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My Nooky-Wook

Back in the olden days, around 2001, I started to hear this conversational parry at social events:  “I’ve always loved bookshops, and of course I particularly love [insert name of conversational partner’s store], but I’m afraid I do sometimes use Amazon  – it’s so convenient.”  (Convenience always being cited over value at the sort of fancy soirees I attended.)  Of course, one remained polite, but a change was under way, and it wasn’t going stop.  By mid-decade, domestic broadband was rolling across the land, and the tone of the same conversation started to alter – it would, after all, be foolish not to use Amazon, given its efficiency, and all the other pressures one had on one’s time.

Subtly, the message had changed from “I love bookshops, but I sin from time to time” to “I love those quaint old bookshops, but I’m not stupid”.

Funnily enough (I was laughing fit to bust), it was those same Amazon early adopters who went on to berate bookshops for trimming their ranges.  “We can’t carry the stuff if you’ve stopped buying it!” I restrained myself from snapping.  However, there was an underlying assumption that, whereas the speaker might be sinning or smart, the rest of the population would continue to support bookshops, and Everything would be All Right.  The market would continue to grow, and cake would be both had and eaten.

But Amazon didn’t grow the market significantly.  Supply chain innovations rarely do – there is a pretty fixed percentage of the population that buys books, and they read a pretty fixed number of them.

Now, the game has changed again.  Christmas 2010 saw a tipping point for the consumer adoption of eReaders and associated hardware in the UK.  The launch of the Kindle was accompanied by a blitz of advertising (were those ad cards in every tube carriage?), a few short months after the multi-purpose iPad had been launched and embraced across the world.

Early adopters had already had a while to determine whether this technology was of interest to them.  Borders introduced the first eReader into the UK, the iRex Iliad, just three short years ago.  Retailing for a perfectly reasonable £400, the Iliad gave users access to an eclectic variety of eBooks, and we sold many hundred units, somewhat in excess of our expectations, as we had no associated website at that time on which to sell content.  For a week or two I carried one around with me, and was marvelled at in restaurants and boardrooms.  (Happy memories of the HarperCollins sales force, a few years earlier, laying out their shiny new BlackBerrys on a negotiating table as if they were Star Wars enabled.)

The Sony eReader arrived on a wider market a shortly after the Iliad, and sold rather better, but throughout 2008-09, the market shrugged; this was left-field technology of no great interest to the mainstream buyer.  iPad and then Kindle changed all of this – and, of course, the availability of Kindle services and titles to iPad users helped to supercharge growth.  Self-supporting networks (as pioneered by iTunes) ensured that the great bulk of the new channel sales was being enjoyed by the two giant American corporations.

I am now becoming very familiar with the new version of the Great Booklovers’ Apology.  This is a statement made by friends, here and in the US, who “of course” are still committed to their physical books, but they “love” their Kindle/iPad/Nook – it’s so easy, convenient, fast, etc.  “I still love books – I’ll always love books, you can’t beat the feel of a book, its smell, its heft – but I love my Kindle/iPad/Nook”.  In many cases, they “never thought they’d be saying this” – but they are.

We are all deluding ourselves if we believe that the mass consumer is going to run two formats in parallel, because this doesn’t happen.  I buy CD, I stop buying vinyl and cassettes.  I buy DVD, I stop buying VHS.  I buy iTunes (or I just steal stuff online), I stop buying CD.  I start streaming movies, I stop buying DVD.  All of these markets (well, perhaps not VHS) leave a residue of hard-liner users behind them, but in broad consumer terms, don’t believe the colour supplements – there is (for instance) no broad–based “vinyl renaissance”.

Once the “six books or fewer per annum” customer (the one who buys the majority of all books sold) has switched to digital, s/he won’t be switching back.  To hope otherwise would be like assuming that my mother, on receipt of  her first automatic  washing machine in the early 60s, would keep the old twin-tub and mangle because they were such a pleasant alternative.

Like record shops, like electrical repair shops and like blacksmiths, bookshops and physical books have a future, but it’s a niche future.  Quite how that niche settles – and how diverse and various the product and the outlets selling it might be – we shall consider on another day.

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2 Comments on “My Nooky-Wook”

  1. Keiran says:

    Liked this blog.
    Tell me about the great percentage of books that are bought as gifts. We need an answer for this as an industry. How can you gift something electronically other than by voucher, which makes for an impersonal present.

    • Thanks Keiran. Interesting question – most celeb biogs, most cookbooks, most humour, most annuals, most Christmas doorstops. I don’t see these going away, but I do think that they function in the “gift” market, and that they don’t necessarily need networks of bookstores to distribute them.
      I don’t see ePublishing replacing printing, because books are such diverse products. There will always be a market for the well-produced gift.
      The BBC has started their books season on BBC Four, and last night focused on the Winchester Bible, a gorgeous illuminated manuscript, one of the finest in the world. It was created as much to be a political gesture, a demonstration of wealth and taste, and an object at which to marvel, as it was a book for devotion.
      When Gutenberg set up his presses, I imagine that there was a school of thought that said: “illuminated manuscript operates in a completely different part of the market”. But it pretty well just stopped, didn’t it?