The Bookshops Fight Back: Strategies to survive the digital age

Bookshops and their troubles have been big news in the past few years. Bookshop numbers have dwindled around the world, as customers have increasingly opted for the convenience of low-cost multinational websites like Amazon and Book Depository.

But it’s not all bad news: many booksellers are continuing to thrive by playing to their strengths and adapting the way they do business.

Many Australian bookshops are now active online, both selling books and communicating with their customers through social media.

‘We’re trying to create an online space that reflects our shops,’ says Emily Harms, marketing manager of Readings. ‘We “handsell” books through our blog posts and social media recommendations.’

Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, says that prices in Australia have dropped over the past 18 months, responding to the changes in exchange rates, and decreasing the price gap with overseas online suppliers. This makes it more viable to compete — though it doesn’t level the playing field, in an environment where many books are priced below cost.

Jon Page’s Kindle Amnesty

Jon Page, general manager of Sydney’s Pages and Pages, made international headlines this year by fighting Amazon head-on with his Kindle Amnesty. On the third Saturday of every month, customers are invited to trade in their Kindle for a $50 book voucher, with the purchase of a BeBook Touch e-reader. (There is a bin in the shop for old Kindles.)

Page says he is ‘trying to start a dialogue with our customers about other issues that are involved in buying books from overseas retailers, like the fact they don’t pay GST, employ local people, support local schools and promote local authors’. He says the Kindle Amnesty has been a huge success in selling ebooks, but also in making people aware of what the Kindle is and how it works. Three Kindles have been traded in to date, and there have been ‘countless conversations with customers who have been considering buying a Kindle and have changed their mind’.

Pages and Pages has been selling ebooks for two years. ‘It’s been a huge learning curve,’ says Page. ‘It is a totally different way to not only read and digest books, but also to sell and recommend books.’ But he is pragmatic, calculating that ebooks as a format will represent 25% of book sales: ‘we can’t afford to lose 25% of our customers’.

Selling ebooks in physical bookshops, one of the first ebook platforms available to independent booksellers, closed down in June this year. Its demise has been a blow to the booksellers who pioneered the home-grown publishing platform. Readings in Melbourne and Avid Reader in Brisbane are still searching for a replacement.

‘I’m still really dedicated to that notion that I should be able to supply books to my customers in any format they want,’ says Fiona Stager, manager of Avid Reader. ‘It’s just about finding a business model that’s viable. I’m prepared to lose money, but I can’t lose too much.’ Emily Harms, says that selling ebooks is very much part of Readings' future. It’s about being ‘a one-stop shop for all things books for our customers’.

Joel Becker is optimistic about the future of bookshops selling ebooks, saying that there are, ‘for the first time’, viable solutions for both large and small booksellers in Australia. ‘Any bookshops that wish to sell ebooks will be in a position to, for the coming holiday season and beyond’.

Some of the options on offer at the moment include Kobo (working with Collins Booksellers), and ReadCloud and Copia (both working with various indie bookshops).

Bookshops to partner with Amazon?

British bookselling chain Waterstones partnered with Amazon in May 2012, agreeing to sell and promote its Kindle tablets in its shops. Journalist Charlotte Harper covered the digital transformation of the book industry between 2010 and 2012 for Fairfax; she heads digital publishing business Editia. Harper suggests that Australian independent bookshops could be wise to follow Waterstones’ lead, clubbing together to negotiate better terms with Amazon.

‘Amazon has a huge chunk of the ebook market (between 60 and 80 per cent here, depending on who you ask), and while their customers are locked into the Kindle platform, they are not unhappy about it, because prices are low and the technology works well. Small, individual booksellers don’t have the clout to offer a competitive service in terms of price and convenience. So why not accept this rather than fight it?’

Under this system, customers could buy Kindle ebooks as they browse in-store, ‘guilt-free in the knowledge that their favourite indie is receiving a cut’.

Harper believes this would work for Amazon too, as it would both bring them more ebook customers and improve their reputation.

Books as gifts

The bookshops we spoke to report that they are centring their strategies on emphasising what they can offer and Amazon can’t, including author events, personal recommendations, book clubs and books as gifts.

‘People laugh when I say this, but I can compete with Amazon and Book Depository because I’ve got one big advantage,’ says Fiona Stager. ‘If you can see it on my shelf, you can buy it there and then.’ She says that books as gifts are an important part of her business; Avid Reader not only provides ‘beautiful’ gift-wrapping for free, but does ‘drive-by pick-ups’ for customers looking for last-minute gifts. ‘We’ll run it out to their car. Amazon can’t do that.’

Charlotte Harper says that bookshops need to realise that customers will still come to them for gifts and impulse purchases, but will shop around for price and convenience at other times.

‘They will be used as a showroom by those who will make mental (or physical) notes and then buy elsewhere. They can simply accept that or try to retain these customers by, say, sticking QR codes on key titles linking to cheaper ebook editions and selling and offering expertise on ereading devices in-store.’

Combating ‘showrooming’

‘Showrooming’ is a digital age phenomenon where customers use physical bookshops to browse for ideas and information, then order the books from Amazon or Book Depository online. Amazon has capitalised on the trend, creating an iPhone app that allows you to buy items online without leaving the bookshop, simply by scanning the barcode on your phone.

Corrie Perkin’s My Bookshop has addressed such practices subtly, with a line of bookmarks and cards promoting books and bookshops. One includes a quote from Ann Patchett’s The Bookshop Strikes Back: ‘If a bookstore matters to you, then shop at a bookstore’.

Embiggen Books has created posters that discourage people from showrooming, with slogans such as ‘Find it here, Buy it here, Keep us here’.

‘I imagine people do it, but at the same time, people are using all of that technology to find the books they want when they come to me,’ says Fiona Stager. ‘They’ll often hand over a photo of a book and say, My friend told me about this.’

Awareness campaigns and crowdsourcing

Andrea Hanke, editor of industry magazine Books and Publishing, is enthusiastic about industry-wide campaigns designed to increase community awareness of the role bookshops play.

More than 20,000 people voted in the Australia’s Favourite Bookshop poll as part of this year’s National Bookshop Day (run by the Australian Booksellers' Association). Andrea believes that the initiative has been ‘really useful in getting positive stories about local bookshops into the mainstream media.’

National Bookshop Day 2013

Above: William McInnes in the promo for National Bookshop Day 2013.

She also ‘loves’ the current UK campaign, featuring photos of celebrities carrying cloth bags with the slogan ‘Books Are My Bag’. ‘It’s a great collaboration between booksellers, publishers and a hotshot advertising firm.’

In America, several indie booksellers have turned to crowdsourcing to raise funds. Could that happen in Australia? Joel Becker is uncomfortable about the idea of bookshops being regarded as charities, rather than ‘important parts of their local business and cultural communities’. But, he says, there have been instances of the customer base of a bookshop being mobilised to save the shop, going to ‘extraordinary means’ to preserve its place in the community.

He cites Melbourne’s Collected Works, an iconic poetry and philosophy bookshop that was considering closing its doors a few years ago, due to a likely rent increase. ‘Their customers, as a grass roots engagement, organised a Christmas buying evening, coupled with poetry readings, and increased their sales by enough on that night to wear the rental increase.’

‘A sense of community is great but it will not save bookshops,’ says Jon Page. ‘What bookshops are facing at the moment is battle over relevancy in the changing retail environment. The bookshop needs to be the primary place readers seek out books, whatever the format, otherwise only a handful are going to survive.’


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