What’s the future for bookshops?

Eoin Purcell looks at the challenge of keeping stores open

Books: holding their own? Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Books: holding their own? Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Whatever one thinks of the merits of the bookshop envisioned and desired by Manchán Magan last month in The Irish Times (iti.ms/10j5CpB), it was a timely intervention.

With Hughes & Hughes in Dundrum just closed and our bookshops facing lean years ahead, now is the perfect time to discuss their future.

It’s not just the recession that is having an impact on booksellers. Ebooks are slowly but surely making headway in Ireland, and online sales are stealing customers and sales from bookshops. We can’t expect a huge increase in sales to rescue booksellers any time soon; the awful reality is that the most likely trajectory is a slow decline in the number and quality of bookshops.

As a publisher, I believe we need bookshops as vehicles for display and discovery. But how many do we need? What kind? And, most importantly, who pays for them?

Publishers provide much of the working capital for bookshops. This fact is disguised, because we don’t actually hand cash over to booksellers, but it is true nonetheless.

We pay by extending credit on generous terms. We give booksellers discounts ranging from 40 per cent to 60 per cent, depending on the book and the circumstances. From a book a reader might buy for €10, the best a publisher might hope to see of that is €6, and more often it is less than €5. Publishers also do their best to get customers into bookshops by marketing and promoting our books and authors.

Finally, we absorb almost the entire risk for booksellers by allowing unsold books to be returned for full credit. In the light of such generosity there isn’t much more publishers could do for bookshops that wouldn’t put our own livelihoods in danger.

Consumers could change the situation by buying more books from bookshops, but that isn’t a realistic prospect. Why should they be forced to pay more when they can buy books more cheaply elsewhere?

About the only advantage bookshops now have is that they are physical venues, places where people can go to seek entertainment, information and knowledge from real people who, with luck, know things (and most good booksellers do know things).

This means changing from being sellers of physical books alone and becoming something more, purveyors of ambience and experience, which is something no online retailer can offer.

The problem is that to exploit these small advantages isn’t easy. The path ahead looks rough.

Eoin Purcell is commissioning editor at New Island Books. He blogs at eoinpurcellsblog.com.