Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 3 May 2013

Booking the Trend

I found myself in a traditional bookshop earlier in the week, and a very pleasant experience it was.  It was Waterstones' fine shop in Chester in the north of England and it oozed charm and class in a way that Waterstones seem to do so well.

I don't visit bricks and mortar bookshops that often - although the mock Tudor styling of the Chester branch lays some doubt on that description - as the vast majority of the books I buy are eBooks.  I don't even visit Waterstones' website much, possibly as they don't seem to stock my books there.  Boy, I can be petty.

Of course physical bookshops are up against it these days, what with the internet; Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, WH Smith, Kobo and not to mention the pirates.  I discovered an attempt at pirating one of my books the other day, some scallywag who I think is based in Germany, decided to offer Digital Life Form for download.  I presume for free, at least the download button didn't mention a price.  I didn't try pushing the button in case I got more than a duplicate version of one of my books dumped onto my laptop - it's not like I haven't got a copy and I reckon I've had more than enough of unwelcome viruses over time.

Anyway I have a number of Google alerts set up that let me know if certain keywords or phrases turn up on the web overnight (it's overnight somewhere, whenever you want to start).  One of them flagged up an alert that DLF was available for download, and inspection of the web link revealed it wasn't Amazon.  A little digging on the internet - looking up the domain on the Whois register - provided me with the details of the website owner along with contact details.  One email and a few hours later and the site was suspended.  I'm sure there's other sites I'm unaware of - I only know what I know, for goodness sake - but one small victory for the little man.

Back in Waterstones I got to thinking about how bookshops are going to survive going forward.  The easy answer is that they won't, that eBooks will take over the reading world, and to some extent I suspect that is true.  But for at least a generation there will be those who won't embrace eBooks, no matter how well the technology evolves, so there will be a need to kill trees for some.  And while we're waiting for the technology to improve then there will be a need for some books to appear in physical format anyway.

In the UK, apart from a small group of specialist bookshops and a smaller amount of independent, stand-alone booksellers, there are four main physical sources of print books outside of the internet.  The first is WH Smith.  They are variously a Bookseller with an identity crisis, a Stationer with an identity crises or a Newsagent with an identity crisis.  Take your pick, WH Smith are likely to fall foul of the same problem that closed Woolworths down a few years ago - they are rapidly becoming the shop of last resort that people go to when they have to buy a present with no time to get something posted off the internet and there's only them and a frozen food shop open. I suspect the bag of frozen peas wins sometimes, too.

Then there's the supermarkets.  To be fair, nobody can compete on price in general terms, not even the internet traders.  But the books they sell are bankable - they're pretty safe and based on what people are buying in shovel loads anyway, so the range is a little restricted and perhaps too populist for some tastes.

Then there's the two remaining main sources, and they represent all that is good and bad with the traditional publishing model simultaneously.  First there's Waterstones, representing all that the traditional book industry does so well - professionally produced and edited books, selected as the books people will want to read and presented in an environment that is comfortable yet classy.  Then there's The Works, a clearing house of the books the industry got wrong, over-ordered, took a wrong chance on.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not against The Works, I'm against the decisions that means we only have a Waterstones in some major towns and cities but have The Works in virtually every medium sized town upwards, filled to the gunnels all year round.  The same decisions that rejects or ignores many good books because - well because they know better.  Which is why The Works is doing so well.

And now the UK book selling industry has reported that book sales are fine, bouyant even.  They noted that the real growth has been in eBooks but have trumpeted a very small amount of growth in print books too, citing it as evidence that the rumours of a decline in print reading being overstated. Maybe they're right, but I noticed that they made a big thing about 50 Shades leading the UK sales of print books, possibly making the difference that allowed them to crow about a minor growth, but I don't think anyone mentioned that 50 Shades started off life as a self published eBook and was only picked up by the print industry once it became popular.  They never gave it the chance to make The Works.

Now I'm not against print books - I sell my books as print options and I've been quite pleased with the modest sales I've made of them so far.  I even saw a second hand copy of Project: Evil offered for sale at about three times the price of a new copy the other day - it's not showing on Amazon anymore so presumably the owner decided he couldn't bear to part with it, or maybe I'm missing a major marketing opportunity.  Perhaps scaling back the print prices was a false economy.

No, I'd like print books to continue.  I firmly believe that eBooks are an evolutionary step and by the end of the this decade the print industry will be marginalised by the electronic version.  Apart from truly niche booksellers I think most of the independents will go the same way as the CB shops of the Eighties.  The likes of Waterstones will still continue, but they will need to be fleet of foot and if the Works are still thriving then the print industry will have failed to learn.  I've said before that Print on Demand (POD), the method used by Amazon subsidiary Createspace to produce my books in paperback, presents an opportunity.  It's not a very cost effective process - I've pared my royalties to next to nothing to keep the prices as keen as I can - and by the way, at the time of writing I note Amazon are offering my four SciFi novels at a £0.60 - £0.70 discount, which is more than my royalty for each book.  But if someone like Waterstones were to agree a deal with Amazon (or Createspace) for book orders then they could drive down the cost of POD and still have books printed to order.  No distribution centres stocking surplus books, no remaindered books.  They could stock copies of the bankable books, the ones guaranteed to sell day-to-day, replacing them literally a day after each sale, and make any book available at a fair price, ordered in store or on line, delivered to the nearest store and still make a profit.

And if they stock my books on their eBookstore as well then I reckon they'll have it cracked.


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