stuck and the bookstore-publisher relationship remains the same today

Managing Director of Readings Mark Rubbo suggests, however, that there are many flaws in this system. “It is inefficient in many ways. There are so many books published because publishers want to offer a variety of books.” The reality under this old system is that many of these books will be sent back to publishers and be doomed to sit in a warehouse indefinitely – wasteful in money, time and space. Perhaps the best job to have at the moment is a truck driver that distributes the books. With all the back and forth action that this model entails, you’ll never be short of work.

Facing continuing challenges from the entertainment industry, the book has been thought to have seen its final days many times. With its easy access and affordable prices, the internet is the latest in a string of competitors that have spanned since the advent of the television in Australian homes in the 1960s. Of all the major print media forms (newspapers and magazines included) however, books have coped the best with digital media. The greatest threat to print media saw advertisers move to online spaces – namely because they were cheaper and offered a more targeted reach. Books, on the other hand, have never faced these problems because they do not rely on advertising for revenue to begin with.

Even though books survived these challenges from competitors in the past, it begs us to ask what the future for physical bookstores might be. Why do we need bookstores when we can simply buy ebooks online for a fraction of the price of hard copies?

Michelle Calligaro, Digital Manager at Text, suggests that one of the downfalls of bookstores is that they “are not usually open when you can’t get to sleep at 2am and just really need something new to read”. She certainly makes a compelling point. According to Calligaro, it wasn’t just bookstores that felt the burn of the internet. “The internet has presented a challenge to all sorts of retail, not just bookshops. Busy people are increasingly comfortable with the convenience of browsing and buying online.” With the development of the internet enabling more and more people to access books, it is hard to turn your nose up at what ebooks are achieving: offering both convenience and accessibility. They have made texts available to those that do not have access to bookstores. As Calligaro explains, Text’s ebooks “are available to people in Brazil or Japan or Outback Australia with a few clicks of a mouse”.

Perhaps we can attribute the hard copy book’s survival to those with a reminiscent heart and an inability to let go of the feeling of a fresh new book in their hands. I have spent my entire adult life resisting the dreaded screens of the ebook. But then again, with Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository and the like, you can find the best price and ship it from anywhere in the world… in hard copy. These sites not only hurt bookstores but also the publishers and authors. Amazon, in particular, is notorious for pushing down the percentage of sales going to the publisher due to their enormous consumer reach – this is why they can make the prices so cheap. With such competitive prices how have our poor little bookstores made it this far already?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 15 years, you will know of Amazon’s global monopoly on online book sales. Despite their global reach however, many items from the Amazon site will not ship to Australian addresses and, for those that do, include costs of approximately AU$8 to ship a book. Because these shipping costs are so comparatively expensive, Australians have never bothered with the book giant but it’s difficult to deny that they know how to run a company. Late last year, Amazon opened their very first physical shop front in Seattle. Yes, an actual bookshop. And with the obvious success from the first store, they have opened a second in San Diego. There is no arguing that Amazon understands market trends. Amazon’s worth is currently sitting somewhere at US$265 billion, which is kind of a lot.

Large, monopolising companies aside, are our bookstores in Melbourne simply surviving ? This year, Readings will be opening two more bookshops in Melbourne. Two more! Rubbo gave us a little insight into why Readings has been doing so well even in this digital landscape. He describes himself and the rest of the staff at Readings as “curators” of the books ensuring that customers are getting recommendations from real people. As Rubbo explains, “you need to offer something that people will pay more for”.Customers like to walk into a bookstore and have “lots of options” and “from what people tell us, it is the experience and that they get to interact with other readers and staff… it’s a place where people can discover new things”. By jumping onto the internet bandwagon early, Rubbo claims that Readings has been able to further promote both books and local writers. Calligaro also spoke about how “bookshops also have the potential to use the internet to their own advantage and reach a wider community of readers”.

Though prospects may seem bleak from the surface for the good ol’ bookstore, those that have stuck around are proving quite the contrary. So will there always be a place for bookshops in the Australian market? If you’d asked Mark Rubbo that question five years ago, he may have given a very different answer. But today his answer stands at a solid “yes” we really do need our bookstores. And that’s enough for us book-lovers.


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