Tuesday, 22 May 2012

E-books in bookshops - whatever next?

There's much consternation in the press this morning following Waterstone's deal with Amazon to sell Kindle and e-books in their stores. Much 'Deal with the devil' kind of comments have been banded about, but I have to say that I don’t understand why there isn't more of this kind of co-operation between physical bookshops and e-book retailers/publishers. 

Obviously Amazon is a major player in the industry and as such has a somewhat tainted history in trying to dominate the market, but considering the business models which have to be forced for the future, this kind of joint venture has to be tried.
During my time at England's Lane Books, I became convinced that physical book retailers are the shop window for both e-books and p-books. Everyone seems to love bookshops. If I'd had a pound every time some-one said they loved the shop, I'd be very rich indeed. Well, wealthy enough to be able to open a bookshop myself...
But I digress. People who read books like to browse, especially in independent little shops where some-one has made an eclectic and informed choice of which books to stock, (which doesn't necessarily include books with the largest marketing budgets behind them). In bookshops readers can discover new titles, new authors, or new genres. It's where you can discuss books to your heart's content and get advice on what to buy that 15-year-old nephew who needs encouragement to read. Or the 45-year-old aunt who reads avidly and has every book ever published on her book shelf. At England's Lane Books we had many variations on these customer requests and we loved recommending books for 'difficult' people. 

Also publishers (and agents) know that book shops are invaluable spaces for what is now being called 'discoverability' of books; and authors know there isn't a better person to recommend their book, and generate a word-of-mouth snowballing effect for their sales, than a bookseller.

Of course Amazon could be aiming to swallow Waterstones up, and this is a risk Mr Daunt of Waterstones seems willing to take. Personally I think he had to do something: falling sales of physical books in contrast to the increase in the sales in e-books makes it hard for any bookseller of p-books. Plus the efforts of the retailer to bring their own e-reader to the market have failed – possibly due to time and cost issues.

In the US, Barnes and Noble (with the help of a cash boost of $300 million from Microsoft) are developing their Nook e-reader so that customers can download book reviews from a code in the shop, and then choose to either buy the hard copy or the e-copy. It remains to be seen if this kind of product will eventually bring enough cash to the retailer to keep the bookshops open.

By the way, the view that by inviting Amazon into Waterstones, the book retailer will introduce more readers to e-books is in my view frankly silly. It smacks of ostrich-like attitude where if you ignore a new development, it won't affect you.

That aside, it’ll be very interesting to see how this new Amazon/Waterstones venture will work out. I for one am hoping it’ll be a success, and that it proves to be a model small independent shops could follow. What’s to stop Apple co-operating  with physical bookshops? Imagine if you could walk into somewhere like England’s Lane Books and using your iPad or iPhone, scan QR codes off the book, read the reviews, discuss the book with staff and ultimately download the e-book (or even better, get a buy one get one free deal) in the shop. 

Many customers already use bookshops to discover new titles, only to leave the shop to download e-book later – or buy it online at a cheaper price at Amazon. Why not give the reader license to do this and get a cut out of the sales you’ve generated at the same time. It's the customer behaviour that's important - the publishing industry will ignore it at its peril.

As a former bookseller and an economist, the Waterstone/Amazon deal makes sense to me.

1 comment:

Joanne Phillips said...

I agree wholeheartedly - and like you I can easily see digital and print books coexisting in a bookshop, and I have been wondering for some time when this would happen. Bookshops will only be supported in this way, instead of being left to fester!