Selling books, killing booksellers

As someone who loves books, loves browsing bookshops, but also loves buying from Amazon – books and ebooks – I recognize the conflict of interests. The more I patronize Amazon, the more I kill off traditional bookshops, at least in theory. I can now comfort myself with the excuse that browsing (English language) bookshops in Israel is not possible, so I am free to indulge my online habit. And, as Susan and the girls will testify, I make substantial efforts to balance the situation (I nearly said balance the books) on my overseas trips.

In those circumstances, I found the Slate piece by Stephen Heyman, entitled Big-Box Bookstores Don’t Have to Die, fascinating. It’s a comparison between the state of the USA’s Barnes & Noble, and the UK’s Waterstones – both book chains, both at one time struggling to cope in the internet world.

As Heyman puts it so well:

In a 1936 essay, George Orwell, a former bookstore clerk, complained about loiterers like me, who alight on bookshops simply because they are “one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” The digital revolution has of course turned this charming vulnerability into a lethal one—witness the fate of Borders, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, et al.—by converting the chain bookstore into little more than an air-conditioned showroom for Amazon.com.

Quite.

Barnes & Noble is still struggling; really struggling. But Waterstones, apparently, led by former independent bookseller James Daunt, is thriving. Mr Daunt

“…just announced Waterstones’ first annual profit since the financial crisis. How he pulled that off is a long story, involving old-fashioned business cunning, the largesse of a mysterious Russian oligarch, and some unexpected faith in the instincts of his booksellers.

It’s a story worth reading. But before offering you the link, I will note that part of the success is down to Daunt trusting the people in the branches to buy for their local market, instead of following a centralized, publisher driven, common approach to purchases, displays, and marketing. Common sense. But it goes against the trend – because of publishers paying for prominent shelf space. I was told that something like that doomed the Borders chain in the UK. They had centralized buying. For example, the Head Office went big on the Bobby Moore biography. The store in Glasgow received a ton of copies, and – apparently – had to return 99.9% of them unsold. Doubtless there were other similar acts of folly.

I wish Mr Daunt and Waterstones every success. It’s a heart warming story, and I hope they continue to do well.

Read the whole Slate article, here.