The end of the bookshop?

Today I drove with my baby to a local, independent bookshop which is also a coffee shop. There is a cafe at the end of my street, but I preferred to go to the effort of driving to this specific place because I love the atmosphere of being surrounded by books. While I waited for my coffee, I browsed the shop, and afterwards I browsed again and bought myself something new to read.

There has been a lot said recently about the end of bookshops since the collapse of REDgroup and the closure of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores. Ebooks have been blamed, as well as internet based companies such as Amazon and Book Depository who are able to sell books much cheaper. I am a very active reader and spend hundreds of dollars a year on traditional books. I also have a Kindle and read e-books, and I have to admit that I do also buy books online from the websites I have mentioned. As a writer, I am aware about the need to protect the publishing industry and the bookshops, and from this, the authors.

When I write, I like to think of myself as a typical reader, and therefore a typical book buyer.  I have been thinking about the way I buy books, and what this could mean for the future.

It has been a long time since I bought a paper book from one of the chain stores. For me, the shops are often not very welcoming, their stock is often not to my taste, and the staff are not obviously book lovers who can help me and recommend appropriate books. There are times when I have shopped there: mainly if there is a particular book that I have decided to buy, eg as a gift. I tend to use them more for non fiction books too.

Most of my books come from the independent bookshops, and here in Australia, there are some fabulous ones around. These are shops that welcome browsing, they have a great selection of books other than the top 10 genre fiction which seems to dominate the chain stores, and they do ‘extras’ for their customers such as running book clubs, author events, gift wrapping, handwritten book recommendations etc. The staff have actually read many of the books and clearly love to help you find the perfect book. I almost never leave one of these shops without opening my purse. These are the shops that give me a thrill: other women may get excited about a shoe shop, but show me an independent bookshop and I am there.

As I said, I do also buy e-books. I have a Kindle, and really like it: it’s great for travelling; if I finish a book at 11pm and want a new one, I can download it instantly; and it’s perfect to read while I’ve been up feeding the baby at night. The books are cheaper, yes, but the downside is the loss of the physical book in your hand and on your bookshelf. I am getting annoyed with comments associating ebooks with some kind of evil. The reality is that the technology is there, and we use our computers/phones/tablets for everything in our lives, so it is naive to expect books to lag behind. We as authors, and publishers, need to think how we can use it to our advantage rather than whingeing about it. I am also going to get the new iPad when it is released, and one of the selling points for me is that I have seen some wonderful animated ebooks for children on it that my daughters would love: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, etc.

Ebooks for me will never replace physical books, but they are an adjunct to them. I will always buy my favourite authors and local Australian books on paper, the kind of books that I am either proud to display in my bookshelf, or will probably read again, or will pass on to others. I will also buy beautiful books, such as special editions, books with illustrations, and hardbacks. But if there’s a book that I want to read, but that I suspect will not be ‘special’ to me, then I’ll buy the e-book.

With online purchasing, I think that the main attractions are convenience and cost. If I am buying a gift for someone who lives interstate or overseas, I will almost always buy it online as it saves me having to go to the post office, and pay for postage costs. And as much as I agree with the arguments about parallel importation, it is really hard to go past the fact that some books are about 50% cheaper online from overseas including delivery.

I don’t think that the bookshop is dead, but rather than the book industry, like every other industry, needs to adapt to the changing world. It reminds me of the outcry when MP3 files and iPods became popular – now most of us download music when we want a new CD; and increasingly we can now download movies and TV shows from the internet rather than going to the video shop. Times are changing, and we need to keep up.

7 thoughts on “The end of the bookshop?”

    • Hi Sonia,

      Thanks for the comment – and I agree that the balance will be found in the end. I think it’s really important that all of us – readers, writers, publishers, booksellers – are open minded to change otherwise we risk losing out!



  • Hi Dawn,

    I like your thoughtful review of this issue. It reinforces my thinking of late that the book industry is just now getting pretty close to a consensus, or new status quo, on ebooks vs paper books. The collapse of REDgroup has had one benefit, at least — pushing that consensus along a bit.

    This idea of temporarily-desirable texts for ebook purchase and permanently-desirable other texts for paper purchase seems to me how the whole thing will shake out in the end. I think we’ll have some problems and controversies (driven, of course, by money) over what texts are ‘worthy’ of being printed and bought that way, and as time goes on we’ll have industry proposing fewer and fewer of those valued objects be made. Publishers are not now slow to present us with the results of their highly subjective value judgements about textual quality, and I can’t see that being much changed with this new paradigm. I prefer what we’ve got going on now, in a way (at least as a reader) — most texts are available in both formats, so the reader’s own individual judgement of temporary vs permanent desirability determines which version is bought.

    The comparisons with TV (usually temporarily desirable) and music (usually permanently desirable, and consumed many times from a single purchase) are well taken. I think books tend to fall neatly between these other media, and that will be reflected in readers’ ongoing desire to have a choice between ebook and paperback.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading/commenting. I agree that the best scenario would be the availability of both formats, but I do fear that with time, the publishers will choose the format which gives them more profit and stick with it – which is how the world works I suppose. Young readers, like our children, will probably be reading almost exclusively in the e-book format when they become adults, as iPads are now provided to students in many primary schools with textbooks etc so it follows that this is the format they will be used to and prefer. I do agree that perhaps the collapse of REDgroup has made the industry sit up a bit and start to make some decisions.

      Just checked out your blog too, looks great!


      • I’m still not convinced that print books are going the way of the dodo. Seems like childrens’ boooks and YA books are still selling well in print (though I haven’t researched numbers). Readers are still pretty expensive and most libraries don’t have extensive e-book collections (especially with publishers trying to deal dirty with libraries with regard to e-books). I think that even our technology loving kiddos still enjoy print books…that and a $10 print book is less heartbreaking to lose or damage than a $200 reader or $500+ iPad.

        There might come a time in the future when print is obsolete. I think it will be pretty long in coming though.

  • Great post. Although the loss of chain bookstores will be felt, I do think the host of independent bookstores put out of business in my area after Borders open will spring back. The book industry is changing, not dying. I just hope all or most of the changes turn out to be for the better.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for the comment – I also hope that independent bookstores flourish now, though I think that to do that, they need to offer that little bit more (which most of them do) – a nice space, room to browse, and events like I mentioned in the post. Fingers crossed that the changes are for the better!