Internet Killed the Retail Bookstore?!

Today the ABC has this article, talking about how internet sales over the last couple of years has been killing the retail bookstore, both franchised and independent.  It talks to a bookseller in Bondi, Sydney, who is pretty sure that it’s the sudden and inexplicable coming of internet bookselling (which has been around for several years) that’s responsible for the downturn in her sales – rather than a general retail downturn, or the effect of having more than one indie bookstore in the area and a nearby mall with the usual franchises, or just being in a big city and potentially competing with Books Kinokuniya and Galaxy Books.

Internet bookselling allows many small indie bookstores and secondhand stores to sell more stock.  It can be a blessing to some bookstores, a curse to others.  The rate at which bookstores are closing – about six this week ignoring the A&R problems – wouldn’t have surprised me in the year 2000, when most Australians would not consider buying anything online.  Books can be expensive to store and find a buyer for.  You can end up like Collins booksellers, where in the franchised physical stores, they had trouble moving stock on borrowed money, got bad reputations with distributors and publishers, and had the increasing problem of no stock or money coming in while rent and staff and bad debts were taking money out.  There are now only thirty or so outlets, and Collins is surviving.  Presumably the well performing stores amongst the franchise stuck it out.  Nobody blamed the internet when Collins closed a lot of franchised stores.  Few people noticed, actually.  Few people today recall Collins in my city, although many of us frequented the stores and their ABC Store corners (for there lurked Red Dwarf merchandise) in our adolescence.  It was bad retail business management on local levels that led to the demise of Collins, but I bet that if they’d lasted a few more years and gone down this week instead of back in 2007, it would be THE INTERNET at fault again.  The same with the two secondhand stores within twenty minutes’ bus ride of my house – they went under about four and three years ago respectively, because of rising rents and the owners feeling too old to want to continue lugging around heavy stock.  One of the booksellers still sells rare prints online, and it was never the internet that was the problem within their business model.  The internet can be used to price books competitively, to source stock for customers on the spot, and I’ve seen it used as a great tool to drive sales and customer loyalty.

You can end up like Borders in America, which wasn’t so much hit by the pure unadulterated existence of the internet, but by – according to the ABC at least, and this I linked yesterday – having four CEOs in five years who had no previous industry experience.  Books aren’t CDs, or wallets or watches; you’d need to know the book publishing and selling industry to have a hope in hell of running something as big as the US Borders franchise passably.  It’s not surprising that they’re planning to close the stupidly placed stores that run at a loss, or that they’re using bankruptcy as a way to regroup without losing everything.

I’m not upset that online sales are being considered as part of the reason booksellers are suffering.  It would be stupid to say that Australian retail prices aren’t higher than the same Australian books online from overseas sellers.  But there’s more to it than that.  There’s problems in the costs and taxes involved in Australian publishing (that’s us at fault folks, not computers), and some of these online sales are cheaper still because the books are being sold secondhand.  The internet is affecting the way we purchase books, yes.  But there’s so many other things at play here, and I think it is irresponsible reporting not only to ignore the wider context of pressures on booksellers, creating some type of online retail doomsday scenario, but to refer to the US Borders bankruptcy in every one of these articles in ways that imply there is a shared enemy in the internet and ignore the openly reported awareness of upper management issues, as well as the statement that the state of Borders in the US – a separate franchise business to the one in Australia and NZ – has no effect on Borders over here.  It’s misleading, bad, irresponsible and sensationalist media and it’s something I wish I wasn’t finding at a government funded news site.

Okay, I shall now go and sit on my hands for at least a day before I rant any further about the media coverage of bookstores.  As with yesterday, any comments or personal perspectives would be welcomed with open arms.


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