Could books become extinct?

By Santana Haluska

Bookstores are in trouble. The publishing industry is in the throes of some pretty major changes, with the full effects to take years to play out. Publishers are downsizing, booksellers aren’t thriving like once before, even distributors are feeling the pressure. The Internet has revolutionised every industry it has come into contact with. And the publishing industry is just one example. Similar to the transition from LPs to cassettes to CDs in the music industry, the move from printed books to digital books will alter the publishing industry and change the way money is made.

Losing books would be like losing an art form, like walking into an art gallery to find that there are no canvases hanging on the walls and there aren’t any sculptures. There’s nothing to physically see because everything is on a screen, digitised. The strokes aren’t made with a paint brush, but a computer mouse. The paint isn’t paint at all, but pixels. The emotion isn’t captured but is spurious. Books matter.

Australian publishers have had to cut costs wherever possible in order to sustain their businesses. Cuts include decreasing the number of titles published annually as well as publishing more conservative print runs, says book industry veteran Karen Young.  But the future of Australian bookstores depends on Australian publishing industry, which doesn’t come without its own concerns: Australia’s isolation, relatively small population and the subsequent cost of producing books for sale. We can’t produce books as cheaply as the US or Europe can, which is why online sites such as Amazon and Book Depository can afford and maintain their prices. Since buying online has become an option, customers have wholly welcomed and actively sought out sites such as Book Depository and Amazon because of convenience, price and variety. A book online sometimes works out to be cheaper than in store, even with shipping and tax included.

Trade paperbacks are cheaper than hardbacks, but in the US even those sales are down from a high of $128.8 million in 2006 to $81.2 million in 2011. Mass-market paperbacks are cheaper, often priced at just $7-$8 a book, but sales have declined from $59.5 million in 2008 to only $29.3 million in 2011.

The second-largest chain in the US, Borders, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced its liquidation in 2011. The largest chain Barnes & Noble closed a number of stores and is only showing growth in online sales. Early last year the company disclosed plans to shut a third of its stores in the next 10 years. In Australia, REDgroup retail, the parent group for Borders and Angus & Robertson, stunned the market when it was placed into voluntary administration only a day after the collapse of Borders in the US. The US and Australian failures are not linked as they’re owned by different corporations, but both suffered from the rise of Internet book sales and reduced consumer spending. When a chain bookstore goes down, no one’s grinning, especially when it takes a whole lot of others with it. With the fall of Borders, uncertainty hovers over other stores, both independents and corporate, here and overseas. Waterstones, for example, closed a number of stores since 2011, was sold, moved to another country, and was finally sold again in order to survive.

Because Australian publishers have had to cut costs wherever possible in order to sustain their businesses, retailers’ profits have taken a hit and left many owners financially unable to keep their bookstores open. Because independent stores aren’t controlled by strict profit or loss decisions, they’re able to do what the chains can’t. Karen Young says that smaller retailers know their customers and understanding their reading habits, and often have good staff who like to read and chat. Many offer space to sit and browse and host events. “Independent stores are able to maintain their business by creating a community around books,” Ms Young says.

The downside is that in order to keep the doors open books tend to be more expensive. Other factors include increased rent prices, which have rendered already-struggling bookstores to close. The number of independent bookstores gracing our streets has declined as a result of the publishing industry being at risk. According to the Booksellers Association last year 67 local bookshops closed, while just 26 opened. Kate Adams at Newtown independent bookshop Better Read Than Dead says that without the support of the community, and without finding small ways to adapt to the industry changes, bookshops do struggle. “So long as bookshops adapt – and that can include fighting against eReaders, or simply becoming more involved with the community such as we try to do here – I think they have a future.” she says.

E-readers have been around since the late 1990s but didn’t take off until Amazon got into the game with the Kindle. The publishing and bookselling industries have obviously been hugely affected since 2011, when eBooks such as the Fifty Shades Trilogy became incredibly popular and spurred on the adoption of eReaders within Australia. Now with markets saturated with handheld devices and a strong demographic to its name, many Kindle eBooks are available for less than half the price of the hard copy. And eBooks aren’t only cheap, they’re also very portable.  “Why carry 10 books on a trip when I can have a Kindle and have hundreds in my hand?” asks Daniel Harding, reader and soldier in training.

Some readers aren’t convinced. Book lover Chris Quips De Peau says the concept of eReaders appeals to him, but he doesn’t actually enjoy using one. “I’d much prefer a book in my hands and pages between my fingers,” he says. “They are more convenient. You can’t argue [with] that. They are better on every level, except on sentimental and aesthetic grounds.”

At Better Read Than Dead a mother is reading The Hungry Caterpillar to her little girl. “Introducing books just isn’t the same when its digital,” the woman says. “Their eyes don’t light up the same, and they don’t really interact, and it doesn’t affect them the same either.”

Featured image: Losing books … like losing an art form. Photo: Kate Ter Haar/CC/flickr

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