Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Nick Sherry right about the death of bookstores within five years?

Nick Sherry, the Australian minister for small businesses started an uproar after predicting that "in five years, other than a few speciality bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist because of what's happening with internet-based, web-based distribution."

His comments, as the Guardian reported, followed the collapse of Australia's largest bookseller, Angus & Robertson, and Australian high street chain Borders earlier this year. Still, Sherry got many book lovers and bookstore owners angry, but is there a chance he might be right, and as much as we hate to hear it, this is the future we're heading to?

I write here extensively about the challenges of brick and mortar bookstores and about the fact that both large retailers (B&N, Borders) and indies haven't found yet the right strategy to bring customers back to the stores. So you might guess I wasn't surprised to hear Sherry's remark. Still I was curious to see what arguments were made against his prediction as I thought they might be a good indicator whether he has a point or not.

So let's look at some of the arguments made against Sherry's prediction:

1. Joel Becker, chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, said he was "gobsmacked" at the "extraordinarily unhelpful" remarks, and had written to the minister asking him to explain himself. "It's an industry that's obviously going through changes, and we're responding to those changes by working out ways for even the smallest bookstores to go online and sell ebooks; we've been doing it so far without any support from the government," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

2. Jon Page, president of the ABA and a bookseller at Sydney's Pages and Pages, insisted on Twitter that "we are not a dead or dying industry". There is "still a place for an independent that services their local community", said Page, telling the SMH that Sherry had shown "a distinct lack of understanding about the Australian book industry".

3. Daniel Jordan, managing director of Collins Booksellers, also dismissed the comment, stating: “To assume that bricks-and-mortar retailing won’t exist in five years is just plain wrong.”

4. Shadow Small Business Minister Bruce Billson also slammed Sherry’s comment, describing the minister as a “prophet of doom”. “Senator Sherry’s defeatist and demoralising commentary adds insult to the injury of his lack of support for retailing as small business adapts and innovates to respond to market trends and difficult trading conditions,” Billson said in a statement.

5. Page has had the same response in his Mosman store, and says it started in February when RedGroup Retail, the parent company of Borders and Angus and Robertson, called in administrators. ''Ever since the collapse of the RedGroup, customers have been coming into my bookshop asking if I am going to close, too,'' he told me yesterday. ''The minister's comments have been very damaging because they have reinforced in some customers' minds the idea that bookshops are on the way out.''

My impression from all these arguments and comments is that they don't really challenge Sherry's assumptions. They don't show in any way how the future of bookstores can be different from the one Sherry predicts and how bookstores can fight back online stores and be relevant to e-book consumers. His prediction might be unpleasant and even wrong in terms of timeframe, but it still important to be aware of this possibility, especially given the fact that we see so many bookstores closing and as we see from Borders' case, even the large retailers are not immune.

Bottom line: Let's not shoot the messenger. It won't help the future of bookstores even a bit.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Planting trees for your books!