Monday, 30 November 2009

The future of bookselling?

Incredibly sad news this week that Borders UK has gone into administration. The chain's fortunes had really taken a nosedive over the last few years with a resulting drop-off in quality, and the end has really been a long time coming but it is a horrible situation for the staff and it is always sad to see bookshops close their doors.

It will also inevitably add fuel to the fire for the naysayers who say that the book trade is dying; after all, if a huge chain, with discounting, brand recognition and big marketing budget can't keep the customers from amazon, how can a little independent?

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian has offered a welcome and most laudable positive reaction to the news in this article: Beyond Borders . She makes the sorts of arguments that all passionate booksellers and readers always make: that a good bookshop not only provides you with the books you came in for but also ones you didn't realise you needed; quirky stock selection that reflects the personalities of the owners rather than a faceless head office etc. And it surely doesn't need said that I back this argument all the way. However, her argument that perhaps the closure of a chain like Borders paves the way for a 'new chapter' of bookselling where people will start to frequent their local indie and learn to value all the above traits over saving a few pounds on amazon is overly naive and glosses over the main problems faced by said indies.

Firstly, Cooke suggests that "book buyers are feeling alienated by big stores like Borders (and Waterstone's), with their bored-looking staff and their piled high three-for-two offers". Is there anything to substantiate this claim at all? Since the oft-lamented disbanding of the net book agreement, 3 for 2s and massive discounts have become the norm; the point was made brilliantly in the Observer (I've lost the link) when one of their cultural commentators confessed that he now sees the RRP as a fake price, immediately translating it in his head to the amazon equivalent. We cannot reverse the damage that was done in the 90s - I think it would be very difficult to the majority of the book-buying public to reassess what they are prepared to pay for, say, a new hardback.

I also take issue with the reference to 'bored-looking staff' in chains; having worked for chains and indies, my experience is that the majority of booksellers, wherever they are, are ridiculously overqualified and passionate about reading. Has Rachel Cooke ever asked one of said staff for an opinion on a book, or has she just assumed they are probably stupid because they didn't have the good fortune to land a job in a beautiful store in a posh north London suburb? Most booksellers in the UK are almost certainly working for a chain because that is where all the jobs are! Independents usually have very few staff, and a much lower turnover. And next time you see a 'bored-looking' assistant, remind yourself that they are working for the minimum wage and probably facing an ever-decreasing amount of responsibility and input into their work, as all operations are gradually centralised.

I suppose I just think her arguments are overly naive, and assume that everyone is a Guardian-reader-type who has the cash to spend on several £18.99 hardbacks every weekend, and browse for hours on a Thursday afternoon or whatever. And indeed, that most book-buyers are in some way aware that they are missing out on an experience by shopping on amazon. I obviously say all this as a fully paid up Guardian reader type myself; I just don't think that the average person in Waterstone's is thinking, gosh, I do get tired of all these half-price new releases, if only there was somewhere where I could get them for double. Most people my age have been using amazon since they were old enough to borrow their parents' credit cards and see it as the normal shopping experience, rather than a watered-down version. And how many of us know people who buy online (or indeed do it ourselves)because it's cheaper even though they in theory support the idea of buying local? It's been 4 years since I last had to do without a staff discount - can I honestly say that I would have bought the same number of books if they'd all been full price? I don't know. I do know that Australian books are so extortionately priced (a post for another day) that it is cheaper for me to buy them from a UK website and have them shipped over than it is for me to buy them including staff discount here, which is staggering.

To try and end on a positive note, I do think that if more people are exposed to the benefits of their local independent then there is the possibility for conversion and so in that sense, a reduced presence of chains on the High Street presents opportunities for indies. How clever indies go about capturing the hearts of these customers is the challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Bugger. I just wrote my own view on this, and the comment completely failed to save!