Interesting article in the Daily Telegraph (once I could get in again after the hack!) which discusses the closure of 2,000 bookshops in the UK. The key paragraph is: "There were 2,178 high street bookshops left in Britain in July, according to research carried out by Experian, the data company, compared with 4,000 in 2005. A total of 580 towns do not have a single bookshop." That's a closure of about 300 a year. I personally think '1 bookshop a day closes' would have been the more powerful headline, but then, I'm not a copy editor.
The demise is blamed on the Internet and supermarkets. Well, perhaps. I still go into Forbidden Planet to buy science fiction books whenever I can, even though my preference is to read them on my Kindle. However, it's a buying choice because I like the range, and the ability to browse around stock. However, I also see a lot of people making a note of what they want to buy, or checking prices on Amazon, and I guess a fair few people use bookshops as the shop window. I'm not going to be hypocritical and say that I don't do it as well, because I do. However I also try and make sure that I DO buy something. However - when there's a book costing £10.99 that you can get for £6.99 via Amazon, it's difficult. Not quite so bad if it's a one off, but if you're buying a series of graphic novels for example, that £4 quickly turns into £40 if you're buying a lot.
But you know, I do have to wonder what I actually get from a bookshop? If it's a specialist bookshop, no problem - a depth of knowledge, good advice and so on. Though to be honest, if I ask the average employee 'I've just read a book by x, who would you recommend now?' I'm not entirely sure that I'll get a helpful answer. And yes, Waterstones do have little handwritten slips from their staff recommending titles on the shelves, but that's about all I'll get. The bookshops that I remember are the few (and it is only a few) who go an extra mile, with really comfy seating, fires in winter and so on. However, Borders did that - and I loved Borders and would spend a lot of money there, and they failed.
Is 'the internet' to blame? Well, I'm not sure what that means. Any bookshop can get themselves a website AND start offering books for sale - it's not the province of Amazon y'know. And supermarkets only sell the blockbusters and beach books. I'm sorry that bookshops are going, really I am, but I'm struggling here to see why I should feel sorry for them. My main concern lies elsewhere. If I can get access to the texts (and let's move away from the emotive term 'books') I need online, AND they're reasonably priced AND I can get them quickly - I really don't care. If they're on a Kindle, which allows me to do much more than I can with a physical item, so much the better. If I can get them from the LIBRARY, better again. However, if I can't do that, then I'm losing out, and I'm going to get mightily miffed about it.
However, there's nothing to stop people self publishing - although of course there is the problem that the authors are not getting an advance to enable them to write, but on the other hand, unless you're a really well known author who doesn't need the money you aren't going to be getting much of an advance. This is why - in my opinion - we need more libraries. Libraries and librarians are excellently placed to offer advice, the specialist help, the friendly environment, the room to sit and read and so on. CILIP's Mark Taylor has spoken about the 'book desertification' going on the UK and he's absolutely right. While this is all bad news for the bookshop, it does give libraries another shot of ammo to use against the people who are moaning on about 'close the libraries because I can get what I want from a bookshop'. And I'm sorry, but it's true. If I had a choice of a bookshop in a town or a library, it's a no brainer.What's important is that anyone who wants to read should be able to do so - quickly, easily and at as little cost as possible. Libraries tick all of those boxes, bookshops less so.
Specialist bookshops will survive if they are sensibly located, easy to reach and are able to offer much more than shelves of books. Booksellers need to look at what libraries do, and do well, and attempt to adapt their service as much as they can. But the death of bookshops runs much deeper than the kneejerk reaction of blaming the net and supermarkets - it goes right to the heart of a changing economy, a changing society and a change to the means of writing and production. The book industry has to look to itself - just because it's been around for 400 years plus doesn't give it any God given right to continue to exist, and I'm reminded of Swiss watchmakers who completely ignored the digital watch since they didn't think people would want them. Some people don't, and won't wear one, most of us will cheerfully accept second best because it's easier and cheaper. Much the same can be said of the book publishing industry, and it's going to go the way of the cuckoo clock unless it adapts, and adapts quickly and stops looking around for people to blame.
And before you go, here's a poll. I'm interested to know how many physical books you have bought this year from a physical bookshop which isn't a second hand or remaindered shop. Since the majority of people who read this will read a lot I would expect high numbers, but I am wondering..