The question of independent bookselling and its current situation can be approached from several perspectives, possibly leading to a wide variety of conclusions. Before we start pointing the accusing finger in any specific direction, let’s agree on a common basic premise, which will enable us to focus on more specific aspects later on. This goes as follows – Independent bookstores currently find themselves in a very difficult situation, which in many cases threatens their very existence.
The emphasis in this statement is placed on the word independent, as this segment of the book market seems to be facing serious difficulties adapting to the dynamics of the market forces and the changes in business models and modes of customer behavior. Bookstore business, although many of us are reluctant to think of it as such, is just a business as any other. Which literally means that every single decision has to be viewed and understood through the prism of its financial profitability. The independent bookstore, as any other independent business in general, has had to deal with major changes and dramatic developments in the economy and society, which occurred during the last few decades of the 20th and intensified in the first decade of the 21st century.
In order to explore the reasons contributing to this situation, we decided to start from the simplest questions related to the book market as a whole and later on to deal with more specific aspects defining the circumstances of the indies’ existence. Using this approach, we hope to question the prevailing assumptions and opinions and also evaluate the effects of several of these changes from the perspective of people directly involved with the independent bookstores scene, but also from the point of view of ordinary book-buyers.
Many a voices are complaining about a general lack of interest in books, but this statement is very questionable. Although it is absolutely true that reading has to compete with all other sorts of entertainment, which seem to be a lot more popular especially with the younger generation, the final result isn’t as bad at all. In fact, the overall numbers of books sold yearly are showing a slightly growing tendency in most of the major markets. However, some interesting shifts in the composition of the vendors as well as the types of sold books remain hidden behind these seemingly optimistic numbers. Unfortunately, none of them favors the independent booksellers.
New players have entered the book market and perhaps a bit surprisingly, they present a threat both to the indies and the huge chains. A short look at the recent evolvement of the British book industry demonstrates these noteworthy trends very well. According to the Booksellers Association of the United Kingdom, 83 indies were closed in the UK in 2008, while there were 66 openings within the same year (Neill 2009). This is nothing to cheer about, but it doesn’t support the most catastrophic scenarios either. Another statistic from the UK market for the period between 2003 and 2007 reveals that the volume of indies' book sales has actually increased by 6% during this time, while chains’ sales went down by 3% (Neill 2009).
These numbers are not very likely to improve in 2009, with the additional burden of the consequences of the financial crisis, but it also seems quite safe to say that at least for now, independent bookstores are resisting the resulting pressure much better than many would anticipate. In no way does this mean that the problems independent bookselling is facing are to be underestimated. All we’re saying is that instead of demonizing the competition and discussing the funeral ceremony of independent bookshops as a done deal, these tough times require lots of daring and a constructive spirit.
The momentum appears to be slowly shifting from the chains, which seemed destined to become the dominant force on the book market in the first half of the 1990s, as they are currently facing unexpected problems and dealing with the question of reinventing their business strategy. The winners? Online retailers (read Amazon) and the supermarkets, which have enjoyed a steady rise in market share in the past few years and this trend is very likely to persist. This is also linked with the type of books which are bought at a higher rate, since the offer of books in supermarkets is almost exclusively focused on potential best-sellers (popular fiction, biographies, etc.).
Everything still seems more or less ok up to this point. According to the market theory, more competition means more options for the customer to choose from and thus better services at lower prices. The question is, whether this equation can be applied to the specific field of bookselling. From a strictly pragmatic and materialist approach, one can easily argue in favor and find the arguments to support this theory. All the forces present in bookselling – be it chain bookstores, supermarkets selling books next to stands with tomatoes (food for the soul, right… but we’re not sure if this metaphorical value can actually make the actual experience of bookshopping in such conditions any less depressing), or on-line bookstores offering the possibility to browse among .jpeg images of the books’ covers – have undoubtedly managed to push the prices down. But this also came at a price and according to many, one that was too high.
Please beware that this post doesn’t mean to suggest that independent bookstores are not in a difficult situation, or that the omnipresent chains don’t contribute to their decline. Our aim was simply to point out that the question posed in the title of this article – who is to blame? – is not answered as easily as it could seem. From our position, the needed daring approach consists in not being satisfied with the prevailing assumptions without questioning each and every one of them. That’s why we decided to explore each of the factors that represent a threat to the independent bookstore scene individually and in depth within the upcoming articles of this series. We hope that you will keep us company along the way.
Neill, Graeme (2009): Hard year for indies as numbers dwindle, available online:(http://www.thebookseller.com/news/76068-hard-year-for-indies-as-numbers-dwindle.html)
1: The Abbey Bookshop in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
2: Shakespeare and Company in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
More articles from this series:
An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling – An Introduction
Independent Booksellers and the Fixed Book Price: a Horror Story?
Chain Bookstores: The Rise, Struggle and Downfall?
Independent Booksellers: What Can Be Done To Help?
An Interview with an Antiquarian Bookseller: The Caretaker
Literaturhaus: Books, Words and Much Much More
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