Death of a Sales Outlet

I was reading Eoin Purcell’s post on the problem bookshops are faced with as they lose more and more customers to online booksellers, both for print and digital books. Actually, he was passing on a point made by another blogger, Seth Godin (Is this all we do in blogs now – talk about other people’s blogs?), but it amounts to the same thing.
The point was that bookshops are losing the biggest book-buyers to the online retailers. And that’s the core of their business, right there. The comparisonHodges Figgis Window was made with music shops, which have been crippled by online sales.
I’ve written about this issue before, both in this blog and in a few different articles and talks. I think that bookshops (as well as publishers, writers and illustrators) are facing a steep learning curve. We need to learn how the nature of reading is changing, in order to understand how the market for reading material is changing. My mother-in-law bought a Sony Reader for my father-in-law for Christmas. I had to help them set it up. It was a PRS 600, one of those with the touch-screen. My parents-in-law were busy discussing how different it would be to read books on it, the advantages and disadvantages.
But they were still talking purely in terms of books. I don’t think the future of eReaders lies in offering a new way of reading books. Nor do I think that the future of books is necessarily in eReaders, or that technology is going to render print obsolete. The beauty of reading on a digital device is not that you can carry loads of books around with you, or change the size of the type, or even cross-reference stuff. These are merely convenient, offset by the fact that an eReader needs power to work – power that runs out (and why, oh why, can’t you use a Sony Reader while it’s plugged in?). The beauty of digital devices is to be found in things like the iPhone, where you can read every kind of material on the one device, plus do a range of other things as well. The Swiss army knife of the digital world. It doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, but it does loads of things well.
The iPhone doesn’t offer all the solutions either – it’s not pleasant for reading off for any length of time. But given the way we now read on the web, the text on phones, we read newspapers, magazines, books, the documents we create ourselves and all sorts of other media – we need a means of organizing it and unifying the delivery system.Digital Publishing Cartoon
I’ll never give up reading off paper;  I just love it too much. But if someone offers me a cheap and comfortable means of accessing all the other things I read in my life – including a place to access and read my own documents easily – I’ll jump at it. And so will most other people. If bookshops want to stay in business, they are going to have to change form. Loads of printed material on shelves can only be one aspect of their business.
Can they still operate on the high street, with all the related costs, and compete with Amazon? No. They need to become something more, something else.
I think libraries offer a pretty good model, but taking that high street space and making it more social, more service-oriented, more informative, isn’t enough. Perhaps giving it a more commercial twist might produce something libraries don’t or can’t offer. All of us in the book industry are going to have to change the way we think, but first to be affected will be the bookshops. They need to become people places again, rather than just big brand locations for displaying stock. That’s my thought for the day.