Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Turns in the road

I've just sent this email to my bookshop customers...

Dear friends,

I realise that I have been sharing my thoughts on the future of the bookshop with friends recently, and as a result I'll soon be guilty of starting my own rumours.

So here is the truth, unvarnished by rumour!

Not long ago, a good day's takings here were between £150 and £200. Sometimes a lot more. Nowadays a good day can be around £50, often a lot less. There are still a number of regulars who order their books from me, but the really noticeable and substantial difference is the disappearance of that very special variety of bookshopper, the browser.

And it is the browser who makes the bookseller's life worthwhile, both financially but also because the bookseller is always selecting and stocking new books (and backlist) to catch the eye of interested browser. It is enjoyable and challenging and fun. Take away the browser and the enjoyment, the challenge and the fun disappear too.

Although in financial terms, I don't lose money sitting here, it can get very quiet at times and I wonder what is the point. And if I pay someone to stand in for me on the occasional day off or holiday, then I do actually lose money every hour they are here.

I'd like to think -- as I once did -- that one day I'd retire, and that Charlbury is the kind of place where someone else might like to take the shop over. Perhaps that is still the case, and perhaps someone will come forward. Let's see.

I shall continue to Christmas and into January, and then make a strategic withdrawal! Angela and I have a month planned in South Africa, and I'd like to spend my 70th birthday in May covering at least a part of the Camino de Santiago (Well, maybe! Dream on!). Retirement is a time to explore, to expand one's horizons, to step out.

So there you are. It is impossible to predict the future of bookshops in this country. We are the only country in Western Europe that has voted (literally) to give a free rein to Amazon in the name of competition. Neither the French nor the Germans, the Dutch nor the Spanish, the Swedes nor the Swiss have taken this route to the future, and of course it shows in other ways too. I'd imagine that at least half the independent bookshops in the UK will have closed within a year, and Waterstones will keep shedding staff until all they have got left to shed are their shops.

But it is not just Amazon. There are good reasons too why bookshops will, even should, close. Ebooks are maintained at artificially high prices yet cost almost nothing to produce and sell. Prices will tumble when publishers no longer see any point in trying to shore up the price of the printed editions -- when so few people buy the paper copies that it no longer matters. It is all a question of tipping points. Thanks to ebooks prices should tumble and books become more accessible and affordable than ever. And the elderly can change the size of the print, while the reader itself is lighter than most books... There is good news here.

OK, so Charlbury keeps its bookshop at least until the new year. If you have any thoughts on how a bookshop might continue here beyond then, or whether it is even worth considering that option, let me know. But do remember that running a shop is not something you do in theory, it's something you do in practice.

That's all for now. There will be more on my blog in good time (see link below). Meanwhile all feedback welcome...


I'll have more to say about this here soon. And I'll report on what feedback I get...

1 comment:

montmorency said...

Oh Dear Jon,

I have only recently discovered your bookshop, and now it seems it will disappear.

I'm sorry to hear it, but of course I understand your reasons.

On bookshops generally, isn't the original problem with the demise of the Net Book Price Agreement (or whatever it was called)?

That allowed the large bookshops (and supermarkets and chains) to offer massive discounts which the small bookshops could not hope to compete with.

We lost swathes of small independent booksellers that time around, and this was long before Amazon got a hold.

Now Amazon is even putting the big boys out of business. Sic transit gloria mundi.

As you suggest, Germany (I don't know about the others) did things differently. The Germans love their books (and e-books and audiobooks), and they also make more use of acid-free paper than we do, I believe - my German paperbacks seem to last longer than my British ones anyway.

On e-books: they have their strong-points, but they also have their problems.

It means people will be at the mercy of technology, and Kindle users at the mercy of Amazon's whim, since technically, they haven't purchased the book at all, merely leased the right to read it. And Amazon want you to read your e-book only on their Kindle and not on another maker's e-reader (although there are unofficial ways round this).

Well, best wishes, and I hope whatever plans you have come to fruition.

Mike Ellwood