Mature Bookstores & Vigorous Digital Market: Can They Coexist?

In Frankfurt 2011, What's the Buzz by Guest Contributor

By Philip Downer

Philip Downer

If there’s one thing I’m keen to do this year at the Tools of Change conference, where I’l be speaking alongside Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Bookscan, is to dispel any notion of “another year, another Frankfurt.” Amazon’s Kindle was just being readied for launch in the UK at the time of last year’s Fair, and in twelve short months it has turned the industry on its head.  The Kindle followed hard on the heels of the iPad, and it’s estimated that the two devices account for 95% of the UK’s suddenly huge e-book market.

E-readers and digital content have been a force in the US for 2-3 years now, but their impact in Europe has only been felt over the past 12 months.  For physical bookshops, and for publishers struggling to adapt, the effect has been a “triple whammy” – first, the economic crisis, secondly the switch from bricks-and-mortar to online commerce, and now the rise of digital content.

The impetus for progress in our sector appears to rest primarily with the technology corporations (specifically Amazon and Apple), and established publishers, large and small, are having to rethink their future strategies in anticipation of a digital future.

I’ve been saying for some time that the market isn’t big enough for a mature physical bookshop market, and a vigorous and growing online/digital offer, and this has been underlined by high-profile business failures in US, UK and Australian bookselling in the course of the year.

One concern is that further announcements from tech companies are promising to change the landscape of publishing right up to the Farnkfurt.  I spoke to a group of 50 aspirant writers and publishers on the Kingston University Publishing MA course in late September, and their intelligence, commitment and enthusiasm gave me considerable confidence in the future.  After the Q&A session had finished, I learnt about Amazon’s new Kindle range, which had been announced during my tutorial, and which finally sees real competition in the tablet sector.  And will Google’s eBook programme (which has been in the wings for so long) be a game-changer, or a sideshow?

I’ve seen what happens when customers drift away from an old-style bricks and mortar format; the age of the superstores is now coming to a close, but there will still be opportunities for low cost base, committed independent booksellers.  In a sense, online bookselling has already wrought the primary changes for bookshops – I hope that publishers can manage and control their destiny in the face of the digital revolution.  There’s no such thing as business as usual anymore…

Philip Downer is a retail operator, consultant, and former CEO of Borders UK. He writes about books and retailing at his blog Front of Store. He will be speaking at the Tools of Change conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Tuesday.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.