Trade must help bookshops compete in e-world

Booksellers must address their "toxic" real estate and band together to compete in an "omni-channel marketplace" against some of the richest corporations the world has ever seen, former Borders UK chief executive Philip Downer has said. Bookshops, he advised, need to develop personalities because the day of the "general bookshop" was over.

Speaking at the World E-Reading Congress, Downer said the shift in the marketplace and the rise of digital reading meant specialist booksellers were now "barely competing with each other", but instead were "competing with Amazon and Apple [and] for time as well as spending".

Downer said that the era of chain bookstores could come to an end unless they addressed their business model, warning that the legacy of their retail estates could "become really toxic". He said: "Two or three years ago, the era of the superstore came to an end. Now, I would argue, the era of the chain bookshop is going to follow, unless the model is radically reinvented."

"The single biggest challenge for any bricks-and-mortar retailer is their legacy of old stores. However carefully that estate has been built, however appropriate it was five years ago, it is now shot through with toxicity. As a bookseller, your bricks-and-mortar shops have to be super-viable. You must close today's loss-makers, and tomorrow's loss-makers, too."

Downer said bookstores also now had to "compete in an omni-channel marketplace" but concluded that "logically, this is impossible, because it requires huge resources, and your chain of bookshops can't do this alone". 

His advice was for the book trade "to pull together". He said: "This industry is at a crossroads where it either allows the global corporations to progress from being walled gardens to becoming super-fortresses; or it fights to ensure plurality."

He said a bookshop chain could run a franchise model and reinvent itself as a "bookshop service organisation", but he also recommended that organisations such as Gardners, Nielsen and the Booksellers Association pull together to back up individual booksellers.

"I'd like to see all of these organisations, and others, committed to supporting everyone who is a bookselling specialist, whether they're primarily selling e-books or p-books, online or in-store," Downer said.

He added: "A healthy bookselling sector is in the best interests of everyone in the trade—authors, agents, publishers, readers. Bookselling needs to remodel itself for the future, and to do so in partnership with all the other key players in the publishing business."