Death of a Bookseller
by Joel Naoum - June 18th, 2011
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve buried the book in my lifetime. The fact is that we haven’t buried the book, and however all this works out, we’re still not going to be burying the book. People are still going to be reading books, and whether they’re going to be reading them on a Kindle or as a regular physical hardcover book or a paperback or on their phones or listening to audiobooks, what’s the difference? A writer is still sending his or her work to you, and you’re absorbing it, and that’s reading. – Super editor Robert Gottlieb in an interview on Slate.com
If you’ve been reading the book news lately, you will have heard the media, the Australian Booksellers Association and cultural figures large and small ream out the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, for predicting the death of the bookshop. Just to jog your memory, here is what Senator Sherry said:
I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist.
We don’t need to put our thinking caps on for too long to realise that the Minister for Small business probably made a bit of a tit of himself when he made this proclamation – as a piece of political rhetoric it was clearly a misstep. But just how wrong is the senator, and how upset should we really be?
The pundits would have us believe that we should be furious. As Don Grover, chief executive of Dymocks, said on the ABC: ‘I think it’s bizarre that he’s made that assessment … People love curling up on a lounge with a book, the physical nature of the product. The smell of a book still rates as one of the most significant reasons why people buy books.’
This from Mr Grover’s exhaustive study on the book-buying public entitled, ‘Why We’d Rather Smell Books Than Read Them’.
I mean, seriously, people. If the most significant reason for buying books is the smell, then the book trade is in even bigger strife than Nick Sherry believes. Luckily for those of us who love books, it’s not the main reason people buy them – and even if it were it wouldn’t save bookstores. You see, it is entirely possible to buy nice smelling books from the internet. And that is the threat to bricks and mortar bookshops – the convenience and range offered by online shopping.
The book trade is in flux, and that means physical bookselling is under threat. There will certainly be casualties. Some of them will likely be booksellers. Some of the fallout is likely to happen within the next five years. Get over it.
Conflating the ‘book’ as cultural artefact and the ‘bookstore’ as cultural institution is not helpful. Nobody thinks bookstores aren’t a big part of how people have traditionally discovered, obtained and fallen in love with books. But the changes confronting physical booksellers are an economic and cultural reality. Just as the bulk of independent booksellers were swamped by giant book chain stores over the last two or three decades, so the chains will be eclipsed by online booksellers. However, online bookstores do not, for the most part, provide the same kind of curation and community that bricks and mortar stores do. If booksellers want to remain relevant, then these are issues that need to be confronted head on – not ignored because we have dared question the viability of an existing institution. Not mentioning that bookshops are closing does not mean we didn’t notice the going-out-of-business sales all over the country.
The times, they are a-changin’, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. We are more literate and books are more accessible than ever before. They’re about to get even more so. How we help people find the books they want to read is one of the main challenges facing the industry. So let’s stop the hysteria in response to any suggestion that things are going to change. They are, but booksellers clinging to traditional models will not help them to reinvent themselves.