Am I the only person who thinks publishers should open bookshops?

Posted by Justine Solomons on 30 September 2013, in News

Megan Toogood asks: Am I the only person who thinks publishers should open bookshops?

I know that at first it seems like a crazy idea, so let me explain what I mean.

This idea is a response to the problems caused by showrooming. At the beginning of this year my parent’s lovely independent games shop closed its doors. There were lots of reasons for this, but showrooming played a very important part in their decision to close, so it’s a topic that’s pretty close to my heart.

(As an aside, you would not believe how rude and loud some people are happy to be, enthusiastically picking up a game, reading the back and joyfully exclaiming. ‘We won’t buy it here, we’ll order it so we won’t have to carry it home.’ Well, you won’t be able to pop back to the shop next time you want to find a game, because it’s closed. Rant over.)

When someone goes to a bookshop, looks at a book, and then goes home to buy it on Amazon the company that should still, theoretically, be making money, is the publisher of that book. If bookshops are just inherently a Good Thing (and I think they are), as well as being essential for the discoverability of books. Should publishers consider opening bookshops?

For anyone who can instantly see a thousand problems with this idea, let me just say that I can see them as well.

The biggest problem might be that publishers would inadvertently compete with independent bookshops, and what the industry, and readers, need is more plurality, not less. But with areas of the country becoming bookshop free zones and campus bookshops regularly shutting their doors for the last time, I’d be surprised if there’s nowhere where a good bookshop might have no immediate competitors. But it does mean publishers should resist the urge to start up in cathedral towns packed full of students and middle class book buyers who are already managing to keep an indie bookstore going.

The second biggest problem is that shops cost money and publishers aren’t particularly rolling in the stuff, even if some of them are richer than they think they are.  And as a marketing activity to drive Amazon sales, which what this might ultimately be, a shop is a pretty time and money intensive way to go about things. One answer to this might be to try pop-up shops, which are not only cheaper and less of a commitment, but are also temporary allowing a greater focus and energy on their promotion. If I was going to trial an idea like this, I’d also look for somewhere in the north, or west, where retail rents, even in desirable areas surrounded by people with a disposable income, will be much, much cheaper.

There’s something ugly and unsettling about the idea of publishers running bookshops, because books aren’t simply things, they’re ideas, and the idea of a publisher-run bookshop insinuates a monopoly of ideas. But when faced with an Amazon monopoly on the whole sector it might not be such a bad thing.  Because readers will still have access to all the books in the world on Amazon, through whatever device they choose.  And I wonder if there mightn’t be a model for a good publisher bookshop in that greatest of all British inventions: The Pub.

Traditionally lots of pubs across the country were owned by breweries that bore the costs of infrastructure in return for creating a route to market for their beer. And pubs that weren’t brewery owned were Free Houses. The brewery pubs were run by independent licensees who were free take most day to day decisions, create the atmosphere they thought would work best and get in guest ales.

There’s no reason publishers shouldn’t stock their bookshops with their competitors’ books, given that the balance is right, and that they’re getting something in return. Which if customers buy the print copy from the shop, would of course, be actual money.

Publishers might see the most success in this area if they think of themselves as providing a high level of support for a semi-independent bookseller who they trust. Though I appreciate that’s a tall order.

All of which is a long way of saying, if Amazon are going for vertical integration then maybe everyone else should too.

What are your thoughts? Please let us know via twitter using the #bytethebook


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