Thursday, 5 April 2012

Forget the shop, I'll just have the window

Another London Book Fair rolls around. Last year, quite a few publishers had begun to embrace the digital era, albeit in some cases with the same wide-eyed stare and frozen grin you see on the faces of presenters of TV wildlife shows as they allow pythons to be draped around their necks.

I showed one publisher the
Mirabilis app and demonstrated how you could buy issues from the in-app purchasing screen. “This screen could be your whole back catalogue. New books too. It’s a direct connection to your customer.”

“We are not booksellers,” she replied, as witheringly as if I’d pulled out one of those pythons and suggested a place to drape it. “That is not our core business.”

I reckon a lot of MBA students must have missed a class or two before taking up their jobs in publishing. No, indeed you do not want to distract yourself from your core business - if the business you’re in is relatively stable. But when it’s going through the biggest disruption it has experienced in over fifty years, you might need to rethink what your core business is. Possibly on a quarterly basis.

What will publishers be doing in a couple of LBFs from now? Let’s start by stripping down the whole business of how a book gets into a reader’s hands:
  • An author writes a manuscript
  • A designer/typesetter turns it into a book
  • A printer makes copies of it
  • Marketing and publicity make people aware of it
  • Publishing and distribution allow an interested customer to buy a copy
We all know that the last part of the equation, the high street emporium of books, is under threat. Even if the ebook didn’t exist, I’m still not going to buy a hardback for £12 that I can get on Amazon for £8 and not even have to lug home. “Oh, but we’re an oasis of calm in a busy world,” say the booksellers, “and would you like cinnamon on your latte?” If you think that’s a sustainable business, open a chain of high street zen gardens. The rest I can get by taking my newspaper to Starbucks.

The high street remains a good place to hook people’s interest, especially the non-tribal reader. I can get 50 megabytes of furry steampunk whodunits for 99 cents with one click, but if I just want a good book that isn’t any specific genre, a window display is still one of the most effective ways to get my attention. Certainly I can browse online, but like most people I am more engaged by the real world and, particularly on the way to and from work, I am actively looking for distractions.

The window display is still useful for selling books, then. It just isn’t worth sticking ten thousand square feet of shop behind it. I already talked about how Tesco used virtual shelves – screens displaying their products – to cope with a lack of physical stores in South Korea: I’m just a bookseller and I want my corners. Freed of the need to front an emporium, “window displays”, in the sense of screens you can buy from, can be more widely distributed: on the subway, as bus stops, on buses and trains themselves, even on the wall of Starbucks. And yes, go on then, just a sprinkle of cinnamon.

“But I want my book to go,” you say? And so you can. This post isn’t really about ebooks – I’m addressing the sale of physical product here – but there’s no reason why, having bought the book from one of these virtual windows, you shouldn’t immediately get it on your e-reader. That should be part of the package. The print copy will arrive a day or two later, but you can be reading it right away.

But wait… is that the icy crawl of cold sweat down your back as you survey this glittering LCD-lit utopia? Then you must be a bookseller, and you have recognized the fatal flaw. If you pay for a bunch of virtual window displays, and you go to all the trouble to inform me there is a new Andrew Miller or Lloyd Shepherd book out, what’s to stop me shopping around to find a better price? If I can save a few quid with one or two clicks, I will.

Okay, so here’s the bitter pill. The people paying for these virtual window displays – they’re not the booksellers, they’re the publishers. See, just as long as I’ve noticed their books, they don’t much care if I use Amazon or Barnes & Noble to fulfil my purchase (though increasingly they may encourage me to buy direct, like Waitrose). There’s a poetic justice to this evolution of the business, you must admit, seeing as publishers are the people who pay for window displays even now.

So the guy that owns the wall or the bus stop will make money. London Underground will be happy. The people who make books are happy, as are the people who read them. But the bookseller? Well, in the world of 2020, will that even be a separate trade, or will it just be one of the functions of a publisher?


  1. Pretty soon we'll just paint our chosen reality on our surroundings, if Google's AR glasses are anything to go by. So there won't even be value in high street hoarding space, as we'll "always be browsing". (You've got to imagine that said by Alec Baldwin.)

    1. Hence the need to review your business model on a quarterly basis. And bear in mind that I'm only considering physical books here. Ebooks make the future of a widespread bookselling trade look even bleaker.

  2. Anonymous, you earn extra irony points for referencing a movie in which "The Machine" becomes obsolete!