Bookshops: Don’t get sold down the river

amazon dugoutSo Amazon has come up with a crafty plan: Bookshops can sell Kindle ebook readers to their customers and then get a percentage of the revenue from the books sold to that reader. This is a simply terrible idea for independent bookshops.

Watching an industry I love dearly struggle through the painful transition to a whole new model is like watching a car crash unfold in slow motion. It was only a couple of years ago that booksellers and a significant number of readers were saying that they’d never read their books on a device, paper was always here to stay. Those voices are becoming increasingly isolated and it is clear that the way people read is not only changing but has changed – and that the traditional business models are changing with it.

People are going to buy their books online and read them on devices. That is what is what is happening, it is what is going to happen; we can debate the speed of transition but not the outcome. Bookshops screaming that it will not happen simply wont change the outcome any more than whale oil lantern makers managed to resist the advances of electric lighting.

The core of the problem, and the one Amazon’s new plan highlights, is confusing content with format. The bound book is a means of delivering content, ideas, entertainment. It’s been one that has worked amazingly well for the last few centuries. It has also become a representative icon for learning and education – something seen clearly in the mistaken correlation between the number of books on display in a house and children’s school results. But at its foundation the bound book is a delivery mechanism for the ideas within it; and those ideas like water flowing downhill are always going to find the fastest, cheapest, most efficient means to get to interested consumers. And that means is no longer the printed book.

What bookshops need to do is find new ways of selling that content. You could argue that’s what the Amazon plan does. But it doesn’t. It has the bookseller selling the delivery medium, and leaves the actual bookselling to Amazon. The whole plan is analogous to a bookshop having a nearby competitor who says he’ll give the bookseller a percentage of revenue for every customer they send down the street instead of serving themselves. In the short-term there may be some money to be had, but long-term it’s a disaster.

Bookshops need to play to their strength: And that strength is no longer sourcing and shifting blocks of paper. The core value in a bookshop lies in finding and recommending. Amazon is a terrible place to browse for new books – by far the best way to find something new to read is to visit a bookshop. And that’s what so many of us do now – visit the bookshop, find something interesting, and then buy it more cheaply online. Bookshops need to find a way to leverage their finding and recommending skills into also making money from what is found. That’s the missing piece and the Amazon plan does not help fill the gap.

I’m not under any illusions that bookshops will fall for Amazon’s cunning plan. But the whole episode just highlights that bookshops don’t have a plan B. The writing is on the wall, not the paper, and unless bookshops come up with a way of playing to their strengths and obtaining revenue for ebooks from their own customer base they will find themselves well up the Amazon without a paddle.

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