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Friday, 17 June 2011 01:11

Never mind the bookstores, worry about the books


Cries of indignation from retail booksellers at the suggestion that their industry has become an endangered species are beginning to sound like the last hurrah of the leaders of an embattled and beaten army trying to rally the troops for one last try. However, the book selling market is now disrupted and the whole supply chain is endangered.

RedGroup Retail, the owner of one of Australia's largest bookseller chains Angus & Robertson is under administration and 42 of its stores - all the company owned stores - are closing down, with the loss of more than 500 jobs.

Peak body the Australian Booksellers Association claims that the Angus & Robertson closures are due to mismanagement by RedGroup rather than anything else. On the surface, this sounds reasonable but digging just a little deeper reveals a different story.

All of the giant Borders bookstores, also owned by RedGroup in Australia, have already been shut down this year, retail sales of books Australia-wide are down by 2% for the first half of 2011, and 2010 saw the value of sales drop by 4%.

Once again, it would be easy to dismiss this as just a market dip - retail is doing badly across the board right? Well not quite. Yes, retail generally is doing it tough but booksellers are doing it tougher than the others.

The problem for bricks and mortar retailers is the Internet. As the doyen of Australian retailers Gerry Harvey has rightly pointed out, consumers are voting with their credit cards to buy online where everything is cheaper and most things are GST free.

For book retailers, the writing was on the wall from the day went live in the early days of the web.

The demise of bookstores has not happened overnight. It has been 16 years since Amazon switched on the juice and since then it has been death by a thousand cuts.

At first consumers were reluctant to give their credit card details to an untrusted online retailer and were prepared to pay higher prices so that they could take delivery of their books immediately.

However, as the years rolled on an increasing number began to realise that no bookstore anywhere could offer them the range and rock bottom prices that they could obtain from pure online retailers like Amazon. By now, a whole generation of children are well into their teen years who have never known a world where they could not buy books online.


Still, many bookstores continue to fight the good fight. After all, many consumers still love the calming ambience they experience when they spend a half hour browsing the shelves of their local bookshop.

The bad news for bricks and mortar retailers, however, does not stop with people buying books from online suppliers. Yet again, new technology is in the process of disrupting the market and this time it sounds the death knell for anyone that is in the business of printing, distribution and sale of hard copy books.

Although e-readers have been around for some time and Amazon's Kindle has gained reasonably good market acceptance, the real disruptive technology has come once again from the company that specialises in disrupting markets with technology, Apple.

The iPad and copy cat Android multi-purpose tablet devices, with a form factor sized and shaped like books, are poised to drive the final nail in the coffin of the traditional book business.

Anyone who doubts this does not yet own an iPad. Once they download their first e-book and read it in bed with the lights off, all doubts will disappear.

Quite simply, reading a book on a good tablet like the iPad is a far superior experience to the old way of doing it. Imagine being able to buy and download instantly any book you wanted and have it sitting on one device without cluttering up space in your home.

You can take your entire library and access it anywhere you want to go - planes, trains, holidays, a park bench.

In fact, e-books also give authors and publishers far more scope to exercise their creativity, allowing them to embed multimedia content, link to references and even interact with their audience.

Is it really plausible that printed books can survive in the wake of this vastly superior technology? Could film cameras survive the digital revolution?

At this moment, the tablet revolution is in its infancy. The moment that tablets become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, books become redundant curiosities from a bygone era.

Some months ago we moved into a new family home and I have four large boxes packed with books stored away. I'm beginning to think that I may never unpack those boxes.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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