The future of the guidebook – a series of guest posts by Mark Henshall

This is the last in a series of five guest posts – today answering the question:

How is the pressure from online booksellers affecting traditional bookshop
(These views are my own and not necessarily those of my Publisher.

Publishers evolve, brands develop and so do those, importantly, who make this all count: the people; the writers and editors, as we’ve discussed. Retail needs the same level of innovation and adaptability, and you can see this played out right now between the high-street and online suppliers.

A smaller retail environment means a narrower offering and less choice for travellers on the ground. In my opinion, for the sake of variety, it would be good to see a balance between high-street and online shopping. Online provides a huge opportunity for book sales and other new travel experiences to flourish, but I really think there’s something to be gained from being in a store and flicking through a book in your hand, that you can’t always get online.

These days we speak a lot about “social” in terms of social media and apps etc. However, there is a face-to-face human “social” transaction we miss when we purchase online. I wonder if this aspect will be happily given up altogether and what its impact will be if it is?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as screen-fixated as the next person and find online sites a godsend when I’m looking for information , but I wonder if the resilience in the children’s sector (see my previous post: Is the travel guidebook on the verge of extinction? ) has something to do with the value of in-store shopping activity? And will we lose something in that shopping activity (beyond rabid consumerism, of course…). John Naughton’s thoughts about whether shopping as a social activity will trump the economy and convenience of online are really interesting. I’ve also got some time for Will Self’s take on online shopping, which makes me long for great, little indy bookshops!

Nonetheless many of us do seem to like the simplicity and convenience of the online book shopping experience and I can’t see the increase in online shopping abating. But I think it would be a great shame if bookshops don’t keep a visible presence on our streets as part of the overall piece, and I’m talking streets here as well as out-of-town destinations. Conversely, while “bricks-and-clicks” are integrating, I believe we’ll see more online players take to the high street looking primarily for brand engagement and click-and-collect options, rather than as a main sales driver, like the recent eBay pop-up shop.

The upside for a book retailer such as Waterstones could be that it creates an online environment which offers more access points to stay engaged with the travel community. An enhanced site has been promised, come June, when its website platform returns from the domain of its previous owner HMV. This kind of blurring of the physical and virtual markets strikes me as a good thing. That said, it will be interesting to see how new MD James Daunt overhauls Waterstones’ bricks and mortar locations to offer something distinct. He has spoken about a drive to connect shops to “local” communities and his appointment – given his background as the founder of Daunt Travel Books chain - was well received by the industry as a whole.

How do we stack up as a nation? Phillip Downer wrote a great piece comparing London and New York City shops, such as McNally Jackson “elite and accessible” and the Scholastic Store where “‘reading is a fun adventure’ slogans come to life”. It gives me hope there’s different initiatives to get shops busy.

For a feel of being a bookseller on the ground check out the sharp blog by DorianThornley, who runs Westsider Books, NY. This taps into the paradigm shift in book culture covered in my first post and how booksellers are meeting the challenge.

If the high-street is to flourish it will need to compete, add value, and tap more into consumer behaviour. Things to consider? How stores use and develop: space; brands; the list range; events; seasonality; value; service; emotional connection; integrate online and e-book selling; and provide a focus for customers. The high-street needs to be smarter than ever. My own positive experience of shopping with children - kids being switched on and engaged to discover new books - and the robustness of that particular sector, leads me to think that other areas in-store need the same care and attention, to replicate the experience for adults.

If we look at travel operators for comparison on the high-street, what are we to make of new shop openings by Kuoni? Or of Virgin opening their first retail store in High Street Kensington? Andrew Aylett, Planning Director, OgilvyAction thinks Virgin is tapping into something here with what he calls “cutting edge digital technology and good old-fashioned hospitality”. For Aylett, the way ahead lies in the “emotional connection that sits behind their proposition” and in creating a memorable and compelling brand experience.

One thing I’d agree with Aylett on is the use of “storytelling” as a social currency that “drives involvement beyond the confines of the outlet”. Travel is, perhaps, very well-placed to create something powerful that resonates for customers in this area, offline and online. The creation of imaginative storytelling for a ‘traveller’s arc’ (planning to post-trip memories) is something I touched upon in my first post. For travel providers and retailers, I see this opportunity to curate stories as a virtuous circle of recommendation and engagement for the reader, and perhaps a space in which to craft and design something radical, individual and enduring.

What do you think?

 Image: Sergio Montijano

22 thoughts on “Is there a future for high street bookshops?

  1. Check out this article in Slate comparing independent bookstores to Amazon: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/12/independent_bookstores_vs_amazon_buying_books_online_is_better_for_authors_better_for_the_economy_and_better_for_you_.html

    Much of our attachment to the small bookstore is emotional. In reality, they have limited selections and higher prices which results in fewer people buying books and fewer books being sold.

    They aren't good for readers and they aren't good for authors. They are good for creating a sense of nostalgia for the past when, of course, all things were better.

    With margins of 70% compared to 15%, ebooks are FAR better for authors.

    People who buy ebook readers tend to consume more than twice the number of books they used to in print.

    It would be far better to just create a pub or coffee shop with bookshelves where people can indulge their emotional need to be surrounded with paper, than to actually try to prop up small bookstores as an industry.

    I know that isn't a popular notion, but if you look at it objectively, its true.

    The 21st Century has created a dichotomy which never made sense before: that between books and reading. There is a difference between loving books and loving reading.

    Personally, I love reading much more than I do books. Books are just the medium to convey the ideas. It is the ideas which matter.

  2. I think its true that there is a difference between loving books and loving reading. I don't mind reading on a Kindle but I like to browse real books in a real book stores, doing it on-line is simply not fun for me. Sometimes you are drawn to books by the way they look and feel and come around to the subject matter later, you might get introduced to new subjects, end up reading somthing you hadn't considered before, this happens a lot in stores but not while browsing on Amazon. Reading a book without the book feels like there's somethig missing, souless somehow

  3. A couple of things

    In 2008, in Islington, Borders (a big UK book store) rented out half their top floor to a Starbucks concession and a quarter of their ground floor to Paperchase (a frilly wrapping paper concession).

    They then went down a 2 for 1 discount route.

    Long story short they went bust a couple of years later because they forgot what makes a good book shop.

    Retail shops that sell books are never going to compete with Amazon on price alone. But they can compete in the UK at least, not having Royal Mail in the supply chain (December - forget about Amazon), emotional attachment, knowledge, walk away right there with a book, and loyalty. Bookshops will survive IMO, but they'll look like Daunts or Stanfords.

    My other half is a fairly senior publisher. They love the margin on ebooks and that they can control their own distribution. Apart from in certain sectors of publishing eg academia and kids books, Amazon has become just too powerful. So they still see books as part of the supply chain because some books just don't work electronically (yet). You buy an ebook of the Gruffalo and see how long your Kindle lasts...

    I personally think the future is in hybrid books. ie I buy the latest Robert Harris at the airport (maybe for a couple of quid more) and I get a free code that allows a one off download to my chosen ereader/tablet. But that might be too much like common sense. Publishers all writing in XML might change things quicker than you'd expect though.

    As far as self-publishing or (vanity publishing) goes - it's always been there. The barriers to entry are just lower, even if the margins can be higher. Issue is a lot of it (not all) has been shit. Hey ho.

    ps. Enjoyed this series a lot Mark. Thoughtful stuff.

    1. Sorry, Stuart, I have to put your right on your Borders assertion. Every store always had a cafe and a Paperchase, and when the Islington store opened in 2001, it did so with Starbucks and Paperchase in the locations they occupied throughout its tenure. Both contributed usefully to the profitability of the store, and to its popularity with local residents (and Islington was always a very profitable store).
      The big bookstore model no longer works - outside of specialist or flagship locations like Foyles in Charing Cross Road - because it's no longer economic in the world of Amazon, Kindle and relentless discounting to carry a backlist of over 50,000 book titles. Customers stopped buying not because of 3 for 2s, but because they could get a bigger selection online at a lower price.
      I support the hybrid book idea, and I believe is a future for small, independent bookshops. And I'd advise against any of them opening without a coffee or card offer.

      1. Hi Philip

        Stand corrected on dates. Islington was profitable - really? Everytime I was in there (and we have a shop* opposite) Starbucks and Paperchase were mobbed - only time there was a queue at the book tills was in December though. Still think most of the customers in that store were after lattes or cards...
        Interesting advice for independents though

        Cheers Stu

        ps. Ironically our store is an ex-Bookstore. Hey ho.

  4. Small publishers, small bookshops = microbreweries, owner-run freehouses.

    The major corporate brewers and chain pubs offer better margins, cheaper beers. But the former are just... for want of a better word, better. And thriving like never before, despite being pricier. So, in that sense, they are a little farther down the curve than my publisher/bookshop analogues. But it wasn't long ago that London had just one brewer left, Fuller's. Now? Well, I'm not sure, because at current speeds, another will have opened by the time I finish typing this comment.

    That said, there will always be those (a majority, probably) who want to get shitfaced for £15, and that's never going to be possible when you're paying £4 a pint.


    I'm not sure that totally works as an analogy, by the way. It just came to me and thought I'd stick it here and see if anyone shreds it. As in just about every industry you could care to name, I suspect there's room for a multitude of (well-run) models. Craft stuff costs more, though, and books and bookshops are slowly moving into the category of "craft stuff". Bits and bytes are cheaper and easier to distribute.

    And I second the above: nice post, and good series. But then I'm biased, because Mark is my editor, so take that as my declaration of interest...

  5. I was struck recently by an Andalucia supplement that came free with the Telegraph. I have no idea what they cost, but must be many thousands of pounds. It was sponsored/paid for by the Andalucia tourist board.
    It struck me (again) that tour cos., tourist boards etc just don't see the inherent value of guidebooks. It really amazes me. I struggle to get any support from tourist boards etc when I'm updating my guidebooks.
    Wouldn't it be cool if a tourist board sponsored displays in a bookshop? The bookshop maybe offers reductions on guidebooks, maps etc. Tourist board provides some nice displays, some food to sample, maybe even a few experts on hand to advise people. How about some money-off vouchers with various tour/holiday cos as well?
    The bookshop as a place to congregate, discuss, find stuff out, share... could that work?

    1. It does feel to me as if bookshops really need to up their game with customer loyalty stuff too.
      I get a free cup of coffee after I buy 8 at Pret.
      And I never get asked if I'd like to be on a mail list when I buy a book at a bookstore.
      Bookshops need to work at building engagement with their customers - to me it feels like most of them have absolutely no idea.
      We dined at a restaurant chain a while back and liked the service and the food. They had a feedback form to fill in and opportunity to provide email address for deals and offers. My wife did it. We get offers - we go back there from time to time. They now know when her birthday is too so they sent a special deal through for that etc etc
      Bookshops need to start thinking about keeping and retaining customers... god, they have a very long way to go don't they?

  6. What an interesting topic for discussion! I believe the fate of high-street bookshops lies in the hands of local communities: the lack of personal interaction in online book shopping can be used to advantage by high-street bookshops. After all, how can http://www.amazon.com organize weekly book readings for kids or author signings? This philosophy of community spirit has made the reputation of independent bookstores such as Shakespeare and Company (www.shakespeareandcompany.com) in Paris.

    My favourite bookshop is the English Book Centre (www.englishbookcentre.com) in the French village of Valbonne near my farmhouse in Southern France. This bookshop has been running for over 20 years: the secret to its success is the owner's emotional connection with the local Anglophone community through regular book clubs and literary luncheons.

    While independent, niche bookshops can flourish, I think that bookshop chains will have to work harder at developing customer loyalty in order to survive. Loyalty cards often involve too much form-filling, so simpler methods and immediate pay-backs (buy two books and get the third free) should be encouraged. The bookshop experience needs to be completely re-written: comfortable sofa corners for reading with coffee machines and chocolate buns on tap would be a start...

  7. Great posts mark. Very interesting. I think the bookshop has a lot to offer still. A great bookshop from an author's point of view is obviously one that promotes their work, but does so in an atmosphere that encourages readers to get involved. Bookshops have to be on the ball here. Waterstones in Hitchin for me was a great sample of how an in-store signing can work, for instance. The shop manager Alison was welcoming. She had copies of my travel book, Are We Nearly There Yet? in the window a week or so before the event. There'd been a bit in local publications too. The shop had a newsletter on the till saying who was coming into the store and when to sign. The posters my publisher had sent were all around as well. In that kind of atmosphere I felt comfortable approaching people to talk about my book. I sold a lot of copies that day despite the extreme cold (It was minus 5 outside) and chatted to dozens of browsers about all kinds of things including one man's sciencde fiction novel about beasts called Hanyls with 56 sets of parallel arms. I think online shops like Amazon have a lot to offer, but that personal touch in a bookshop cannot be replicated and shoud be exploited more.

  8. I believe (and hope!) the printed word has a long future. Browsing the shelves of a cozy bookshop is still quite a different pleasure from online browsing; likewise, reading a book made of paper is still something I like to do every day, despite (or perhaps because) most of the rest of my day is spent in front of an electronic screen of some description. Bookstores are evolving, and those that do a good job of that will survive. Other iconic bookstores such as The Paperback Bookshop in Bourke St, Melbourne (about 50 years old), with its excellent range of fiction in particular, may not have to evolve because people will keep returning for that pre-digital-age bookshop magic. Besides, what on earth would we decorate our walls with if they stop printing books?!

  9. I love a bookshop but imagine the cost of having all that stock around. And it's not as if the books get more valuable the longer they sit on the shelf is it? Onliners dont actually store the books they sell, they buy the book once they have the customer's money. Same way Dell build computers

    The rot set in long before internet, it was when the fixed price went. Up until then WH Smith sold a book for exactly the same price as the little man. So little man could compete.

    Then the little man got duffed up by the discounting main chains. Now the main chains have been duffed up by online. Books cost so very much to make and ebooks cost so little and don't involve trees

    I cant see how books can survive, I shall miss them though

  10. Great set of articles Mark, that get to the heart of what’s happening with the industry. I think you demonstrate though that there are plenty of reasons to be positive, even about the future of books and bookshops. As an author who has also run buying, marketing and online departments for a specialist bookseller, I think there are exciting opportunities for both digital and physical books; the businesses that succeed and thrive will embrace both.

    Real books in a real bookshop will and should survive. Bookshops that make this happen will be those that realise that there's little chance of competing on simplicity, convenience or price with big, established online retailers, so they simply shouldn’t go toe to toe on these points.

    Instead they must add alternative value and enhance the personal experience of shopping, by making their bricks-and-mortar business a destination in its own right, be it in a converted church or revamped palace as in Maastricht or Porto or on Marylebone High St, where Daunt’s shows what a building full of character and charm, staffed by experts with a real passion for their product can achieve. Purpose-built bookshops can be every bit as beautiful as converted buildings too. Simple innovations like reading nooks, or a well-integrated place to spend time in the shop, should be possible to incorporate.

    The bookshop ought to inspire you to explore and should make the potential for discovery tangible. Travel bookshops in particular ought to be able to do this in spades simply because of the subject matter.

    There's no doubt that bookshops will have to evolve, what business or industry doesn’t, but they must stick to their core specialism and original reason for being. Focus on the right product and demonstrate that you think it has value. Trying to move into the travel industry when you don’t produce travel content or anything unique isn't going to work. Simply diversifying your product mix to sell gifts, stationery and un-associated material isn’t going to work. Relying on coffee and cakes to make up the subsequent decline in book sales isn’t going to work.

    Events, newsletters, customer loyalty schemes, book clubs and other engagement tactics that put people in touch with both you and their peers, teamed with a decent content strategy for the bookshop website that takes the site beyond being just a product catalogue and reinforces the standing of the shop will work. Passion, knowledge and genuine expertise will bring rewards. Surprises and well-chosen suggestions will make people think, especially if you establish loyalty and authority. Communicate, engage, inspire!

    So, generate an emotional response rather than a purely rational one, offer good value rather than absolute discounts and make the place you sell the product the sort of space you want to tarry and I believe that customers will be prepared to spend a little more, to revisit the shop and to support the business.

  11. I'm a travel writer based in Paris and have noticed the following: Parisians are still very much attached to their bookshops, but their book buying behaviour seems to be changing.
    For your bog-standard pocket books, online bookshops are winning large shares of the market (as are Kindles with their electronic varieties). So to make up for the loss in sales, many bookshops are capitalising on their expertise. For instance, shops which would initially have sold a mix of books, are starting to specialize in just one or two subjects (like aviation, pottery, art, antiques etc...), drawing in a regular clientele by selling hard-to-find volumes and beautiful coffee table books. Many bookshops organise author signings or encourage artists to exhibit in the shop, to draw in more crowds – generally create 'happenings' around certain books, and basically do the things that online bookshops can’t. Still doing very well in Paris are comic book and graphic novel shops, which attract people who like to rifle through shelves and dig out authors they’ve not yet read. But again, this fits in with the specialised bookshop trend.

    A couple of my favourite bookshops in Paris are Shakespeare and Co (a place anchored in history that sells secondhand novels galore and organises regular signings, readings and musical events); and Monte-en-l'Air - a hybrid space that doubles as a bookshop, art gallery and café.

  12. I thought I'd round off here initially with some news from *this* week on the high street/online that I think highlights some of the discussion's main points.

    Four in ten shops to shut...
    A report by Deloitte (granted it's an administrator...) says four in ten shops will shut and property portfolios will reduce by 30-40% in the next five years as customers increasingly turn to online shopping over bricks and mortar.

    UK has the largest 'internet economy'
    The UK has the largest 'internet economy' of all G20 nations and will remain ahead of other nations over the next few years, according to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG). UK online business is expected to rise to a contribution of £225 billion by 2016.

    Game's Up
    As widely reported, video games retailer Game Group underlined the struggle facing the high street on Wednesday, when due to increased online shopping, it asked for trading of its shares to be suspended after announcing there is no equity left in the group.

    London gets a new bookshop
    Watermark has opened its first bookshop in Europe in the spanking brand new London King's Cross concourse. The store is situated next to 'Platform 9¾' - a reference to Harry Potter and sits between the fictional platform and a 'Harry Potter' experience shop, yet to be built. Watermark hopes to open 35 Watermark stores at airport and railway locations in the country. It offers a range of five million titles to order from the shop, and 200,000 e-books to buy through the wholesaler's online e-commerce platform Hive.

    Lovefilm streams take over rental
    For the first time since it added a streaming service to its business, Lovefilm (Amazon-owned company) is now streaming more content than it is supplying by conventional rental methods. In February, it saw the number of movies and TV shows accessed through internet-connected devices exceed rented DVDs, Blu-rays and games by more than 20%.

    Amazon vs Groupon
    Two years after investing $175 million into daily-deals site LivingSocial, Amazon.com Inc. has run a significant daily deal for Amazon.com gift cards without LivingSocial's assistance. The move, reported by Reuters, is the clearest sign yet that Amazon is serious about launching its own offerings of daily deals to compete with discount deals site Groupon.

    Walmart responds to Amazon
    "Anytime, anywhere" (instead of "Everyday low prices") will be the new marketing tagline for Walmart.com, unit President Joel Anderson told Bloomberg. Walmart.com still amounts to only 2% of the brand's revenues but it is investing heavily in e-commerce, spending more than $300 million acquiring web-related companies to build its talent and expertise at @WalmartLabs. The mega-retailer needs to evolve to respond to Amazon and its transition to e-tailing will be helped by in same-day, in-store pick-up for online orders.

    Wow! There's so much transition, it does feel like you've got a front row seat to see an extraordinary shift in the way our high-street will operate...

  13. So, while we wait for David Cameron & co to respond this Spring (holding my breath...), to Mary Portas' 28-point plan to breathe economic and community life back into the high-street, here's my take on the discussion above.

    Some smaller bricks and clicks indies will survive, but as Alex points out it's useless trying to go toe-to-toe on simplicity, convenience or price. I like the microbrewery analogy Donald made and I think viewing books in the "craft" category makes some sense. Go for quality, knowledge and expertise; embrace online and e-book capabilities; build customer loyalty through character and emotional attachment; and look for good value rather than crazy discounts. It must be somewhere you'd like to browse, too, like Dorian said - the very opposite of a soulless, zombie mall.

    In-store, you need customers to feel as if they're getting that personal touch, but also that it's modern: that they can, as Stuart suggests, get a hybrid book (Gary's right - to some people it's just the ideas and reading that matters, not the print book), choose between P&E bundles or both, or engage through mobile CRM, for example; that there's a connection there. Adopting initiatives such s using tourism boards, as Jeremy outlines, I think is a great idea, as it's just the kind of customer engagement a lot of retailers are missing right now.

    There will be a lot less stores no doubt and, for the big stores, I think the challenge - even with some economies of scale - is even harder. Finding the right mix of virtual/physical, creating a holistic brand experience, a space to interact with customers, plus a fluidity in social commerce marketing to drive transactions with end-customers will be tough. In my opinion, there does need to be urgent regeneration.

    Wayne Hemmingway (of Red or Dead fame) outlined yesterday the opportunities he sees as larger retailers close, for creative spaces to open up for quirky start-ups (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/22/british-high-street-dead-lets-celebrate). He said: "In many ways today feels like the early 80s and we are seeing a renaissance of a variation of the serendipitous market." It's a view echoed today by Richard King, author of 'How Soon is Now' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/mar/22/indie-record-labels-changed-world) in talking about how post-punk maverick indie labels such as Mute, Factory and Rough Trade had huge influence over the industry in the 80s with their own DIY ethos to compete with the established industry giants.

    Well, it's not the 80s but some of this indie ethos could work if the overwhelming and distinct power of travel experiences is really tapped into. If you could innovate across digital/physical multi-channels, show travel in all its primary colours, and convey to customers what travel really means to people, then that would be a story worth telling. I know I'd buy into it.

  14. Taking a slight twist on the title of your piece, there is a future for real-life bookshops, but not on the high street.

    The number of people who have a requirement to browse through shelves of physical books is probably already small enough to render them a niche market.

    Niche markets tend to be served by shops in secondary locations, not on the high street (as exemplified on a grander scale by Hay's success in establishing itself as a book town despite being in a very secondary location).

    Maybe in the future out cities will have a book quarter of lower rent bookshops all huddling together like a mini-Hay. I think this would be quite attractive.

    1. It does sound attractive to me, too! And, in fact, given the current climate, it's a more radical proposal than much of the pop-ups, click-and-collect options, hoped-for in-store rejuvenation initiatives and resurgent indies we've discussed as part of the overall piece so far (including online innovation, obviously).

      I guess you'd lose that *presence* on the high-street (and I'd still like to see that), but it's way more preferable to imagining just an online and out-of-town mall future, which strikes me as so reductive. Saying this I'm not pushing the idea of the local bookshop as a bastion of literary culture. I think the likes of Amazon have done a huge amount to encourage reading and writing. But what I do want is variety, and this certainly would be one avenue.

  15. From a personal point of view, I will say that if a book has been brought to my attention and I already know that I want it, I will order it from Amazon because it takes two minutes and I live very far from a bookshop. But if I want to be inspired, I'll go to a physical shop - I can't imagine being inspired by stuff on a computer screen. At Stanfords the week before Christmas I had a meeting in the cafe, then ended up getting most of my Christmas shopping done happily in an hour after from the books and the great selection of travel-related gear.
    As a publisher at Summersdale, I hope both types of retail environment will develop further in more creative ways; it's easier for me as a commissioning editor to think of ways to engage online with the communities we think might be interested in our books, and therefore link to online retail environments.

  16. Wanted to add something more... Not for information but for reading pleasure, for escaping into another world, there is nothing as enjoyable as reading a paperback book, as far as I'm concerned. A Kindle still feels like an inferior experience in terms of pure relaxation. If people stop making books, we'll surely invent them all over again in a few years.
    It's been interesting living on a tiny Greek island for a year, without a bookshop or a library. Bookshops are great, and I miss them. As I mention in my latest blogpost (www.octopus-in-my-ouzo.blogspot.com), Greek books are really expensive and we don't know how lucky we are in the UK having such cheap paperbacks. It will be a sad day if we stop appreciating the physical book.

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