Originally published May 4, 2007: News this week that the prior owner of Borders UK sees the imminent collapse of UK high street booksellers reminded me of this post.
Michael Holdsworth wrote the following article for The Bookseller Daily at London Bookfair two weeks ago and I asked him if I could republish it here. He kindly acceded. Until earlier this year, Michael was Managing Director (EMEA) at Cambridge University Press, responsible for about 70% of Cambridge’s global publishing and 50% of its sales. He now works with businesses on digital aspects of the industry. He is chairman of BIC, and of EDItEUR’s ONIX International Steering Committee.
The Bookseller London Book Fair Daily – Wednesday 18 April 2007
High Noon on The High Street
It isn’t directly the internet or eBooks which are the big threats for high street booksellers. They may just run out of books to sell, says Michael Holdsworth.
Much has been written about the difficulties facing the traditional bookseller – ‘unfair’ competition from the supermarkets, infinite range at Amazon, secondhand at AbeBooks, internecine discount wars, decreasing footfall, and pumped-up property leases.
The market for books isn’t growing as it should. Consumer research suggests that we have the wrong kind of young people, who reject the notion of reading books for recreation and leisure. Or even of using books for information and study. Today’s under-thirties – who ought by right to be tomorrow’s hardcore bookbuyers – live out their lives on the playing-card screens of mobile phones, preferring to interact online with the lean-forward social networks of Myspace, Flickr and Facebook. Inveterate multi-taskers, they listen to their iPods and text their friends, while watching television with laptops, not books, on their knees. For many students, information which is not online simply doesn’t exist, to the dismay of their so-last-century professors. The library is ignored, since the chances are that the book will be out on loan, deliberately mis-shelved, or will have had this week’s chapter razored out; and the bookshop shunned, where the right course books are perceived to be too expensive or rarely available. Time-rich and money-poor, they surf their always-on broadband to find roughly what they need – and preferably free (that is, ripped-off or public domain).
And if that future cultural environment wasn’t looking bad enough for bricks-and-mortar booksellers, rumblings are heard that the eBook may now be tottering out of the last chance saloon, available on mobiles and Blackberrys, or to a Sony Reader (with its magic suddenly-screen-readable paperlike ‘e-Ink’ technology) or to some other top-secret handheld iPod-like contraption, as the technorati scuttlebutt would have one believe, from Amazon, from Google, from Apple or from Sir James Dyson (pick your rumour).
But the most damaging factors powering this one-way ratchet of doom and gloom may be none of the above – directly. The critical disruption that will change the shape of book retail forever will be that booksellers will cease to be the channel for the distribution of information and non-fiction (even when it is in book form). And without that, they simply won’t have enough stuff to sell. And they certainly won’t be selling what they still can sell from stores of over 10,000 square feet as they do on Britain’s high streets today.
For most of us, the Internet is our first port of call for reference and information. We go straight to Google, we Ask Jeeves, we scour Wikipedia. What we get may not be validated content, and may not always be 100 per cent correct, but, hey, it’s free. Will today’s students – tomorrow’s shoppers – buy reference and information titles at all, let alone from bookshops? Will anyone buy maps or atlases? Watch the people on the tube, clutching their MultiMap print-outs.
What’s more we are only on the brink of some new Internet models which will change the way we all think about reading online and paid content on the web. Google and Amazon now have the largest eBook libraries on the planet. And if the Internet rumour-mill is to be believed, it’s only a matter of time before we see these collections monetised, with the full collusion of the publishers, of course. And we know that Microsoft Windows Live, which launched its public domain book search offering last year, and Yahoo, are watching and waiting in the wings.
As the physical ‘Blockbuster’ model of video rental through video stores collapses, giving way to anytime mail-order and high-bandwidth movie downloads, information book consumers will for the first time discover online subscription and rental. Why buy the book when all you want is to turn the pages for a day, or research the topic for a week? Why buy the whole thing when you only need a chapter; why buy a guide to France when all you need is Chartres Cathedral?
Amazon’s Upgrade – the first consumer eBook-and-print book bundle – isn’t yet being offered outside the USA. This path-breaking new service allows buyers of the print book to pay an additional 10 or 20 per cent on top of the print price for immediate and perpetual online-only access to the full searchable text. Publishers may think that Amazon is selling this additional access too cheaply, but there is no doubt that it is already proving a most attractive proposition. Not only does it fulfil the 1970s Martini dream of having the books you own available to you "any time, any place, anywhere . . .", it also offers customers the gratification of using the book (and remember, this is mainly about ‘extractive’ reading, not the immersive long-form narrative of fiction or biography) immediately the credit card has gone through, without having to wait for the postman.
Amazon Upgrade may prove a pivotal tipping-point for two reasons. First, because Upgrade (and other services such as Google’s Book Search) will for the first time start to encourage and facilitate really-easy online reading of book content by ordinary people, not academics, students or geeks. Amazon and Google have the reach and access to democratise this new habit in a way that specialist eBooks never will, with their often rebarbative DRM and user experiences. Some people may actually prefer this new way.
Second, we can anticipate that bundled online access for non-fiction and information titles will become the norm. It will become a sine-qua-non of this sort of publishing, exactly as online access has long been for scholarly journals, and as additional blended elements are increasingly de rigueur for school and university textbooks. Just as cars now come with radios, and hotel rooms come with TVs, it will quite simply be what bookbuyers will come to expect. That they can get into their home book collection from anywhere, whether it’s a recipe for must-have pineapple upside-down-cake while on holiday in the gite; or settling a holiday argument from The Guinness Book of Records. Pervasive GPRS on mobiles and public-access wi-fi will simply accelerate this trend. And this won’t just be an Amazon thing. There will be other aggregators, digital distributors and of course publishers providing these services. But not, easily, traditional booksellers…
So take away that non-fiction and information stock-in-trade – professional books, computer manuals, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, travel guides, DIY guides, atlases, maps, annuals, wine and cook books, almanacs, yearbooks. What kind of damage will that do to high street retail? Will only the most niche, the most specialised, the most responsive, the most remarkable – and the smallest – booksellers survive, in the most affluent cities? Such relict survivors will need to add a lot of value in service, ambience and expensive coffee as they hand-sell books as objects, as gifts, as things of beauty, as coffee-table items. Speakers at Google’s Unbound conference in New York in January introduced us to the scary concept of the non-fiction print book as ‘souvenir’ – as a permanent and tactile reminder of an information experience you’ve already had. You’ve enjoyed its immediacy and its primary utility online; now own the physical book as memento, as curio. But the owning bit is optional.
Is High Street book retail holed below the waterline? Or will the BA's new initiatives (at Godalming etc.) bring results in time for our booksellers to reinvent themselves? They probably don’t have long.
This article is covered by a creative commons licence.
Michael can be reached via email at the hard to forget firstname.lastname@example.org