The future doesn’t look rosy for the big bookstores. Less than three out of every ten books sold last year were rung up on the tills of chain stores like Waterstone’s. And that’s print books. When you factor in the accelerating rise of digital books and comics, online book sales are whittling away at those meager profits that have so far kept booksellers on the high street. As the Economist put it recently:
“Publishers rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But [Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins] says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.”So book publishers are getting squeezed? As an author, one of a group accustomed to being shoved around by the often rather bullying might of publishers, I might be expected to say cry me a river. Except that the river in question is Amazon, which owns the dominant e-reader, publishes its own books, runs a print-on-demand company widely used by small and self-publishers, and is pretty much uncontested in online book sales. That dearth of competition is bad for a lot of people, most especially the reading public.
Over the last few years, as online stores and supermarkets have chipped away at the dedicated retail bookstores, the high street browsing experience has diminished. Publishers respond with ghostwritten celebrity books and genre works of dubious quality. It is the mid-list, backed by editors with experience and gut feeling, where we traditionally find quality writing and interesting surprises. Strip that away and the future of fiction is pulp. But mid-list titles are the least likely to sell away from the high street. Online shopping pushes you ever-tighter into genre-based recommendations, supermarket shopping favors easily recognizable trash.
If bookstores close, how will publishers catch the passing trade? Tesco, a grocery company, have recently been trying an interesting experiment in South Korea. Faced with the problem of fewer stores than their competitors – and aware, as Mr Murray is, that people don’t shop so enthusiastically or so eclectically in front of a computer – Tesco put up display boards on the subway that replicated the look of grocery display cabinets. While waiting for their train, commuters can fill a virtual shopping trolley by scanning the QR codes of the products they like. Impulse buying has never been so painless.
Online stores so far have focused very much on a Microsoft (desk) rather than Apple (roving) model. Yet the exciting thing about where personal computing has been going in the last few years is that it’s out of the study and in your pocket. People like to shop out in the world, but they don’t like to lug heavy bags home. Imagine a world (it’s not far off) where the high street bookstores and comic shops have gone. Instead, at a much lower cost, publishers and booksellers put up posters and virtual bookshelves with QR codes that direct us to where we can browse, discuss and buy the books.
Publishers have done a little in this direction so far, but they don’t seem to grasp the full potential. One recent book poster on a London railway platform sported a QR code that directed customers to the book’s trailer on YouTube. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The moment I took out my phone to scan the code, the publisher should have been closing the deal – not directing me to yet more publicity material designed to hook my interest.
I’ll tell you who the QR selling model would benefit most: a would-be rival to Amazon like Britain’s Book Depository or Barnes & Noble in the USA. Currently Amazon have a Herculean grip on the Nemean lion of online book sales. But the online book market is set to more than double in size over the next ten years, so there’s a lot still to play for. Also, there really is no good reason for rivals to be scared of taking Amazon on. None of the technology involved is untried; all that is wanting is vision and ambition.
Admittedly those are not qualities often associated with book publishing, which in the last year or two has looked increasingly paralyzed by present shock. But booksellers are traditionally a nimbler breed. For the sake of the quality and variety of the books and comics we read as much as their price and availability, it’s time for the booksellers to get out there and pitch their QR-emblazoned virtual stalls in the high street space. Because that’s where the readers are in a mood to buy, whether it's a pint of milk or War & Peace.