Of course we’d want to, but do we have to? And if we have to, what actually does that mean? If we did all agree that we needed to do something to save the bookstore, what action could we take? More money is what’d be needed, since costs, especially rents constantly rise, but how do we make that happen? Bookstores can make more money by selling more books, making more off each sale, selling stuff with a greater margin, or reducing their costs. Publishers are unlikely to voluntarily give bookstores a bigger discount, and are reluctant to increase the retail price of books too much for fear that’d scare off buyers. Nobody realistically wants bookstores to be given grants from governments, though Europe seems to be toying with this approach. Efficiencies are scarcely available in what’s a pretty stripped-down business. Diversification can help: lots of bookstores sell stationery and other items. Appealing to potential customers to get up and go to a bookshop to buy a book can achieve something, but not enough. The fact is that rents rise, and center-city rents rise faster. Bookshops, in so far as they are able to survive are being pushed out to the periphery (which of course isn’t all that bad a thing). We nevertheless feel that a healthy bookstore universe is a cultural necessity.

If we didn’t have bookstores, what benefits would we actually be losing? We have become accustomed to the convenience of bookstores, but are they really giving us anything more serious than convenience? It’s obviously great to be able to see a book before you commit to its purchase, and there’s always the charm of serendipity. Have we book lovers become spoiled? Before the mid 17th century you pretty much had to go to London to buy a book. Not a distribution model that anyone would advocate of course, but it does show doesn’t it that where there’s a will there’s a way. Books got written; books got printed; and books got sold. You had to work harder to get them, and not just because they were relatively more expensive. We all “feel” that it’s important to keep bookshops, without really knowing what exactly we think society should be prepared to do to bring this about.

I do, however, think it’s a claim too far to state “Groundbreaking literature relies on bookstores and booksellers to thrive”. This dubious claim is made by Milkweed Editions in their KickStarter solicitation of funds to open their own independent bookstore. (Link via LitHub Daily. You can go straight to Milkweed’s video presentation here. The campaign seems to be going pretty well.) Avant garde writing, just like any other kinds of book writing, certainly benefits from the existence of bookstores, and authors and publishers make more money because of them*. But groundbreakers are breaking ground, not catering to the needs and wishes of an established clientele for this or that supply chain. Think of Ulysses for instance. It was written and sold (in its early days) despite the book trade. Not all publishers, librarians, and booksellers have always been dedicated innovators: we wouldn’t call it gatekeeping if there wasn’t the possibility of refusing entry to material the gatekeepers disapprove of. The contrarian ability to work around a disapproving trade only becomes simpler when we can so easily buy a book, digital or physical, on-line.

Now I am entirely in support of Milkweed’s bookstore initiative; the more bookstores we have the better. It’s the rhetoric I take issue with. In the end it’s the marketplace which will determine whether bookshops survive or not. I really don’t believe the élitist argument is (ever) right that people just don’t know what they want. Of course life would be different without bookshops, but as long as people want books there’ll be ways to obtain them. Just because this is the way we have “always” done it doesn’t mean that it is the only way it could be done. I think Milkweed’s claim would make more sense if instead of “groundbreaking literature” they had said “trade books”. The trade market is the one sector that would be seriously impacted by the disappearance of the bookshop, although of course trade publishing is ever more reliant on on-line sales, and may not need bricks-and-mortar by the time those walls come tumbling down!

However, that said, I think we have survived the apocalypse — surely nobody now thinks the bricks-and-mortar bookstore is doomed, at least in the near or medium term. We’ve had a shake-out, but haven’t things settled down? Maybe there’ll be other rough patches, (vide Three Lives, subject of Good news from the future, and their real-estate balancing act as reported in The Observer) but I do believe we can now see the outline of how things will be in the future.

News like Barnes & Noble’s continuing woes may seem to contradict my optimism (see The Digital Reader‘s take) but what I think we are seeing is a stabilization among smaller independent bookstores, and the end of the big bookstore. The mega store logically lives on-line. Predictably Hugh Howey has weighed in again. Here is his take on the situation — as usual well-informed, broadly correct, and stylistically rebarbative. It seems he can’t just discuss a subject and be done; he has to keep jabbing pins into the industry with which he is locked in love-hate passion. (Link via The Digital Reader.)


* Though one might just notice in passing that when a publisher sells direct to consumers on their own websites, as more and more publishers are doing, they make rather more money — selling at full price or at a 10% discount and even picking up postage will net you more profit than selling a book to a bookstore at 45% or 50% of its retail price!