Bookshops VS Online: Who’s Winning?
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.