The week in which HMV completed its £63 million takeover of Ottakar’s — and announced that Ottakar’s bookshops will be rebranded as Waterstone’s, which HMV already owns — seems a good moment to contemplate the future of the book trade in the virtual and digital age. There is something so unchangeably pleasing about the feel of a book in the hand and the ambience of a room full of books that it is hard to imagine the demise of the traditional well-stocked bookshop, what-ever alternatives technology may offer. And yet our own book-buying habits are the best indication of the speed of change.
Take me, for instance: I am often on the lookout for plays suitable for my am-dram troupe, and late the other night I was struggling to recall the name of one by Somerset Maugham that I saw at the National Theatre in the 1970s. In half a minute, not only had the Amazon online shop jogged my memory — it was For Services Rendered, which turned out, on revisiting, to be a rather bitter old piece — but one of its Marketplace sellers had sold me a 1991 paperback stamped ‘Leicestershire Libraries: Withdrawn from Stock’ which arrived by post two days later. Likewise (my taste in plays rarely venturing towards the contemporary cutting edge) I wanted to dip into P.G. Wodehouse’s work for the stage. Amazon came up with Methuen’s 1983 edition of Come On, Jeeves and other plays, but in the form of a copy printed ‘on demand’ by Lightning Source UK Ltd: that is, the book in my hand did not physically exist until I ordered it. Meanwhile, in Helmsley’s own Market Place — from which I promised to report from time to time on retail trends — the Cut Price Bookshop has doubled its selling space by taking over what was until recently a working forge next door, and is now offering Michael Palin’s Sahara (RRP £20) for £4.99.
The rise of the internet and supermarket-led discounting of popular titles are the twin forces of book-trade evolution. But the internet is changing people’s behaviour most profoundly. For many buyers, ‘browsing’ still takes the traditional, semi-random form of ten minutes in an airport bookstall waiting for an eye-catching cover or name to leap off the shelf and say ‘buy me’. For others, however, browsing has become a two-stage process of refinement: first, a memory trigger or word-of-mouth tip or flicker of interest leads swiftly through online search engines to a choice of books from an unimaginably vast stock held physically or virtually by multiple sellers. Second, this choice of sellers for each title allows the buyer to make trade-offs between condition, format, speed of delivery and price. And buyers can buy more books with cash raised by selling books they already own by the same mechanisms. A new book by Chris Anderson, The Long Tail (Random House), identifies this almost limitless expansion of choice as an epoch-making shift in consumer economics.
And it’s surprising who you find among the converts. ‘I find all the books I want on the internet,’ Tim Waterstone told me recently — yes, that Tim Waterstone, the one who reinvented the traditional, well-stocked bookshop in 1982 and still hopes to reclaim the chain that bears his name. At a time when trade was dominated by the bestseller-driven buying policies of his former employer W.H. Smith, Waterstone reintroduced ‘range bookselling’, stocking and displaying a huge choice of backlist titles — in effect, the precursor of the Marketplace today. ‘It was a tremendous vision,’ he says, ‘and the standard of bookselling in this country markedly improved as a result.’ He sold Waterstone’s to W.H. Smith in 1993, then returned to lead the buy-out that took it into the HMV group in 1998. He was chairman of HMV for four years, but ‘deeply uncomfortable’ as he watched the company’s buying policies change and profitability and staff morale fall.
‘I can’t bear to see people from outside the industry coming in and running it badly, spoiling it not only culturally but financially as well.’ He is now 67, and it is clearly his life’s mission to regain control of the bookshops. His last run at a possible bid in April was abandoned when HMV set too many conditions for talks, and his City backers, Lazard European Private Equity, pulled out. ‘I’m not obsessed,’ Waterstone says, ‘I’m really not.’ But he also admits that he is not as ‘emotionally involved’ with his other successful venture — the Daisy and Tom children’s stores — as he still is with the bookshops. ‘Maybe we’ll do it in 2007,’ he sighs, checking HMV’s share price on his computer screen.
If he succeeds, he will in some respects put the clock back 20 years: by increasing inventories, shifting power from head office back to the branches, and ‘discounting less’, aiming to capture the 20 per cent of book lovers who buy 50 books or more a year. How realistic is that as a strategy for the internet era? Well, he points out, 73 per cent of all books in Britain are still sold in shops, rather than direct or online, and that percentage has fallen by only 2 per cent since 1998: the success of Borders proves that ample choice and helpful staff still pull customers in off the street. Perhaps he’s right: good bookshops and online sellers can thrive side by side, because both channels encourage active and eclectic book-buying habits.
Meanwhile, technology will continue to take the book trade in new and unexpected directions. Downloads of unabridged audio-books are a hot new product for iPod users, according to the Guardian; a new generation of portable electronic-book readers, using downloaded text, may or may not take off as the next must-have gadget; and a huge row is brewing in the publishing industry over Google’s plans to digitise entire libraries and make the contents of millions of books available through its search engine.
On balance, all this has to be good for the written word. In the days when television seemed to be taking over the world, books were talked of as an endangered species, but now a minor miracle has taken place: every book ever published has a better chance of being bought, sold and read, in one form or another, than it did 20 years ago. Education — the ability and willingness of the next generation to read at all — is the market’s only constraint.