Is there a future for the independent bookshop?

Independent Bookshop Mr Bs Emporium Bath

Digital buying changed the way we interact with books

Walk into your local independent bookshop and join the numbers browsing, but how many people do you see at the counter buying? We’ve all taken a guilty book photo or noted down a title, only to later order it on Amazon that evening for next-day delivery or to find the e-book version. Is there room for an integrated digital model that persuades us to start buying in our shops?

The closure of independent bookshops, particularly high street stores is no new phenomenon. Recent data from The British Retailers Association, suggests closure is still the trend: ‘Independent shops are in dramatic decline, as more shops closed than opened in the first six months of the year for the first time since 2012. There was a net loss of 144 independent shops in the first half of 2015.’

Our preference for browsing and buying print books online, and our preference for e-book formats over print means independent bookshops are struggling to offer what the modern consumer demands.

Digital buying online
© Static Pexels, 2014

But aren’t independent bookshops all about the print experience?

Booksellers argue independent bookshops can thrive despite digital threats. Innovative survivors such as Daunt Books, Claire De Rouen and Mr B’s Emporium suggest the future is more competitive, but bright. Independent bookshops are places where customers can browse and pick out the covers which attract them visually, finding new titles through personal recommendations, rather than relying on mainstream sales data from Amazon.

Francessa Main, editorial director of Picador emphasises the need for an independent outlook on the book industry suggesting that ‘Amazon is just a giant sea of books, unless you are on the right algorithm you won’t be found’. The advantage of independent bookshops is that they have the potential to reach out and promote new, less well-known titles.

Some booksellers say digital buying is healthy competition for their stores. For example, Johnny de Falbe, co-owner of independent bookshop John Sandoe argues ‘We may have lost some customers, but overall we’ve gained in trade, precisely because of Amazon. The feel of the physical space, and the idea of a bookshop as a nice place to go, matters to people more than ever, and they will make a considerable effort to come here.’

John Sandoe Books
© John Sandoe, 2015

The ambiance of a bookshop and the intimate customer service experience is arguably irreplaceable by the distanced, robotic purchase of books online. Non-fiction art, fashion and photography books remain essential bookshop items because their form and aesthetic is centred on the physical print object.

In an interview, author Irvine Welsh discussed the shift in the community aspect of a bookshop: ‘I am optimistic because I think if bookshops can play the long game, consumers will go back to analogue, and they can become cultural hubs, be it art orientated shops or a social place or music hangout. But, they have to become cultural cafes.’ There is space for independent bookshops to become community orientated.

Independent bookshops may benefit by expanding the ways they bring customers into their business. Already bookshops are finding extensions of their business to attract customers. However, is this enough to meet the digital demand for instant online purchases and e-book availability?

What are Amazon up to with physical digital bookshops?

Meanwhile in the USA, Amazon is seizing an opportunity by launching new physical bookshops in Seattle, Portland and potentially New York. The bookshops integrate Amazon’s book selection with their digital e-books and Kindles. Customers are encouraged to browse shelves organised by categories such as ‘4.8 stars and above’ and ‘Top pre-orders from Amazon.com’.

Amazon Books stated:

We select books based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. We place books face-out on the shelves, so each can communicate its own essence. Under each book is a review card with the Amazon.com customer rating and a review. Most have been rated 4 stars or above and many are award winners.

Amazon open physical bookshops
© Amazon, 2016

Amazon’s customer-facing, digital sales data model bridges the gap between what is selling online and what is available in store. Customers are actively encouraged to use the e-readers on display, browse print copies and purchase the e-book on a device, reducing the isolation of the print and digital spheres.

It is unclear whether Amazon’s move is channeled from desperation, or a desire to experiment with a prototype. In a similar way to Amazon, Barnes & Noble recently teamed up with Nook e-readers, offering incentive schemes such as the ‘Free Fridays Nook Book through the B&N website’ and free downloads over B&N WiFi if you visit the physical store. Fisher claims ‘these free Nook books usually cost money, but as a promotion they’re free just on that Friday. You’ll want to download it that day because it will most likely not become free again.’

Amazon and Barnes & Noble seem to be trying to combine the digital purchase and print browsing experience of the bookshop. Perhaps there is a drive to get customers accessing e-books in store and there is an opportunity to build better relationships with digital technology.

Is there room for an integrated digital model for independent bookshops?

Penguin Random House trialled an online platform called My Independent Bookshop in 2014, which linked the e-commerce website Hive with independent bookshops. The system meant users could ‘choose their favourite real-world independent bookshop to connect with through Hive, benefitting from a 5% commission on book orders and 8% on e-books orders from purchases made through their website’ (The Bookseller).

In this model, a percentage of online sales went back to the bookshop. The delivery option meant the customer was directed to the nearest bookshop to collect their delivery or offered discounts, encouraging customers into bookshops they were unfamiliar with. Marie Telford, owner of The Hayling Island Bookshop, said: ‘This new site is a great way for people to share their favourite books online and we also hope that many of them will come and visit us in person too’.

However, Penguin Random House announced the closure of the platform at the end of 2015, in a move to a new company site. Penguin used the data collected to help map what books readers were interested in through the conversations and reviews they posted on the site. Unfortunately, they decided they could not continue to maintain the website. Michael Kozlowski, Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader suggested the site ‘failed to garner significant interest.’

Perhaps our purchasing habits are becoming ingrained and we are hesitant to change the way we shop for books. Amazon is the go-to for many, simply because of its low prices, ease, outreach and speedy service.

Indie Bound independent book campaign
© Indie Bound, 2016

Organisations such as Books Are My Bag and Indie Bound are campaigning to change our purchasing behaviour and aim to promote independent bookshops. Indie Bound’s mission statement prides itself on the collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors. The campaign argues, ‘For many people bookshops conjure fond images of book readings, in-store cafes and delight at the discovery of a new author. And in fact, 56% of all book buying decisions are made by consumers in a bookshop – but we must continue to celebrate – and shop in! – our fabulous high street bookshops.’

What’s next for the independent bookshop?

Penguin Random House’s pilot My Independent Bookshop was a platform in the early stages. Potentially other organisations could do the same, working on the core system and promoting the service more effectively. There is still room for an alliance with digital platforms and independent bookshops.

Digital technology and independent bookshops could work hand in hand. For example, a barcode system that allows users to photograph the books on their devices, which links them to the e-book extension of the independent bookstore. Apps could ease the way for customers who like to browse selections online, combining services such as ordering books to pick up in store, new releases and notifications on latest events.

The future does look bleak for independent bookshops. Amazon will remain the supergiant of online book sales and their pop-up physical stores could threaten the status of Barnes & Noble. On a more optimistic note, the independent bookshop experience has become bolder and more innovative as a result. There is definitely an exciting opportunity for independent bookshops to beat the decline by interacting with digital technology positively, whether that be event notifications, bookstore apps or the presence of e-books alongside print.