How do bookshops stay in business in the electronic publishing age?

Monday, 21 September, 2015

By rights bookshops should have long since ceased to exist. Swept aside by ebooks, electronic publishing, and online communication, and square into the dustbin of history. Indeed by now these quaint shelf lined emporiums should only be recalled via dwindling references, solely in nostalgic exchanges between older and younger generations, about the way things once were.

But that’s not quite what has happened. Booksellers are still with us. And rather than going into retreat, some are expanding, and opening new shops even. For all their convenience then, why have bookworms refused to wholly embrace the electronic successors of the bound paper volume? So what is it that bookshops are doing today to prosper, and remain in business?

Rather than attempting to extract trade secrets, or delve through annual reports, I asked myself what I could learn from booksellers, simply by looking at the way they appear to be operating, on the basis I was going to open a shop. So consider this more of a thought experiment, and a series of deductions, rather than in-depth or scientific research.

Paperback is the new black

In order to broaden their customer base, booksellers have become more exclusive by making a concerted effort to reach out to a narrower band of consumers. Clearly these are people who favour the paper over the electronic, and see the endangered species that is the paper book, as having a certain desirability. But that’s not the only way booksellers define customers.

Harry Hartog, a name that somehow sounds like it should be familiar, is very much the new kid on the block when it comes to bookshops, having only opened in Canberra last October, and then Bondi Junction, Sydney, last month. But they have no doubt as to who their clientele are, being a “shop for the adventurer, the student of life and the next generation of reader”.

That’s no shop, that’s a boutique

If shopping for books was ever a perfunctory task, and a visit to a bookshop was uninspiring, and something to be dreaded, it certainly isn’t anymore. It’s not as if buyers have to navigate bland rows of overladen shelves bleaching in the cold glow of harsh fluorescent lights. Indeed, a keen eye to aesthetics on the part of booksellers, has transformed book shopping in recent years.

It’s not just about books

Once upon a time a bookshop used to be just that, a bookshop. You may have been able to source items of stationery, and maybe there was a shelf or two bearing accessories of some sort, but that was it. Today booksellers stock just about anything you care to imagine, from chocolate, lamps, posters, ornaments, toys, board games, to DVDs, and more, but why should I go on?

Ariel Booksellers, in Paddington, Sydney is a case in point. Scan through some of the photos of their merchandise and it becomes clear that booksellers are turning to diversification as a means of attracting, and retaining customers. Bookshops don’t have to become one stop shops, but it can’t be too bad for business to offer customers a few extra options.

Engaging customers

Social media, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are boons for contemporary bookshops. Here are platforms that allow them to quickly and readily connect with their customers, helping them maintain a vital edge. Online channels aren’t the only ways of fostering interaction though, and book launches, and community events, also play a role.

Small is better?

In the bookshop survival stakes, you’d think the bigger operators would have the upper hand, on account of being part of a wider chain, and the benefits that must bestow. Sadly, that’s not always the situation, as shop closures, some years ago, by high profile sellers such as Borders, and Angus and Robertson, illustrates. So if the big shops can’t make it, what hope do others have?

More than you might imagine. Smaller, independent, booksellers, especially owner operated stores, are probably more motivated to focus on their customers, and build up relationships, something that may not always be a priority for the bigger players. Buyers are also more likely to find staff at smaller shops better attuned to their interests, than they might elsewhere.

Electronic purveyors of paper

So far it’s been a case of the electronic supplanting the paper when it comes to books, but Sydney based bookseller Big Ego Books have adopted another tack, they operate as an electronic, or online only, seller of paper books. Hardly groundbreaking, but perhaps their specialty, sourcing “rare and hard-to-find titles”, is. There’s market niche for you.

And there we have it…

Well, a few suggestions at least. I for one am not keen to see the end of bookshops, but it certainly looks like plenty are doing something right, so hopefully they’ll be with us for a long time to come. As to the notion of opening a bookshop, it could hardly be considered a lost cause, even if it might not be easy, but here at least are a few pieces of the puzzle.

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One hundred of the best novels written in English

Wednesday, 2 September, 2015

A list of the one hundred best English language novels ever written, as complied by British writer and editor Robert McCrum. Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, and A Passage to India, are among titles that are included.

I expect some choices will be questioned, but it nonetheless makes for a good starting point, if you’re looking for reading suggestions.

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“Go Set a Watchman”, a first look

Monday, 20 July, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, the much anticipated follow-up to Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, was released last week, although some of the first reviews aren’t exactly flattering.

I have no idea when I’ll get to it, since I only read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for first time last year, but if you’re keen for a taste, here is the book’s first chapter, along with some animated illustrations. There’s also a recording of US actor Reese Witherspoon reading the chapter aloud, if you’d rather listen instead.

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A list of books that can be read in less than an hour

Monday, 8 June, 2015

Reading for six minutes can reduce stress by about two-thirds, says some 2009 University of Sussex research, so more reading might therefore be a good thing. But with so much reading material to choose from, and so little time to partake, what to do?

Obtain a bookmark, and read a little each day? That might work, but if it’s a feeling of accomplishment you desire, such as reading a book in a single, less than sixty minute sitting, then these suggestions, that include titles by Annie Proulx, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Elizabeth Kaye, might just fit such a bill.

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The ghostwriting factories of unlimited mystery and imagination

Friday, 5 June, 2015

I was a reader of The Hardy Boys mystery books when I was at middle school, and I probably even took in a couple of Nancy Drew titles as well.

What I didn’t realise though, until just now, is that the stories, the many, numerous, stories, that were first published nearly ninety years ago, were all the products of ghostwriters, who worked what on what appeared to be a well organised production line, churning out title after title:

If writing seems like a lonely profession, try ghostwriting children’s books. “You’re usually in touch with one person, the editor,” says Christopher Lampton, who wrote 11 Hardy Boys books in the 1980s. He sent his books not to a publisher but to a packager called Megabooks – effectively a conduit between the writer and the publisher, Simon & Schuster. When Lampton mailed in drafts, they came back with comments written in several colors. “There were other people, looking at your books, making comments. They’re phantoms,” he says.

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A list of the… best disturbing novels

Tuesday, 21 April, 2015

Richard Eyre’s 2006 film, Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, could certainly be classified as disturbing, but the book of the same name, by Zoë Heller, upon which the movie is based, is, by all accounts, even more so.

Novels that invite you inside the minds of dangerous obsessives, unaware of their own toxic natures, always leave me very unsettled when done well. I wasn’t expecting that the narrator of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal to be quite as malign as she is, and the hatred lurking inside what she thinks is love for her beautiful young teacher colleague left me rattled for days.

It is one of twelve novels deemed by The Guardian to be most disturbing, a list that also includes “American Psycho”, “Blood Meridian”, and “Beside the Sea”.

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A list of the best books of the twentieth century

Monday, 30 March, 2015

This has to be helpful for someone, a list of fiction and non-fiction best selling books for each year of the entire twentieth century, together with titles that were either critically acclaimed or historically significant.

The novelisation of The Phantom Menace, being episode one of the “Star Wars” film saga, comes in at number four on the fiction best selling list for 1999. Could that be down to “Star Wars” fans who were trying to find a little more… meaning to the film?

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The best sort of science fiction novel? A fix up of course

Wednesday, 25 March, 2015

A “fix-up” is a science fiction book, or novel, written by an author who has created the work by stitching together a number of their earlier shorter stories. Some of these fix-up titles are in fact quite well known:

The “fix-up” is a novel that’s constructed out of short stories that were previously published on their own. And a lot of classic science fiction novels were “fix-ups.” Asimov’s I, Robot and Foundation were both published as groups of short stories before becoming books. There’s Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, too. There’s also Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, and Leigh Brackett’s Alpha Centauri or Die!.

I dare say fix-ups are not limited to sci-fi writing though.

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University students prefer paper books over electronic it seems

Wednesday, 4 March, 2015

The cause of the paper book is not entirely lost it seems. University students, in the US at least, appear to have a preference for paper, rather than electronic books, and cite comprehension as a significant factor. While people reading electronic documents will often skim over the text, they tend to read print material a little more carefully.

Readers tend to skim on screens, distraction is inevitable and comprehension suffers. In years of surveys, Baron asked students what they liked least about reading in print. Her favorite response: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”

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A library full of books to help with the rebuilding of civilisation

Monday, 2 March, 2015

If resources were severely restricted, those who might one day find themselves, for whatever reason, having to rebuild the Earth’s civilisations, might have to rely on single sentence snippets of information as starting points. I’m not sure how much that would actually give anyone to work with though.

If it were possible though to preserve a number of books, somehow keep them somewhere safe, and out of the way of whatever brings down today’s civilisations, what titles should such a library, or depository, contain?

Music producer Brian Eno, writer and blogger Maria Popova, and Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly, among others, have been on the case, and suggested titles that could constitute a section of a library to be called the Manual for Civilization, that would house such a collection of books.

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