Spent an interesting couple of hours with an online bookseller yesterday researching an upcoming column about selling over the Internet. Ian Bruce works out of a disused British Telecom phone exchange, a long narrow building with only one window nestled between the sandstone houses favoured by Britain’s new ruralized yuppies in the quaint English countryside.
I learned a lot about how the Internet has changed the booktrade of which I was once a small part. In particular, how Amazon is, with its Marketplace, doing the same to the second-hand trade as it did to new books. Now booksellers sell popular books for 1 pence (a couple of U.S. cents) and make their profit on the Amazon allowance for postage, which is about $5 in the UK. This of course squeezes the smaller booksellers out of the game, since they can’t exist on that kind of margin. “The thought of trying to make a livable wage on less than one pound is ludicrous,” Ian tells me.
The market, he says, is quickly maturing, pushing more and more small sellers out of business: “The market in the U.S. has developed to maturity and people are pricing to the absolute margin,” he says. “This will eventually happen in the UK too and for that reason it’s absolutely absurd to stock any popular book.” The result: Booksellers like him are furiously weeding out any book they might recognise and holding on only to those books that have some sort of rarity value. “My rule of thumb is, if I haven’t heard of the title or author, then I might be interested.”
This is a grim view of the bookselling world, although it hasn’t quite imploded. My local bookshop, Kingsthorpe Bookshop, is still going, but the proprietor is threatening retirement soon. Hay on Wye, a mecca for bookworms, still hosts dozens of small bookshops which all seemed to be surviving when I visited them a few weeks back. But while books are an odd commodity — what other business requires you to stock a selection of thousands of single units only, year in year out? — the Internet is removing the last few kinks from the market, and it will only be a matter of time before copies of every book ever published can be hunted down at the click of a mouse.
The likely result is that folk like Ian won’t have much business. Sitting on stock won’t be worthwhile, but neither will the skill of matching customer requests with books be much of a skill either. The trick may end up finding those books that are commanding high prices in the short interval before everyone else digs up more copies and pulls the price down. “You look for the unpopular books,” says Ian, “that there will be someone — some man in Brazil, perhaps — may be looking for.”