Back to the FutureBook: a retailer’s view

A scintillating day yesterday at the FutureBook Conference at the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.

2011 has been the Year of Change, with digital content and eReading becoming established across the sector, thanks to the explosive success of the Kindle and (to a lesser extent) the iPad.  The potential of smarter and more versatile devices, allied to social networking in the very broadest sense, has got people like Stephen Page rethinking the whole publishing paradigm – and it was great to see experienced but independent leading publishers like Page, Rebecca Smart and Kate Wilson being recognised for picking up the old business models and giving them a damned good shake.  It was also refreshing to see more young and/or independent delegates, who will reshape the face of publishing over the next 5-10 years.

Takeaway stats:

Dominique Raccah, CEO of Chicago-based Sourcebooks, kicked off:

Ereader users believe they are purchasing more titles.  The evidence suggests, yes; but the industry still lacks a reliable eBook “chart” in the UK and the US, and Amazon/Apple are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to sharing their data.

Ereader users believe their overall spend on books has risen.  As overall spend (eBooks + pBooks) has fallen, this is hard to prove.

Ereader users believe they’re reading more.  Again, ths is unproven, though there may be a link to “dual screen” use, whereby the user browses a device (most typically, an iPAd) at the same time as they’re watching TV.

A snapshot of the Top 85 Kindle charts in the US: 66% of titles were published by “traditional” publishers; 18% were self-published; and 16% came from “non-traditional” (ie digital) publishers.  nb for the traditionalists, this compares to about 95% (my guess!) trad publishers in the average print bookshop.

Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury divided the audience with his “hardcover + eBook” proposal (he’d charge a 25% premium for the bundle, which presumably would include a VAT element).  Personally, I’m gung-ho for this idea, particularly as Evan reminded us of the difference between “books” (objects that deliver permanence and permit display), and “reading” (which is all about content).

I sometimes chuckle at the “convenience” argument around eBooks.  Is it really a whole lot more convenient to carry an eReader than a single book?  (Do you remember, in the dim, dark days before Kindle, when you used to say “I’d love to read more, but carrying a book is so inconvenient“?)  It’s the enhanced convenience of carrying lots of books, and being able to purchase when you wish.  These are great qualities, though perhaps they encourage the grasshopper mentality of the dual-screener?  (Research suggests that 26% of Kindle users do this.)

Meanwhile, while the take-off trajectory of eReaders has been, and will continue to be, spectacular; though bear in mind that 76% of book-buyers have yet to buy any kind of eBook and – according to BML research – over 50% of those aged 35 or over don’t at present intend to do so.

Finally – I think this was an AT Kearney stat – European eBook sales currently break down as follows:  52% of all eBook purchases take place in the UK.  Germany – where Thalia’s Oyo is making the running – delivers 28%.  After that, France is at 7%, Italy 3%, and the rest of the continent 10%.

This brief run-down of stats doesn’t give the reader any real flavour of the optimism, enthusiasm and boundary-breaking that characterised great ideas and discussion from William Higham, Valla Vakili, Charlie Redmayne, John Mitchinson and many, many more.  But we need to press on…

OK, let’s talk about bookshops

It fell to me to wave my accustomed bucket of cold water around the Fleming Room, and to remind the Conference that this once-in-300-years reshaping of the industry is taking place during the worst consumer downturn, and the worst set of economic forecasts, for many, many years.  New devices, formats and ideas are being launched into the teeth of last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, which promised austerity beyond the next election, and a return to 2001 living standards in – 2017?  2020?  Providing the Euro doesn’t implode, of course – then things will be much worse.

So, book people need to be thinking not just about how to reshape their industry in such a way as to preserve copyright, encourage new talent and stop Our Friends in Seattle (or, more broadly, the “GAFA” group*) from dominating commerce and innovation; they need to embed that change at the same time as Joe Public is devoting his dwindling income to candles and tinned food.

I was chairing a discussion panel that brought together Kobo vendor relations manager Cameron Drew, Hive development manager Julie Howkins, Middle East bookseller/publisher Jeremy Brinton, Retail Week Knowledge Bank director Robert Clark, and Leo Burnett marketing strategist Dr Alan Treadgold.  Here are some of our key points:

The UK pBook market has consoidated to one specialist (Waterstone’s), one generalist (WH Smith) and one website, which between them meet most of the needs of committed book-buyers.  (Of course, there are also three participating supermarket chains, though they aren’t specialist by any definition.)  This represents a real narrowing of the market – but perhaps that market will now start to broaden again, driven by feisty and more self-confident indies, the arrival of eReader alternatives to the Kindle (specifically Kobo), and an expanding reach (devices, channels, formats) from the Stephen Page-defined world of broad publishing.

However, no one has yet resolved the “showroom” conundrum: once its sales have fallen by around 20%, a physical bookshop becomes untenable, and has to close.  Bookshops can move to cheaper premises, can sell a broader range of products (toys, coffee etc), but unless they are actively participating in eBook sales, their market share will be eroded beyond recovery.  This will leave those 50% aged 35+ who don’t intend to buy an eReader for Amazon to scoop up into their search-excellent, browse-lousy world.

The panel recommended some solutions to this problem:

Ereader manufacturers that partner with retailers can encourage consumers into a bookshop relationship without committing them to a non-transferable, Amazon-type scenario.  Hive-affiliated bookshops (currently about one-third of serious indies?) can sell eBooks in multiple formats, and share in the revenue they generate, as well as creating local incentives for their customers.  And Kobo’s retailer partnership model (WHS, Fnac, Indigo etc) clearly has legs.

Physical bookshops must use their websites to drive store footfall.  One of the UK’s most consistently successful retailers, Richer Sounds, has a strong eCommerce site, which nevertheless acts primarily as a driver to get customers into personality-saturated stores, where they can test the product and take advice from trained staff.  There’s a bookshop model here.

Click-and-Collect is growing swiftly as a preferred distribution channel for many customers.  26% of Argos’s business is Click & Collect, and M&S, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are among the retailers investing heavily in this service.  Click & Collect allows the customer to pick up their goods at a time convenient to them – and of course exposes them to personal service, and many more buying opportunities.

Social networking through eReaders (Kobo Vox) can bring reading communities together, and could be curated by bookshops who currently support reading groups.  Events and literary festivals not only bring together readers with shared interests, but underline a bookshop’s specialisms.  (And deliver healthy book sales to boot.)  In short, community runs through good bookselling like the words in a stick of rock, and good staff matter more in bookselling than perhaps any other retail sector.

Everyone in the world of books – publishers, authors, retailers, analysts – needs to be focusing more on their end customer: the person who buys the book.  Historically (ie until a few months ago) publishers tended to view retailers as their customers, with (as John Makinson has noted) a B2B mindset at odds with the creation, marketing and selling of consumer products.  Book trade people need to be aware of retailing best practice, and to understand how consumers and retailers are behaving in sectors far away from their own.  We cannot integrate ourselves into 21st century lives while still behaving at one remove from our readers.

Finally, there is a common retail trend running through all sectors – fashion, homewares, electrical etc – and that’s a trend for fewer, better shops.  We certainly have fewer bookshops than we had five years ago, and it seems likely that the number will continue to fall.  Those that are left must be digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement.

*GAFA:  Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon.  Each is developing a vertically integrated suite of services and functions, as follows:

  • Storage
  • Device
  • Purchase
  • Payment
  • Social

The walls around each of their gardens vary in height.

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3 Comments on “Back to the FutureBook: a retailer’s view”

  1. Cathie Strover says:

    fascinating.I’m struggling myself with the concept of the ebook because to me opening a real book is still like having the treasure there in my hand.And I can’t bear to think of the joys of certain illustrators such as Chris Riddell reduced to Kindle format when they are really screaming for glorious A4!
    However as someone occasionally contributing to the fight for ‘literacy’ (as opposed to ‘reading’) I can see already that many under 11s will engage much more readily with a screen than any other kind of learning;if an ebook will make children chose a story over an XBox game I would reluctantly accept it in the hope of keeping the written word and that rich inner world alive. There has to be more to life than gaming.

    • Hi Cathie
      I struggle too, though that may just be my great age! Interestingly, there was a session at FutureBook yesterday (which I missed) about the “gameification” of eBooks, which I think plays to some of the points you’ve made – hopefully it’ll be written up in the FutureBook blog.

  2. […] Downer from Front of Store was there and he reports here. One further link to share from Michael Wolf at Gigaom. The pace of change would appear to be […]