Bookshops VS Online: Who’s Winning?


daunt-books-marylebone-02If you write a book and nobody gets to hear about it or read it, was there any point in you writing it in the first place?

I ask myself this after talking to a very talented writer friend who has repeatedly sold his excellent work to a small press company. They produce beautiful books but don’t make any effort to sell them to the public, and their only outlet is through their website. As a result, they barely register on anyone’s radar, and operate as little more than vanity press.

It’s analogous to making British films no-one sees because they can’t get theatrical distribution. The UK allowed US cinemas in supposedly on the condition that a certain number of digital screens would show homegrown fare, but of course it didn’t happen. Amazon is publishing fan fiction on the same basis in an attempt to break publishing houses, but as they return virtually no profit at all to the writers who sign with them, it’s a battle the publishing houses look like winning in the long term.

The surprise was that, although e-reading figures are up, so are the sales of physical books. Turns out it’s not an either/or thing – instead there’s room in the market for both

I’ve always argued that more formats mean more sales, and have seen this born out again and again. VHS/Betamax/Laserdisc/DVD was going to destroy home viewing, but more platforms benefitted everyone. Hold-back windows just damage business, and it would make far more sense to have everything released on all formats on the same date.

Amazon replaced (and greatly improved on) Woolworths, but it doesn’t have the personal specialist knowledge of a traditional publishing house. It’s an industry driven by personality and passion, not by technology; when Hollywood agencies came to London in the 1990s to wipe the floor with UK agents, they were demolished and returned home defeated, seen off by an army of small, highly personalised agencies whose clients were fiercely loyal to them.

Writers need to maximise their selling ability, and while it appears that Amazon has by far the greatest reach of any bookseller, your book is entered into a profit matrix that gives it less exposure than it would get from an individual editor championing the book at an established publishing house.

Certainly the traditional model is changing fast; there’s no reason for book tours (unless you’re a Top 20 author) when you can get the attention of several thousand followers on Twitter, and bookshops have no room for the kind of stock you find online. But in the UK at least, bookshops continue to offer a personal service that customers enjoy, and the public is attaching more and more value to personal experience – but on a smaller-scale level than before, so that outside of the grand-scale flagship bookshops, it’s the local independents who benefit. It may be an irrational way of buying books now, especially if you use an e-reader, but it’s still a pleasurable, spontaneous experience, as Foyles, which goes from strength to strength, knows.

In the battle to be heard, tech-heads will tell you that traditional publishing houses are dead – in reality, without a way of gambling on and promoting individual titles (which requires old-school in-house production meetings) publishing may be the one market that holds its own against the online onslaught.

5 comments on “Bookshops VS Online: Who’s Winning?”

  1. Henry Ricardo says:

    During my recent visit to the UK, I visited Blackwell’s and Waterstones. Even though they have become large chain stores, I found a level of personal care that I appreciated. (I *do*, however, order many books from Amazon in the states–occasionally Amazon UK).

  2. Donna says:

    I don’t know if anywhere out there does it but I wish you could buy hardback books with codes that allowed you to download the ebook version in the same way you can buy blu rays with digital copies. I love having books on the shelves but the ereader is often more convenient. I would also like to be able to avoid that torment when needing to clear some space – am I really likely to want or have the time to read that book again.

  3. Roger says:

    … a very talented writer friend who has repeatedly sold his excellent work to a small press company. They produce beautiful books but don’t make any effort to sell them to the public, and their only outlet is through their website.

    If your friend sells his work to this company, presumably they pay him. The money must come from somewhere- where? Or did you use the wrong word for their transactions? If his work is “excellent”, presumably a more commercially-oriented publisher would be willing to issue it.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Q.)What was announced for mid-November and arrived from Amazon this afternoon?
    A.)’Deadly Pleasures’ which is a new hardback Crime Writers’ Association anthology. Admin mentioned it a while back.
    It has 17 new stories by many well known crime weavers and another that is newish for a total of 18. For readers of this blog of interest will be the story between pages 69 and 88: ‘Bryant And May In The Field’.
    At the end of the second paragraph Bryant says to May: “I remember the last time we left London. It was awful. There were trees everywhere.” {And if I recall correctly, they got snowbound, too.}
    Excellent beginning! Arthur is channeling his author. Page flipping on ripping open the box suggests they are going for a chilly climb on Primrose Hill to view a corpse. What could be better? A short story while waiting for the novel in March.
    I’ll polish my lens, pour a glass of red, get a fresh bookmark and head for the reading chair.
    A second mystery: Why does Amazon often announce a new British book for one month and it then arrives four to ten weeks sooner? But no complaints.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    It was a very good Bryant & May short.
    A touch of J.D. Carr, too. Admin wrote he had been rereading Carr recently and it paid off in a nifty story and a nice tribute to Carr with a heck of a clever method of murder. I’ll string you along no further.
    Now waiting for the new novel and eventually a collection of B & M shorts, so I can read all that I’ve missed. The latter was recently promised, in writing, a few posts back.

Comments are closed.