Monday, March 05, 2007

DIGITISE OR DIE – ARE THE DAYS OF THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLER NUMBERED? PERHAPS NOT BUT URGENT ACTION IS REQUIRED.

I am a book lover, a book reader, a book reviewer, a book blogger.
Much of my discretionary spending goes on books. In addition I am fortunate enough to receive books for review. I am surrounded by books. My office is a scene of happy chaos with books all over the place in piles – those waiting to be read for review, those that have been read and have no space to be shelved, those I have bought on a whim or on the strength of a review or recommendation of friends and are yet to be read, and those aside to give to family or loan to friends. Then there are the thousands on the shelves, all read but too precious to be sold or given away. Then there are the book stacks throughout the rest of the house.

The books that I buy are invariably bought from independent booksellers, mostly Unity Books in Auckland and UBS Bookshop in Christchurch but also from other shops around the city and throughout New Zealand and overseas. Just wherever I happen to be at the time.
It is almost impossible for me to walk past a bookstore. I have to enter to see if there is a book or books I just cannot live without.
I love to handle them, critique the covers, read the blurbs and author bios, skim the dedications and acknowledgements, check the indices and bibliographies, assess the paper weight , smell them, and then straighten the piles and adjust the dust jackets. Heaven.

But having been a bookseller myself for 10 years, albeit now many moons ago, I understand the economics of bookselling and just how difficult it is for them to turn a dollar.

Over the past several months I have become increasingly concerned about the fate of independent booksellers. There has been a great deal written on the subject and since I started blogging on 26 October 2006 I have reproduced these stories whenever I have come across them as well as adding my own concerns.

I was especially alarmed by the story that appeared in the Los Angeles times on 7 February this year and subsequently appeared in this country in the Sunday Star Times in the issue of 18 February and blogged by me on 19 February. This story told of the demise of several famous independent bookstores in San Francisco and it sent shivers up my spine.

It was not the big chains that were causing the problems as they had done in the 1990’s but rather the phenomenon that is Amazon.com which in the last three months of 2006 had media sales (which included books) in excess of US$1.25 billion. In three months!

Then today over a long lunch break I read the latest issue of The Listener,(cover date March 10-16 2007), from beginning to end and on The Black Page (page 94) I came across this thoughtful piece by Joanne Black:


"For his birthday, my husband asked for A Tankie’s Travels, the memoirs of a WW11 tank commander. According to the Spectator, “If you want to know what it was really like to fight in tanks in the North African campaign – the noise, the
smells, the flies, the scorpions, the almost surreal horror – you will not find
a better book.”
Conversely, if, like me, you never want to know what it was
really like, you know not to go past the cover. Book reviews are handy like
that.

I asked Unity Books, one of Wellington’s excellent
independent bookshops, if they could order it, but they had never heard of the
publisher and couldn’t guarantee success. They doubted Amazon could either. In
the end I found the UK publisher’s website, ordered it and the book arrived
within a fortnight. This makes me wonder how bookstores, in particular, are
surviving the online revolution.

I will always be a shopper. I love
to browse, to hold books in my hands, to admire the covers, the cut of the pages
and even the smell. I also buy books online.
Borders is about to open in a
prime Lambton Quay location. It is hard to see how the capital’s inner-city
chainstores, and the independents, all of which are good booksellers, will
survive this new arrival as well as the online
competition.

Presumably, if you love your bookshop, the rule is use
it or lose it. "

Well put Joanne.

Here then is my reading of the situation.

Booksellers have at the most 5 years, maybe a lot less, to either digitize or die.
By digitise I simply mean have a sophisticated inter-active website where people can view books and order them online.

This of course requires investment but you either make the investment or you go out of business, sooner rather than later.

Independent booksellers should get together NOW and employ a web designer who could develop the necessary programmes. I guess it might cost somewhere between $15,000-$30,000 to get something with all the bells and whistles but if 30 independents got together it would only cost $1000 each.
Later the system could be on-sold to others so that eventually the investment would be recouped. But more importantly your online business will save you going the way of the blacksmith and more recently the film developer.

Independent booksellers, get together at the upcoming Booksellers New Zealand Conference, and get on to becoming part of the digital world. It might be your last chance.

11 comments:

paul reynolds said...

Dear Graham
This is a great post. I totally agree that the independents should get their act together.
i too use the independents as my primary choice, but I despair of my local auckland cbd one - their web site just doesn't even get close to being what they should be doing, but they get very defensive if you point it out.
I don't get it - it's like you are trying to insult them - real independents dont need to worry about the web - real book lovers will also provide them with a living.
It's twaddle on sticks - but it's an attitude that is going to be the death of them.
Then what do I do!!

Loren said...

Dear Graham
I haven't had good experiences with independent book shops in my home region. They can never seem to track down any books I order that are published by small presses overseas. So I gave up shopping there. Now I just order everything online from overseas unless it is a New Zealand published title.
My view is that more people will order online as the next generation grows up. The internet is where young people hang out, and where word of mouth on books spread fast.

I enjoyed reading your blog! I can see I'll be coming back here to visit.
Slainte
Loren Teague (a Scots New Zealander book lover)

Mary Mac said...

An independent bookseller I know told me it took Amazon until Harry Potter to start turning a profit. Could this be true? And in which case, how could a small online book service in NZ turn a profit? Especially when there are other sites already eg. fishpond.

Jaybird said...

You’re completely right about local bookshops needing to go digital. I’d rather buy from Unity than Amazon, but in the middle of the night (and sometimes the middle of the day) I do what’s most convenient, which is almost always online.
Good blog, I’m pleased to have had it pointed out to me.

Tiny Tim said...

I live in the country where there is no local bookstore. Fortunately I travel about the country quite a lot and I know both branches of Unity Books and also the University Bookshop at Ilam and agree with your enthusisasm for them.
The thing that astonishes me though is that Unity have a website that tells you pretty much nothing except their address, it's virtually useless,and UBS in Christchurch doesn't appear to have a website at all.
I agree with you that these guys have to get their act together.

This is the digital age for goodness sake. Why are they sitting on their hands?

If they are not careful independent booskops will have the same experience as that which happened to the corner dairies- they will be greatly reduced in number and become but a pale shadow of their former selves.

NZBookgirl said...

My great irritation with bookshops is when I read a great review of a book in a well-read publication like The Listener or the weekend papers, only to find that it's not in the shops, nor have they even heard of it. They never offer to order it in, I always have to ask if they can do this. I would have thought that keeping a watchful eye on what is receiving the rave reviews would be a good start for any book buyer in deciding what to put in the store, and if the booksellers don't want us to go elsewhere (Amazon) they will need to actually offer service.

Anonymous said...

I loved the latest issue of your blog and interesting thoughts
on the Independent Bookseller. Being an avid book buyer myself (you and I must keep the trade in business) I have felt for some time that independent booksellers must adapt or die.
I think shops such as Cook
the Books are an interesting development, although in their case I have found their range to be wanting. Especially if I compare it to Books for Cooks in Gertrude Street in Melbourne. To be truly specialised a bookshop must have real depth to attract people such as me.

Tim Blackmore said...

Dear Graham
Interesting post. I wonder how hard people actually want to try to support independent booksellers who are making the effort to have a decent web presence. I suspect it is just easier to use Amazon because people know the name. The point isn't that we have failed to "digitise" but rather that we don't have the massive marketing budget required to let everyone know that we have "digitised".

Some independents are already doing what you suggest; a group of about 20 shops in NZ use the Circle System which is a web-based stock system with a website at the front end.

Have a look at these examples:

Time Out (Mt Eden) www.timeout.co.nz

McLeod's Booksellers (Rotorua)
www.mcleodsbooks.co.nz

The Children's Bookshop (Wgtn)
http://childrensbookshop.netstep.co.nz

Page & Blackmore (Nelson)
www.pageandblackmore.co.nz

Easts Bookshop (Christchurch)
www.eastsbooks.com

etc...

The interesting thing for us (Page & Blackmore) is that our lovingly tended, labour-devouring, website doesn't generate significant interest from within NZ. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is mostly used by locals to find out whether we have a book in stock before making visit to the physical shop.

I think my concern is that we're not sticking our heads in the sand (quite the contrary) and it is rather discouraging to find that people who profess otherwise still prefer to send their money overseas rather than use local independent booksellers who have made the effort and investment to "digitise".

With regard to the points made about lack of service I can't speak for all independents, but most customers appreciate that a small bookseller in a small town in a small country is unlikely to have everything they want. If we don't have a book in stock we will always try to get it and we usually manage to supply in a timely manner.

Just one point about rave reviews in the Listener et al. These reviews often create a wholly unforseen demand and can easily result in books going out of stock in Australasia (not just NZ). When this happens booksellers, publishers and distributors all berate themselves for failing to use their psychic powers - we don't fail to have these books in stock on purpose.

Please, all you Amazon users, try using your local digitised bookseller.

Bookman Beattie said...

Bookman Beattie responds:

This subject has drawn more comments on my blogsite than any other subject to date and I'm delighted.In addition to the comments that appear here I have also received 7 e-mails.
In his thoughtful response Tim Blackmore makes some good points. Be sure to read his comments.

To those independents whose websites he has listed can be added:

http://www.womensbookshop.co.nz/
and
http://www.realgroovy.co.nz/

If any others out there have been missed please respond with your websites and I'll compile a list and publish on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Well put and most timely. I too had read Joanne Black’s article and remembered your previous piece about the independent bookseller.

Tilly Lloyd said...

Thanks for raising the issues again Graham. And good to read people's comments.

Unity Books has always been pleased to be part of a politicised and staunch catchment of book lovers. But we agree that independent booksellers can't assume this "community" without always upping our ante.

I think this was really what Joanne Black's piece was about.

Some NZ booksellers are better resourced than others (by which I mean many ingredients such as stockholding, savvy staff, bibliographic sources, inventory management and exporting/importing experience). Thanks Tim Blackmore for making your points so clearly and well.

To go back to the Listener column: how much difference would it have made to her message if Joanne Black had acknowledged that Unity Books GAVE her the publishers website address?

When assessing a tricky import situation there are rare occasions when it is more pragmatic to send the customer direct to the publisher. The factors include that the small publisher hasn't listed terms of trade on the book with the UK distributor yet. This means there is no trade margin or supply timeline information to go by. Why would this information still be unavailable 3 weeks from publication date? Because some small publishers are set up primarily for direct sales. By missing out the middle people(distributors and booksellers) they keep the margin. Add a customer's supply deadline (husb's birthday) to the mix, and clearly we may as well give them the website address since its right in front of us. It's a small part of the service!

These factors exist for the online booksellers too, no matter how large.

Also - we hope you'll like our new website when it's relaunched!