Not a day goes by without me hearing complaints about local bookshops closing. Frankly, I fail to see why I should care.
Bookshops are businesses. If a business is not profitable, there’s no reason for it to exist. Maybe you like it. Maybe you like the owner. But that’s sentimentalism. It has nothing to do with making money. And shops are exclusively about making money. Therefor, I will shed no tear.
It’s not a digital vs. print affair, either. Digital sales are insufficient to account for the disappearance of local businesses, especially in Belgium where I live. Mostly, I think it’s simply a battle between the Internet and the physical world. And the Internet is winning. Economies of scale mean cheaper books, bigger catalogs, and more customers. It’s the supermarket against the family-owned grocery store, all over again. I haven’t bought a book in a brick and mortar store in ages. I got them all from Amazon (gees, I got my latest jeans through Amazon), and now I’ve got a Kindle so I’ll only be buying e-books from now on. So no more bookshop for me.
Which brings me to my real point. What we, as readers and customers, should be worried about is not the disappearance of local bookshop, which in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant. What we should be very worried about is Amazon quickly becoming the only source for book. Sure, there’s Barnes & Noble, for now. But I don’t think it can contend with Amazon on the international market. And when Amazon becomes the sole retailer, your books, our books, will suddenly become a lot more expensive. (And if you’re an author, don’t get your hopes up. You won’t see a cent of that increase.)
You’d think the Internet would be a place for diversity, with tons of retailers selling online, and market shares being naturally divided between them. Well, it’s not. Whatever the cause, there is one search engine, one auction website, one social network, one micro-blogging website, one bookshop. For the most part, the rest are insignificant, struggling failures. It’s sad, but that’s how it is.
So, what can we do? Not much, I’m afraid. Things would be a lot better for us, readers, without proprietary formats and DRM and whatnots. If only ePub was to e-books what MP3 is (was?) to music, you could read any book with any e-reader, share them with your friends without doing anything illegal (you know, like you do with print books), and the market would be a lot healthier. But oligopolies and monopolies are the trend today (they always were, but now they can make it happen globally). Sure, they encourage piracy with their agressive behavior, but they don’t care. They will largely compensate by raising retail prices.
Now, on the matter of bookshops, I lied a bit. I bought books in a shop last Christmas, because I needed to find nice gifts. E-books are worthless in that domain. Sure, you can give one as a gift. But not on a birthday or at Christmas. Those are occasions where you wrap gifts in shiny paper and put them on display. E-books don’t fit the bill. So yes, bookshops still have a niche to fill. They can provide nice presents for your loved ones; they can also organize book signings with your favorite authors.
Times change, habits do too. Bookshop owners need to stop whining and hoping the world will come around and change back. They need to rethink their strategies. That’s how you do business. That’s how you survive.