Independent bookshops versus eBooks and Amazon? Long live the mixed market!

James Daunt has taken over the 300 Waterstone’s shops that are scattered across the country. I heard him saying on the radio that he will be attempting to roll out his existing strategy, which is to ensure that the area a bookshop is in has an influence on its individual style and content. It heartened me, because Daunt bookshops are lovely places to be in, and maybe this unassuming, likeable man will find a way for bookshops to sit alongside the newer methods of book-buying, in a way that enables each to benefit and complement the other. In other words, is it not better to maintain a healthy mix in the market place? I also decided to wait and view the new e-reader which Daunt is planning to launch, before succumbing to the temptation to buy a Kindle.

That radio interview with Mr Daunt reminded me of an article I read in the Saturday Guardian in August. It was in the ‘Money’ section, in the column where a reader’s question is answered by other readers, and the best reply wins a £25 book token. The question was:

We have a lovely independent bookshop in our town which I try to support. Amazon, though, is so much cheaper – on three books I saved more than £13. I am alone in wrestling with this? And at what price differential do others go online?

The online version of the article gives some idea of the range of views within the reader’s responses.

The reader who won the book token is by her own definition a ‘greedy reader.’ She was glad that having a Kindle meant that the enormous flow of books through her house had lessened, but she was also appreciative that she could get ‘non-fiction, classics and favourites’ in print format from a wide range of sources. In fact, her list of these sources certainly makes one pause before declaring the printed book dead and gone: ‘high street book stores, supermarkets, the library, charity shops, Amazon, our independent bookshop, our second-hand bookshop, AbeBooks, eBay, Guardian offers, Bookcrossing.com and as presents.’

The comments in the discussion swung between two broadly opposed factions; those who feel that people should boycott the big players, in order to ensure the survival of their local, independent bookshop, and those who feel that the new digital world brings such great advantages (in cost and accessibility, not to mention having enormous variety at one’s fingertips), that people should move on and forget about traditional bookshops completely, and the printed book with them. And of course there were many people, like the winner of the book token, who could see the benefits of both print and eBook, and of both online and community based shopping.

I must declare myself to be in the middle of these two extremes as well. I hope that things don’t develop into an either/or situation, at least not for a good number of years. I am excited about new technology, and the immediacy and accessibility of online buying. I believe like many people that these things may increase the number of people who read, which can only be a good thing. I went to a seminar called ‘The Paperless World’ in May this year, put on by Arts Matrix, at Exeter Central Library. Sophie Rochester gave a talk about digital publishing. She set up The Literary Platform, a free online resource dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. I will write more about what I learned from Sophie in another post, but meanwhile do visit her website. In short, though, her talk that evening made me feel thrilled and positive about the changes afforded by digital publishing. Sophie feels the uproar that this time of change is bringing to the world of publishing is a good thing. I can see why, and heartily agree with her; after all, publishing, however productive and admirable a profession in many ways, has been controlled and run in the same way for years, and, because of its business structure, by a small number of people, in a not particularly democratic or inclusive way (certain philanthropic and community publishers aside). I suppose we could divert here to a debate about small publishers versus large ones, and the place of self-publishing in the developing market, but I think that such topics better wait for another post all of their own, or I will not finish this today.

So, I do not count myself as a luddite on the technology front, or on the method of purchasing books. I love making just a few mouse-clicks that result in rare books, or just reasonably priced books, falling onto my doormat a few days later. I can see the benefit, as a writer, of buying eBook versions of the many books I study when researching a novel, which I can then annotate easily as I read them. But equally I find that I worry about living and reading in a totally paperless world. You see, I just cannot concentrate for as long, reading on a screen, as I can when reading a printed book or article. It is a different experience for me, qualitatively and sensually, and I think many others would agree.

Last Saturday, I visited the Mighty Miniature Bookspace, a bookseller in Bristol who shares shop space with the imaginative and talented women at Cox & Baloney’s Vintage Boutique. The bookshelves are distributed amongst the rails of bright, vintage clothing. This inspired arrangement presumably results in book lovers leaving the premises more elegantly clad, and a number of fashionista’s walking out with a book tucked into their carrier bag. This enchanting shop also contains a cafe, and whilst we were there, I enjoyed some apple and walnut cake with Oolong tea, which took some of the sting away from a humiliating defeat in a game of chess with my husband Tim (chess set provided free). Maybe this sort of creative and unusual partnership (between the bookseller and the clothes shop, not between me and Tim!) is one of the solutions to the problem. It provides a surprising place where people can browse peacefully through stacks of old books, whilst appreciating the silkiness of pages that are as soft as a cotton shirt that has been worn for many years, and allowing their mind to wend its unhurried way from titles to title around the store, off on unimagined tracks and round intriguing corners.

All most people want is to be reassured that this necessary and enlivening digital revolution will enhance our reading where it undoubtedly can, but that it should be careful not to erode our abilities or our pleasure as readers, as it widens our choices and experiences in many other ways.

A good reason, perhaps, for maintaining a mixed market place? I will be keeping a close eye on James Daunt and his progress.

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One thought on “Independent bookshops versus eBooks and Amazon? Long live the mixed market!

  1. Your visit to the book shop in Bristol reminded me of an article in the Guardian,(can’t remember date) about the French refusing to lower prices over the internet, thereby bringing online and ‘real’ shop prices into line. The independent book sellers there can also be centers for information of all kinds.How good. How farsighted.

    I had a chat with my kids about the Kindle. It’s always good to get the prespective of yoof. They thought it was a great way of carrying around loads of school books/studymaterial/academic literature and I had to agree that the idea of not having to cart all this stuff around like a pack horse was very appealing.
    But, I was lying in bed last night with the book I was reading, and when I had finished my chapter I closed the book by whirring the pages near to my cheek to make a tiny breeze. Then I turned the book over in my hand and re-read the back cover with some hind-sight of a book half read. Then I contemplated the cover illustration for a while, and then I put the edge of the book up to my nose to smell paper and ink before putting it to one side with the anticipation of returning to the next chapter tommorrow night.
    My point is that you can’t ‘Kindle’ these sensorial experiences, they must be lived. So I agree, there is definitely a place for everything, but long live the real thing!

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