Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

The Death Of The Bookshop, Chapter 246 of Too Many

I will do some comics posts this week, I *PROMISE*, but this was just too depressing not to rant about it.

I shop at Amazon occasionally, and enjoy doing so if I know what I want in advance. A couple of clicks, and I’ll have anything, no matter how obscure, delivered to my house within days. This is A Good Thing.

However, it’s not where I buy most of my books. In Manchester there are (to my knowledge) only two shops that sell new non-academic books (not counting Tesco, WH Smith, The Works etc – I’m talking about actual bookshops here). Both are branches of the national chain Waterstone’s. This is in itself a disgrace given that Manchester is (I believe) England’s second- or third-most-populous city. But anyway.

I don’t buy a huge number of books there in absolute terms – about thirty or forty a year – but given that the average person buys fewer than two, I think that I – and people like me – probably make up a significant proportion of Waterstone’s sales. That won’t continue for much longer.

I’m not boycotting them, they’ve just made a very stupid business decision that will cost them most of the sales they’d have had from me. According to this week’s Private Eye they’ve decided to start turning non-fiction books face-out rather than spine-out, because face-out books sell better.

Now, this is true as far as the big, huge sellers go – the Harry Potters and Dan Browns – but it has one big side-effect. Face-out books take up four times as much shelf space as spine-out books. This means that they are cutting the number of non-fiction books they have available to a quarter of what it otherwise would have been.

Now, the only reason I actually bother going into a bookshop is because I want to browse. I want to discover something on the shelves that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered buying, and flick through and see if it’s interesting. By doing that a couple of years ago I discovered the About Time books, which led to me buying all six of them, plus a large number of the Faction Paradox books. It’s how I decided to buy a Charles Stross book two months ago (and why I’ve now got six Charles Stross books). Most importantly, it’s how I decided to buy all twenty or so of the pop-science books I’ve bought in the last year.

But you can only do that kind of browsing if there’s some *choice* of what to browse. On the pop-science shelves, for example, at any time there are maybe three or four books I want to buy, out of a few hundred. Cut that down to a quarter of the books (and allow for the fact that the ones that will not be stocked are quirky things like The Physics Of Immortality, while the ones that *will* be stocked are Dawkins, Hawking and other best-sellers) and suddenly there’s nothing there I want.

If I want a bestseller i can go to Tesco, or Smith’s, or Amazon. They sell them as loss-leaders. The whole point of going to a bookshop is that they have the non-bestsellers. You simply can’t build a business on selling other people’s loss-leaders.

Waterstone’s will be bankrupt within five years, at a guess. And a number of small publishers will go under before that. And I’ll have nowhere to go on my lunch break from work and just spend a few minutes browsing. I’m already getting increasingly uncomfortable in going there anyway (upstairs, where they keep the proper books, is fine, but downstairs in the realm of celebrity biography and Tragic Life Stories I am made increasingly uncomfortable – those books are giant signals saying “you’re not wanted here”, which I have to brave to get into my comfort zone of books with content) – this means I will have no reason to.

Short-term, Amazon will be getting more of my money, but without being able to browse the end result of this is probably going to be that I read less. And that makes me very, very sad…