I had an interesting conversation with one of my publishers last week about the general state of book retail in the UK. I’m always interested in this subject, but I’m especially interested at the moment because I’m taking part in a show on Australian television about the future of the book and I need some thought starters.
Anyway, the upshot of the conversation was the thought that in the UK the future is to some extent the past. What do I mean by this? Partly that big bookshop chains will more or less disappear and we will be left with WH Smith. This is somewhat ironic given what a mess this company (I can’t quite use the word bookseller) seems to be in, but WH Smith has been in a mess positioning-wise for as long as I can remember.
They’ll be Amazon, of course, and probably Apple too. And then there will be the independents and a handful of small local or specialist chains. Most independents will go to the wall, but a few will prosper, either because they have a strong niche or because they are firmly embedded in a local community, which is probably urban and/or academic.
Anything else? I suspect we’ll see some kind of hybrid retail with bookshops selling coffee and cakes as merely the beginning. Think of bookshops in libraries, bookshops in schools (partly to replace the school library, R.I.P) and book kiosks in hospitals, hotels and pubs.
Book vending and instant book printing machines? Nope. Why would you bother when you can instantly download an e-book to a Kindle or an iPad in a couple of minutes?
I also think that book retail will polarise. Part of it (the larger part I’d imagine) will be increasingly price and promotions driven. Very large retailers (i.e supermarkets) will pick up a bit of this business but most will be online. At the other extreme, the impulse/browsing end of the market will stay in bookshops and it will be the overall experience that people buy, not just the book.
This sounds very gloomy but strangely enough far from standing on the wrong side of history, many writers, readers (and publishers) will actually benefit from all this disruption First, the very bad news. Books will become just another commodity. People will consume books like they consume baked beans, which is without much thought. Indeed most people won’t read books or, if they do, they will read what everyone else is reading. This is happening already. 40% of Americans read one book or less in 2009 and 1 in every 17 books sold in the US since 2006 has been written by the crime novelist James Patterson. Over in Britain it’s a similar story. In 2009, 133,000 books were published (the highest number on record) but just 500 authors (1%) were responsible for 30% of total sales. So, in the future, we should expect further consolidation, both in terms of what people read and where they buy.
We should also expect the concept of the books to change. For example, novels will become collaborative (user-generated), which is to say that novels will be ‘written’ with help from their readers with assistance from one or more ‘authors’ (i.e. often they won’t really be written by the person named on the cover but their name will be used much in the same way that celebrity chefs run restaurants or write cookbooks). They will also be personalised. If you wish to appear in a novel you will be able to write yourself in. Equally, if you want to change the overall mood or require a specific ending these will be available too. However, this shrinking of context will mean two things. First it will be an accelerant for narcissistic tendencies and second it will narrow peoples’ worldview. We will simply use books to reflect the world as we already know it.
Now the good news. People will eventually work out that something significant happens when words that once appeared on paper appear on a screen. Books transform the act of reading. A book is a static work authored by a single individual that requires time to create and to read. With screens, the situation is different.
Screens are connected to something much larger (the Internet), which contains other items fighting for the readers’ attention. Moreover, language and ideas do not have the same depth on screen as they do on paper. In other words, we will eventually re-discover that the medium is the message.
As the antiquitarian bookseller Ed Maggs says: ‘As books become less a quotidian part of our lives, replaced by various digital formats, the extraordinary virtues of the book will be more recognised for what they are … as photography only increased our appreciation of fine art, so digital books with replace only the ugly and the ephemeral, and will sharpen our appreciation of the real thing.’ Good news for any of the physical bookshops that remain.