Is this the end of bookselling as we know it?

In 1963, Catherine Paton set up Paton Books in St. Albans with a sense of unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for what was to come.

In 1963, Catherine Paton set up Paton Books in St. Albans with a sense of unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for what was to come. In 1985, Richard and Josie Child took over the bookshop with that same enthusiasm and excitement. They worked hard to transform the foundations Catherine had laid into a treasure trove of unique books, developing a loyal following of customers and becoming a well-loved pillar of the community.

In 2007, Paton Books was forced to close, primarily as a result of changes in the book trade. Like many independent booksellers of the modern age, Paton Books found it impossible to compete in a book market so drastically impacted by internet selling and the recession. 

The statistics speak for themselves—in 2012, the UK saw 73 closures of independent bookshops, that’s a loss of 7 per cent. Between 2005 and 2012 a third of the UK’s independent bookshops were forced to close.

The trend is clear—independent bookselling seems to be a dying art. 

Taking hold

The reasons behind this are threefold: the pressures of the recession, competition from bookselling chains such as Amazon and the impact of the ever progressing digital era have combined to make it increasingly difficult for independent bookshops to survive. 

Amazon has perhaps been the biggest game changer in this field. Founded in 1994, it was Chairman Jeff Bezos’ aim to create a company ‘where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online’ and to offer these customers ‘the lowest possible prices.’

20 years on from its inception, Amazon is now the world’s largest online retailer. It has power over the traditional bookshop in a number of ways. Amazon inevitably stocks a larger and often more varied range of books than any bookshop. Due to its worldwide customer base and astronomical income, it can afford to sell these books at much cheaper prices than those available in independent bookshops.

On top of this, Amazon, unlike the majority of independent bookshops, also sells books in digital format. With control of 65 per cent of the e-book market, it dominates the digital revolution.

Amazon is the book industry

It is not difficult to see how Amazon has radically changed the bookselling industry. Where, in the past, someone would need a book and head to the local bookstore, it is now second nature to log on to Amazon, click, pay online, and have your book delivered.

And who can blame anyone for doing this? As we continue to exist in a tough economic climate and lead such busy lives, of course we are going to favour the cheapest, easiest option when it comes to buying any item, and Amazon offers us just that. 

This trend of losing bookstores is not just apparent in the UK, but is spreading worldwide. The US finds itself facing the same problems as we do. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of independent bookstores dropped from 2,400 to 1,900, and in 2011 it was estimated that Amazon controlled 22.6 per cent of the American book market.

Where the US differs to the UK in relation to bookselling is that its population is so much more culturally and economically diverse, this means that some parts are still to adapt to the digital revolution and continue to favour independent bookstores.

In terms of European bookselling, the UK is the most powerful bookselling nation, followed by Germany, Spain and France. These three countries seem to be experiencing the same trends as the UK, but on a kind of delayed reaction.

The revolution will be digitised

Spain, for example, experienced the beginning of the digital revolution in 2010 and is currently still in the midst of a serious economic crisis which began in 2008 (The number of books sold in Spain decreased by 29 per cent between 2008 and 2012). The Spanish publishing industry has been forced to reassess its function amidst this economic uncertainty, leading to the closure of numerous bookstores and Spanish Publishers looking towards Latin America for better publishing outlets.  

It seems, wherever we look, the bookselling industry is in crisis, and this crisis runs far deeper than its economic effects suggest. Independent booksellers have long been so much more than shops in the UK.

Like the pub was and still is, bookstores are cultural and community hubs. Places for people to get together and talk about life. They provide pillars in the community both on an educational and a community level—just ask the Childs, whose loyal customers included those who simply popped in to visit Henry the cat. 

As tough economic times continue and Amazon further stamps its claim on the publishing industry, we are forced to question – is this the end of bookselling as we know it? 

So by all means, take advantage of the wonderful deals and opportunities that Amazon offers us (as a financially challenged student I feel I have no choice but to buy books as cheaply as possible on Amazon), but next time you click that ‘buy’ button, keep in mind that once all of the independent bookshops have gone, there’s no turning back. 

What do you think? Has the web killed the traditional bookshop? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: MichaelMaggs / Wikimedia Commons