Books: bound to fail?

Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha -

Books or digital? Illustration: Aaron Blecha -

There is no easy ride in the book trade these days. With online retailers like Amazon hoovering up ever more custom and high-street giants like Waterstones driving hard bargains with publishers, independent publishers and booksellers need to be more resourceful than ever to survive.

The exponential growth of Amazon and other online retailers and the role of supermarkets have played by stocking bestsellers as loss leaders have also hasted the demise of independent booksellers, the radical bookshop, of which only a handful still exist, and other local bookshops.

Even Waterstones had a difficult year last year, with a new stock ordering and delivery system, the hub, failing under the pressure of Christmas demand. The firm’s chief executive Gerry Johnson quit after a poor season’s results. And the shock of Borders spectacular bankruptcy affected many publishers, whose unpaid-for stock went down with the company.

However, books are not going out of fashion – but perhaps the traditional structures of book publishing and bookselling are facing their literary end.

Richard Jones, publisher of the small Bristol-based independent publisher Tangent Books, says: “No one’s really picked up on the sales that Borders would have made, no one like Waterstones or the like has benefitted, so we’ve taken a big hit on our future orders,” Jones says.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “I’m probably selling more books now than I ever have,” he says. “It’s just that the margins are less and less as Amazon and Waterstones demand bigger and bigger discounts.

“Perhaps 60 to 65 per cent of my sales are through the high street, of which almost all is through Waterstones, while around 40 per cent is online, direct sales or through independent bookshops,” he says. “But that figure has grown so fast I’d expect it to overtake the high street within 18 months.”

The traditionally slow-moving world of bookmen is changing with the arrival of new business models and technologies.

Take Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader, and the other models from manufacturers such as Sony and even retailer Barnes and Noble. Although between two and three million have been sold, this is still a tiny fraction of the book-buying public.

But it’s growing, and there are also another four million iPhone handsets, and other devices which can read eBooks. “The eBook is a completely new format, and it is only going to get bigger,” Jones says. “The Kindle is good for text, but the iPad suits graphical books too, which opens up the possibility of art eBooks, like the street art books I publish. If the bulk of the cost of producing a book goes is the printing and manufacturing costs, then that can be largely avoided.”

Is it possible to compare the upheavals in the book trade with those that the music industry has faced and continues to face with the combination of broadband internet, online file sharing, MySpace and digital downloads from services like iTunes?

“I think there is a similarity, but we don’t have a MySpace equivalent. The publishing industry is still largely reliant on the High Street or Amazon to sell the product.”

Internet entrepreneurs have not been slow in coming up with ideas, however. Several publish-on-demand services allow authors to by-pass the traditional model altogether and publish their books in small print-runs. The e-publisher allows authors to produce physical copies to be placed on the site’s online marketplace, or on other online retailers like Amazon, or in bookshops. Another site,, offers similar services and even links in to the popular online tools like blogs and image services like Picasa or Flickr in order for authors to easily assemble their text and image content. Considering that Blurb’s income grew from $1m to $30m in two years, and that the company now prints 300,000 titles, it is clear that this approach has struck a chord. Bob Young, Lulu’s founder, says he’d rather have one million authors selling 100 copies each than 100 authors selling one million copies each.

“It’s very liberating for people, obviously,” says Jones.

Other larger independents have joined forces to help themselves. Andrew Franklin, managing director of publisher Profile Books, was among the founding partners in the Independent Alliance, a group of ten larger independents including Faber and Faber, Canongate, Icon and Atlantic.

“It’s a bit like what organic famers and French wine growers do; you can’t compete with the conglomerates so you band together,” he says. “We try and combine the best advantages of being big with the important advantages of being small and independent: no bureaucracy, more nimble, better relations with our writers and buyers.”

The group offers better terms to independent booksellers, and saw their sales grow 60 per cent last year, expanding to become the UK’s fifth largest publisher.

“The alliance has greatly helped us [Profile],” Franklin added. “It would be a great thing to see other alliances in other parts of the trade, such as booksellers, or even in other industries entirely – local taxi companies, for example, banding together to fight off the likes of [large London minicab firm] Addison Lee.”

Some parts of the existing arcane publishing system need to be shaken up. For example, the nature of the sale-or-return ordering system means that books may be sent back to the publishers just as the same books are being ordered by customers and redelivered.

“If I’m supplying Waterstones in, say, Aberdeen, lorries bringing my books back may be passing other lorries on the way to drop off more copies of the same book,” Jones says.

The question is to what extent the high street will continue to flourish, when in many towns and cities the arrival of a Waterstones or Borders in the past has prompted a rash of closures.

Rob Coyne, from Bookmongers second-hand bookshop in Brixton, says that while there are ups and downs, trade is still stable. “We have quite a bohemian selection, I suppose: Kerouac, Burrows and so on,” he says. “We’re really fortunate that we’re here in Brixton where there is a strong community, but really it comes down to the fact that people will always enjoy the experience of shopping and reading in a room full of books.”

Something for Amazon to chew on.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


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