Indies and e-books
01.01.70 | Dinah Anderson
Waterstones' recent decision to promote in Amazon’s Kindle instore as a means of offering the e-book experience to its customers has got me thinking about the issue of how—or if at all—independent booksellers should attempt to wade into the e-book market as a means of either diversification, survival or to simply to look “with it”.
I started bookselling around 25 years ago, having been trained by the House of Fraser group in the West End to sell general merchandise from a department store base. After 18 months I decided that there must be more to life than selling brightly coloured pantyhose to wealthy London shoppers, and I left to pursue a different kind of retailing.
Once I had discovered bookselling, I was hooked very quickly. It was immediately apparent that bookselling was like no other kind of selling—you chatted to your customers about authors, genres, the physical look of the book, the page quality, the binding, all this before, almost inevitably, the conversation expanded into your respective families, your own reading preferences, finishing up with a cathartic state-of-the nation rant. In short, one bonds on a deeper level with one’s customers when you are discussing a three dimensional product with all the “back story” of a printed book.
If I sell and promote e-books in my bookshop, will I get any one or more of these experiences with my customer? I have not sold one yet, but I imagine that if I did the transaction would be quick, sterile and soulless from beginning to end. What’s to discuss? What’s to mull over? Press a few buttons. Done. No need to even meet the customer. Downloading ain’t bookselling, in my view.
Can independents live without the e-book as part of their retail offering? It seems to me that people value independents for the very tactile retail experience they offer, for all of the aforementioned conversational joys.
Analysts believe that e-books will level off at around 50% of the book market in the USA and perhaps nearer 30% here. The US figure may be higher due to geographical reasons —some people must be literally hundreds of miles from a bookshop, therefore the e-book will be a Godsend to those more marginalised customers.
Here, if Waterstones survives the next 10 years that should not be the case for British readers; they will have a branch in most UK towns still, nicely refurbished ones at that.
To survive without the e-book indies must find something else to fill the gap. I would think that this is not impossible by any means as long as one knows the local market, the local competition and has an eye for the type of sympathetic product that may sit alongside a well chosen book range. Most independent booksellers are very small and do not face the same shelf-filling challenges faced by the chains with diminished demand for the printed product. Besides which, quirky is good for independents—so long as it all hangs together overall.
So I, for one, am yet to be convinced I can’t live without the e-book offering, for the sole reason that it offers such a vastly different retail experience, and I believe the majority of heavy book buyers fully intend to support and value their local bookseller for reasons of service, atmosphere and good old fashioned chit-chat.