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