Bookshops & the internet

I came across an article, written by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times which included a number of facts and figures regarding some of the differences between the publishing industry in America and France. One of the main differences is the Lang Law–a law which addresses the discounting of books, and due to this law, book prices cannot be discounted more than 5% below the publisher’s list price. Another point the article makes is that e-book sales in France are 1.8% of the market compared with 6.4% in America. Apparently 13% of French books were purchased from the internet last year. On another note, an article in the Telegraph says that the number of bookshops in Britain halved in the years 2005-2011 shrinking from 4,000 down to 2,178.

Interesting reading which of course raises the question: is the demise of the independent (or even chain) bookshop (thinking Borders here) inevitable? Amazon often comes out as the villain in these ruminations, and I’m sure that if I owned and operated a bookshop, I’d feel that I was fighting in a price war I couldn’t match. But as a reader there are other considerations.

Before the arrival of the internet, I liked nothing better than to head my car towards a book-friendly town and spend the day browsing through the shelves of a number of used book shops. Santa Monica had the added attraction of the British pubs, of course, and I always came away from these forays with a decent amount of plunder. Some of the titles I bought came from the continually overhauled list of books I wanted, and some titles were a complete, delightful surprise as I stumbled across books on the shelves by pure accident. At the time (pre-internet), I typically read books by favourite authors, books recommended by friends or work colleagues, and the occasional unexpected title excavated at a bookshop. I also picked up names of books from magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Then came the internet…. I came across more and more obscure titles, books from small publishers, and the trail led deeper and deeper off the beaten path. Then came blogging, my reading community expanded, and now I’m reading recommendations from all over the world, including: AustraliaCanada, Britain, France, and the very multi-cultural Caroline. I still love book shops, but they simply cannot stock the vast number of titles available via internet outlets. Here’s an example, I recently visited a used bookshop sure that I’d find at least one title by John O’Hara, but alas no. I ended up buying a book for someone else so that I wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

All this reminds me of the days when video shops were the only way to go for VHS and then DVD rentals. I remember picking over the sad little foreign film section at a local Blockbuster and then learning about Netflix….

It’s not that I don’t want to buy from bookshops. I love bookshops. But they simply cannot offer the inventory of online book sellers. It’s not all about pricing and discounting and cut-throat tactics. It’s also about selection. I recently read a review of a Peter Stamm book on Tony’s Reading List. Fat chance of my local used bookshop having that in stock.

35 Comments

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35 responses to “Bookshops & the internet

  1. This is something that people often forget when they talk about using your local bookshop more. It’s fine if you’re into mainstream fiction and prefer the latest thrillers. However, if your reading habits are a little more esoteric or eclectic, the Internet is the only option – if you ordered that book from your local bookshop, they’d just be buying it from Amazon or The Book Depository on your behalf…

    • Exactly, Tony. I had to get the Stamm book online. It’s not an even playing field in many ways: discount pricing and stock. If you’re a 1500 sq foot book shop how can you compete with your limited stock?

  2. Emma

    No one fights to change the Lang Law here but you hear regularly that books are too expensive. Hard covers are but not paperback. Plus we have an incredible network of libraries.
    I feel that books aren’t a commodity in France. They benefit from a reduced VAT rate, like basic food.

    E-books came later here than in America. It’s quite a hot topic in the French bloggosphere. When I’m on a train or in the metro, I don’t see many people with ebooks.

    The enemy here is more Google, who started to numerize books without the publishers’ consent The publishers recently won the fight.
    And there’s been that law early this year, to numerize, sell and collect author money (droits d’auteur) for OOP books that can’t be re-published because the author is dead and their heirs are unknown.

    Independent bookstore are threatened too but there’s a consensus to protect them.

    • The NY Times article mentioned a book-swapping movement which I thought was a great idea. But then again there’s an internet version of that in N. America : paperbackswap.com. Not sure if there are other country variations on the same idea, but I expect so.

      Doesn’t that make OOP books more expensive?

      • I don’t know yet, the law was voted in February this year, I think.

        The point is that because heirs are unknown and these OOP books aren’t public, no one can publish them again. The publisher can’t have the heirs’ authorization to publish it and pay the author rights. The idea is to publish them in numerized version, I think. A lot of OOP books will be available again. If someone comes and claims the author rights, the public agency will pay them. It’s easier for publishers.

  3. I have to contradict Tony. We have some book shops in my town which will show much more and better books, they don’t even sell mainstream. But – I’m greedy and buy a lot of books. For the prize of one hard back, purchased in a Swiss book shop I can order at least 5 paperbacks on amazon. But that is because Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union, so my considerations are purely money. The choice and specializations of our independent book shops are amazing, however, mostly in German and that’s another reason for me to purchase online. The book shops here have not the same English/French…. choice.
    But it makes me feel a bit bad for the book shops.

    • I think it all depends where you live. There are no new book shops in my town , for example, so when I make the drive I expect to come away with something. Is there a good sized international community where you live?

      • In some areas 35% – 40% from all over the world. One of the highest rates of foreigners in any European city I believe and generally a leftist, art interested population.

  4. I recently visited my home town of Dalkey, near Dublin. There was a ‘book festival’ going on, a loose enough term for media folks spouting on about this and that. In the way of these things the festival had set up its headquarters in one of the many empty shops (they’re in every town). The one chosen in Dalkey was the former (very good) independent bookshop. Closed recently, its shelves were empty. Passing by the window I noticed a crowd of people inside. Talking about books I suppose.

    • Ahhh. Conan. I bought your latest to kindle The Snake dancer of Sati Choura yesterday, and bought a copy for a long-distance friend (another great feature of the kindle).

      I think it’s sad to see these bookshops closed, but I think it’s a shrinking business. I read a passage the other day in the book Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) in which the main character, a journalist, well, former journalist turned bar owner, says that he didn’t realise he embarked on a dying career. He compares himself to a “buggy maker” before the advent of cars.

  5. janakay

    I thoroughly enjoyed your posting and I appreciate hearing a more nuanced view than the usual “Amazon is pure evil.” I can easily understand why owners of small bookstores feel that way; I’d feel the same way myself if I ran one. And–I adore independent bookstores. It’s been with a great deal of sadness that I’ve seen so many of them close (I’m somewhat less sympathetic to the chains, since in many cases Amazon simply completed the work begun by chains such as Borders and Barnes&Noble, which were prety ruthless when THEY were the new kids on the block). BUT–I grew up in a town in a predominantly rural state which had no general bookstores at all within easy driving distance (there were a couple of stores that sold mostly school texts). The only available reading material, unless you owned it or had access to the local university (I didn’t) came from a small public library. Later, as an adult, I spent a year in an area similarly bereft of bookstores; one additional time I lived in a town with a small independent bookstore that had limited stock (mostly cookbooks, tourist items and best sellers) and an owner who just hated taking special orders. For me, the advent of Amazon and other online sellers was a blessing (it’s ironical that I now live in a large metropolitan area with access to everything, but plenty of people don’t.) I still make a point of purchasing books when I can from a brick and mortar store but, as you point out so well, even a very good one simply can’t offer the variety of material that is now just a click away. And don’t forget that many bookstores sell through ABEBOOKs, which I’ve often used in preference to Amazon.

    One fascinating aspect of your post, which I hadn’t previously considered, was how the advent of online sales had changed my reading habits. Once I thought about it, I realized that these are quite different than they were even ten years ago. Thanks to the book blogs and the greater availability of books through online vendors, I purchase (and even read, sometimes, although I’m afraid my purchases greatly outnumber my actual “reads”) many more translations, out-of-print books, small press items and works by, yes, British/Commonwealth writers than I did before. The world will be a poorer place without those a physical bookstore to browse in, but I do think there’s a very strong case to be made that online vendors have expanded rather than contracted the universe of possibilities for readers.

    • Jana: I agree that online sellers have expanded–as you say–rather than contracted our world. I know that’s how it is for me.

      Have you noticed how few people use cheques these days? Almost everyone pays with debit cards or CC. It’s common for 20 somethings never to have used cheques at all. Another sign of the changing times, and one, of course, that meshes perfectly with internet sales.

      BTW, the last time I was in a very nice, very well-stocked independent (new) book shop, I was there at the same time the huge Borders in this small town was closing. Coincidentally, I had been there years before when Borders opened down the road. At that time, I thought it would be the last time I’d visit the independent before it disappeared. I was wrong and happy to be so.

      As I mentioned in another comment, so much of this depends on where we live and the resources we have access to. My small library is not well stocked, and it’s also no longer a pleasant place to visit.

      BTW, did you know that ABE books is owned by Amazon. I was surprised by that as their shipping charges (sometimes a lack of) would seem to undermine Amazon, but there you go….

      • leroyhunter

        Amazon own Book Depository now as well. I only use it or Abe for books…can’t remember when I last bought a book from Amazon. DVDs, electronics…that’s a different matter. Of course that’d change if I ever relent and get a Kindle.

  6. kimbofo

    I was thinking about this the other day when I went into three book shops and came out empty handed because they simply did not have the kind of books I was after. The internet has not only broadened my reading horizons, it has changed my book-buying habits, too.

    • Yes Kim: It’s frustrating to go the bookshop and then come home with zero. I went to several new bookshops (in a very large city) trying to find Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. I was sure that I would find it, but no one stocked it. There was also a distinct lack of an appearance by the smaller publishers, and I can’t help but wonder if they think that the internet helps their cause.

  7. leroyhunter

    I agree that it’s to some extent dependent on luck: are there bookshops in your area, do they cater beyond the obvious etc. I buy online if it’s the only place I can get something or if the price differential is big (say 40-50%). Otherwise I’m happy to go bricks-and-mortar. Luckily my main local store has a large range and an enlightened stock policy: they get in NYRB, Dalkey etc alongside the big houses and they make translated fiction a key part of their offering. I can often pick up something I might have read about in blogland, and by being patient things I’m after often show up on their shelves down the line. God knows I’ve enough unread at home to make patience a virtue…

    • If I lived in London and I went book shopping, you’d probably see an APB out for me and my mug on the back of milk cartons. Book shopping-hopping would be all I’d ever do.

      I’ve yet to see a Pushkin Press, a Hesperus Press, or a One World Classics book for sale new in a bookshop. Did see some Europa editions once and NYRBC twice.

      • leroyhunter

        Pushkin, Hesperus…even Peirene are on the shelf here. I realise that’s lucky so I’m happy to support the shop. If the stock policy changed…I’d be an ex-customer.

      • Pushkin, Hesperus and Oneworld are all available in my local bookshops as well, but I don’t know for how much longer: the pressure on small independent bookshops, or even smaller branches of chains, to pile ‘em high with bestsellers and to forget the rest, must be immense.

        I think you’re absolutely right that the Internet has given us far greater choice than we’ve ever had. However, it would be a sad day when I am no longer able to make that trip into Oxford or into Central London to browse through the large bookshops.

        • I wonder how small presses feel about the shift. Do they feel that the playing field has been leveled (a least a bit) or are they still outgunned thanks to the preview feature and product placement available for SOME Amazon books at a price. I know that when I am looking for a title by hseperus and oneworld (now Alma) the Amazon search sometimes pops up other editions of the title, so then I have t go hunting

  8. Guy: Your post is so similar to my own experience that I feel as if I could have written it myself. For many years, I maintained a commitment to local independents, knowing full well that I was pay an extra 30 per cent for newly-published titles (not to mention the parking charges that added to the overall expense). Like you, my book buying increasingly was influenced by bloggers who introduced me to interesting authors who I had not read before.

    The convenience of buying immediately online and having the book show up at the door a few days later eventually took over — I rarely purchase a book in a store any more. I still get occasional twinges of guilt, I must admit.

    For serious readers, I do think this has led to much easier access to titles that simply would have never come to mind in the “old” marketing world. A couple years back, both the winner of the Giller Prize (The Sentimentalists) and the National Book Award (Lord of Misrule) both had initial press runs of only 2,000. I read both before they were awarded their prizes — there was no way I would have been aware of either a decade earlier.

    • I often ask myself what I would do if I were a bookseller–I’d take to the internet with used books, absolutely.

      yes, the internet has granted incredible access. No more of this ‘it’s not available in your country” stuff. Aussie books are very high-priced though.

  9. *blush* If you could correct my misspelling of The Sentimentalists it would be appreciated.

  10. PS: thanks for the link, Guy

  11. It seems that foreigners are interested in what happens in our French bookish world…
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/shortcuts/2012/jun/24/why-is-france-shunning-ebooks

    • I suspect part of the interest comes from the idea that not all nations are adopting e-books and factors that contribute. The publishing market seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift and those who think ahead and predict changes will benefit.

  12. Tax is an issue of course. In the UK physical books are tax exempt, ebooks aren’t and VAT is 20% which is actually more than the cost of physical production and distribution.

    Even so ebooks are increasing their market share.

    Supermarkets have a massive impact in the UK. They don’t sell many books, but those they sell are the ones that shift big units and it’s often selling those titles (the new JK Rowling say) which keeps the indie stores afloat. They may be in the business to sell Pushkin and rare poetry, but it’s the crowd pleaser sales that allow them to do that.

    The supermarkets deep discount, which means nobody buys those crowd pleasers from the indie stores (which means most of those people never go into the store in the first place). That hits them hard.

    Also in the UK Oxfam is an issue. Their second hand book business is aggressive and has huge tax benefits from being a charity. They’ve forced a lot of independent booksellers out of business. They’re effectively a taxpayer-subsidised competitor which is potentially very unfair.charities aren’t always the cuddly critters they appear to be.

    Your point though on the breadth of choice is an interesting one too. My suspicion is that it only impacts a small number of readers, but those may be precisely the readers who buy a lot of books (and who are most likely to buy them from independent stores).

    The ultimate difficulty is that books are a commoditised product. That being so an independent store can’t compete on price with the internet, or with supermarkets, or with charity shops. It must compete on some other basis, and that’s hard given the product itself is identical wherever you buy it from.

    • I made another trip last weekend to a book shop about 40 minutes away. There were a couple of new releases I wanted to check out. Only one was in stock. They didn’t stock the other. I had several small publisher releases on the list to buy–nothing…

      Interesting about Oxfam. I’d heard about the supermarket share and that’s something I tend to overlook as that section never interests me and I tend to forget about it as a competitor, but then again perhaps it’s bigger in the UK than the US as I don’t see people standing around and looking at books before buying them. That area of the supermarket doesn’t seem well used, but perhaps that’s just my perception.

      I read a discussion on Amazon UK the other day about buying DVDs from Amazon US and the cost of having them imported. VAT has to be a big issue at that sort of %.

  13. Not sure what the debate is about. Facts are facts, and the fact is that with the Internet, I have access to more books, more cheaply than ever before. There are also lots of ‘community’ sites where I can learn about books: Guy’s blog being one, and Amazon’s usually, but not always, predictable ‘recommendations’ being another.

    But economics is one thing, culture is another. I love holding books and writing in them, so e-books haven’t made much difference in my life, but that’s me. I doubt my children share my feelings or love of the smell of ink, the feel of good paper, and so on in the literary sensorium.

    As for bookstores, even they, and a lot of other young people, clearly get the difference between a good store and the Internet. I just spent a week in Portland, OR, and bookstores there, especially Powell’s, are a scene! People gravitate to them to meet, talk, hang out…and buy books. They buy book-related stuff, and the most interesting stores stock things you will not easily find on the Internet, e.g., ‘zines and comics by obscure, local, and often very talented artists/writers. They like to finger them, browse them, flip through them, see what others are reading – all things that don’t happen online.

    Can the economics of small or larger stores be made to work as the digital age progresses? Dunno, but I hope so. Change brings good things and destroys some good things too.

    Some of the talk about this topic reminds me of discussions of on-line education. It’s great for transmitting information, but is that ‘education?’ Not that all traditional schools are any good, but education, in the end, is something that happens between people, and inside each person. There’s an element of literary culture that is similarly social, and bookstores are a wonderful part of that. I hope the future has a place for them!

  14. I think you make a good point about local bookstores being unable to stock a wide variety of books. In Lebanon, we have one large local chain and they do their best to cater for the masses and for amateur readers. They also have to be wise about balancing the number of French, English and Arabic books available. When I get a book recommendation online or from a literary magazine, and order the book, I have to wait no less than 4 weeks to get it. This makes the Kindle a very convenient solution. Yet, I know that it will not replace my regular visits to the bookstores.

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