Tag Archives: Bookselling

Bookselling And The Internet

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.”

A Way To Marry Offline And Online Shopping?

Further to my post about the perils of offline browsing and online buying, here’s a possible solution, from Wi-Fi Networking News: Software that lets PDA users check out details and reviews of a book while in the bookstore. SmartWorlds’ free software lets PDA users (customers can borrow a PDA and scanner from staff) shop and learn more about books while they’re in a bookstore: Users are connected to Amazon.com’s site where they can read reviews of the book, check pricing, and see other books recommended by readers.

Here’s the neat bit: In Boston, where the service is in place, the Trident bookstore is considered an affiliate of Amazon so if users of this service later buy one of the books they browsed for on Amazon, Trident earns a commission. Whether other bookstores are brave enough to do this I’m not sure, but it’s a possible answer to the problem outlined in the earlier post. The beauty of it is that the bookstores play to their strengths: a great, comfortable place to browse and hang out, and the unmistakable allure of allowing customers to have that book in their hands, right now.

Buying Online And Its Impact

I usually agree with Mike of TechDirt, but the trend he points to here worries me: browsing for what you want to buy offline (i.e. in shops) and then buying online. All well and good if you’re talking about big brick and big mortar department stores, megamalls etc, but what about the small corner store or bookshop? That kind of approach is just going to accelerate the destruction of the small vendor.

CNET quotes a study that “while nearly half of those surveyed use the Internet to look for products and then buy them either in a store or through a catalog, 45 percent are buying online after researching gifts in stores and catalogs”. If everyone did that, there would be no stores to do your research in. For sure, folk are not going to buy something that’s much more expensive, but they should consider the longer term impact of where they buy. As a former bookseller, I know customers don’t think that hard about what life would be like without a bookshop until it’s too late to stop buying their fare at the big mall at the end of the street.