While I might beat the self-publishing drum at times, I don’t celebrate when I hear publishers are in trouble, or bookstores are closing down, because there are always people behind the headlines, and it has ramifications for the entire book world.
The closure of bookstores, in particular, is disheartening.
And when people say – as a lot of my friends do – that they have no interest in e-books, and can’t imagine ever using an e-reader, I get it. People have an emotional attachment to print books.
You see them in bookstores, wandering the aisles in a daze, stroking the spine of a book as if it were the photo of a lost love. They take it from the shelf, carefully, open it, stick their nose right in, close their eyes, and inhale. They trace their fingers under the words. They caress the pages.
Books are beautiful things. I have a strong attachment to them myself. I don’t want a future where there are no bookstores and where printed books are a rarity. Unfortunately, I have very little say in what the future is actually going to be like.
I don’t own an e-reader, and only bought my first e-book the other day. I read e-books on my laptop, and having the internet a click away means it is difficult to get into what I am reading for any sustained length. I only bought the book in digital form because it’s the only form it has been released in.
I think we will see a lot more of this in the future. It’s much cheaper to produce digital-only versions. While some costs are the same – cover, edits, marketing – there are a whole bunch of costs that don’t exist in the digital world – storage, printing, returns – that make e-books less of a financial risk.
Publishers, especially small publishers and self-publishers, are producing a lot of editions exclusively as e-books. But there is another threat to print books, and those that publish them.
Bookstores are in trouble. Borders, the second-largest chain in the US have filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, and may end up being liquidated. The largest, Barnes & Noble, have planned a huge amount of store-closures, are seeking a buyer, and are only showing growth in their online operations.
In Australia, the book world was shocked by the sudden collapse of Angus & Robertson.
Waterstone’s is closing hundreds of stores across the UK and has also been seeking a buyer for some time. The largest chain in Ireland is under pressure and has undergone another round of restructuring and re-branding. The second largest went out of business last year.
When a chain goes down, it doesn’t just affect the shareholders and the workers, it has repercussions throughout the industry. Towns are often left without a bookstore, forcing people online. Publishers are left with less outlets to distribute to, and lower orders, which hurts distributors and writers.
Some people may feel that struggling chains deserve some of what they are getting, that their increasingly homogenous selections, and constant demand for greater discounts, has left them with few friends amongst readers, and in the publishing world.
If this is your view, ask yourself one question. What do you think it will be like when the only physical place you can buy a book is a supermarket?
One thing that chains were always good at was selling lots and lots of books. And while their selections might have been limited in certain respects, and while they might have made it difficult sometimes for self-published writers and smaller presses to get their books stocked, it is far worse in Tesco and Walmart, who have a tiny selection of books, and tend to go for safer bets.
Independent bookstores have been hardest hit. They have smaller margins, less cash reserves, and rarely attract outside investment. While the owners are always businessmen, often their shop is a labour of love. They will take risks on new writers, on unusual books, and not always have their eye firmly on the bottom line.
Like small, independent presses, indie bookstores will nurture a writer. They give a book time to find an audience, rather than returning it to the publisher after a month. They will talk to customers, find out what they like, and steer them away from the more obvious choices and ask them to consider something a little different.
They host readings, poetry nights, book clubs, all of which rarely make them money, but they are interested in building a community around their store. They are book-lovers themselves, and their passion shines through.
But their books tend to be more expensive.
In the past, their customers were willing to pay a premium for the more diverse selection and the personal touch. However Amazon, with virtually any book a couple of clicks away, have stolen a lot of their business.
In the last twelve months, a string of venerable indie bookstores – real institutions – have closed. Many more have announced that they either need a buyer, or investment, or they will go the same way.
Digital guru Mike Shatzkin said that if bookstores lost another 15% of their trade they would go out of business. In the latest figures (for February), sales of print books were down 34.4% year-on-year.
If this keeps up, pretty soon the only place you will be able to get a print book will be a supermarket or online.
If you don’t like e-books, and you can’t see yourself using an e-reader, there is something you can do about it.
Go to your local bookstore and buy a book.
But do it while you can, because they way things are going, they won’t be around for much longer.