Book Reviews

Do bookstores need a rescue mission?

Patterson ad
Part of the advert placed by James Patterson

Blockbuster author James Patterson created a stir recently with a hard hitting advert  in two of America’s most prestigious magazines. In it, he challenged government leaders to take urgent action in support of the book industry which is finding it increasingly difficult to keep the business afloat. Faced with dwindling sales for printed books many publishers are reducing their catalogues, taking fewer risks with new authors, restructuring and consolidating with their rivals. Meanwhile the bookstores are engaged in a belt tightening exercise by closing poor performing outlets or expanding into associated areas like gifts and stationery.

Without help from the US government, Patterson fears the trend means future generations will be denied a rich vein of potential classics and works of great literature.  It would be a dramatic intervention but one Patterson says has a precedent.  In an interview with the online magazine Salon he argued that some countries in Europe already provide protection for their publishing industry so why not America?. This is the country after all that paid out millions in aid to prop up the ailing automotive industry in late 2008 when it faced calamitous decline as a consequence of a world-wide recession. But no such helping hand has been proffered to the publishing industry, he said, despite the pressures exerted by rapid uptake of e-reading. Nor are the longer term consequences appreciated.

E-books are fine and dandy, but it’s all happening so quickly, and I don’t think anyone thought through the consequences of having many fewer bookstores, of libraries being shut down or limited, of publishers going out of business — possibly in the future, many publishers going out of business.

(Quote from interview in Salon)

Is he right to be worried about the future of publishing and books?

There are certainly clear signs that all is not well in some sections of the book world.

  • Since 1997, around 2,500 stores have closed in the US  (almost 12% of the total number of outlets across the country) with the demise of Borders in 2011 an indicator that even large chains were not immune.
  • This isn’t a uniquely American problem however.  Across the Atlantic, the number of high street bookshops has more than halved in just seven years.  At the end of 2012, analysts at Experian reported that in just one year almost 400 bookshops in the UK  had closed, a seven fold increase on 2011.  As an indicator of just how bad things have become, there is just one regular bookshop left operating in the centre of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (Cardiff).

Popular opinion puts the blame on the perfect storm of E-books, Amazon and the prolonged economic downturn.  While sales through traditional bricks and mortar stores slumped, e-book sales in the US grew nearly 10 fold between 2008 and 2010. And sales via web retailers like Amazon are booming as a result of the combination of lower prices, free shipping and the ease of  searching ordering. In 2011 it was  estimated almost one in every four books in the US was bought via Amazon.

What that means is that if you look purely at the  number of empty retail units, it would appear that Patterson is right when he describes an industry in crisis.

As emotive as the pictures of empty retail units undoubtedly are, the decline of the high street  it’s misleading to use that as the only index of the viability of the industry. Sales figures show the industry is actually doing well overall. The Association of American Publishers reported  sales revenue in 2012 was up more then seven percent on the previous year, helped by the Fifty Shades phenomenon and a booming erotica market, coupled with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy,

So even though many parts of the world have been in the throes of economic turmoil for the last five years, it seems we consumers haven’t lost our book buying habit entirely – we’re just buying them in different ways. We’re picking them up in supermarkets and the motorway services petrol station. We’re ordering them on line. We’re downloading them to e-readers and tablets. And yes we are continuing to browse and buy from the high street shops even if we do have to navigate between the shelves of games and novelty mugs to get to the books.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

8 thoughts on “Do bookstores need a rescue mission?

  • I’d much prefer to buy books from a bookstore but so often in the past several years they don’t have the book I am looking for. They always offer to order it for me but heck, I can do that just as easily and have it delivered to my door.

    • the people who run independent stores are in a no win situation. they can’t afford to carry a vast inventory in the hope that someone will buy but then when someone wants anything beyond the bestsellers, they can’t help so the shopper turns to the internet……..

  • I’m very concerned by the loss of bookstores and shift to online marketplaces. Traditionally most literary classics taught to students, making the ‘100 Books Everyone Should To Read’ type lists have histories of being rejected by many publishers, being sleeper hits and eventually being recognised as great works of literature. The new models of publishing and selling cater so much for the mainstream, the easily promoted and derivative, fan-fiction style works that we are not going to see something that needs time, quietly growing word of mouth and ongoing re-evaluation come up this way. There’s a reason that Fifty Shades is the best example of success that the self-published e-book market can offer up and it isn’t the loss of editorial gatekeepers, it’s the loss of publishing champions.

    • I heard a short interview on radio yesterday Alex from someone at Foyles who was talking about the fact the big publishers are becoming increasingly conservative in their choices of books to publish. They’re not as willing to take a chance on a debut novel which could sell a few thousand copies when they could go with the tried and tested and sell hundreds of thousands. seems like we will have to rely on the indie publishers for anything out of the mainstream in the future

  • Long ago I gave up hoping that newspapers would thrive the way they once did. It’s easier to read news, classified, reviews etc. online or turn on the television. I think the times they are a changin’ , and I like to change with the times. While I have loved bookstores — their smell, their quiet, their comfortable chairs, their knowledgeable salespeople– and even worked in some in my youth, I confess to buying many books online. I relegate visits to the stores as a form of sweet nostalgia, not a way to get the book I want today, tomorrow.

    • You would have enjoyed the debate at the Hay Festival, Barbara about the future of news. The future apparently is on line and continuous. I really hope that’s not the case – I do look at on line news but its mainly for the headlines during the day. But I find most of it superficial. As for book buying, if there was a half decent shop in my neighbourhood I would use it more regularly than Amazon but our only option is a place which has a few books crammed in with the greetings cards and magazines. Its fine if you want the latest blockbuster but you won’t find anything decent there.

  • This is something I fear (as I think all book lovers do). And obviously the changes in the way books are being produced, marketed, and distributed is going to have an impact. But I think (hope) that because there will always be book lovers that therefore there will always be physical books in existence. As long as there is a market, there will be a product.

    • I hope you’re right John that there will always be a way of serving those people who want physical books and places to buy them. Since it will always come down to whether the companies serving that need can do it in a way that makes them money, I suspect the bookshops will still be around in the cities but in small towns we can probably say goodbye. Not enough footfall to make a shop viable sadly


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