Where do you buy your books?

November 6, 2006

For me, there’s a few answers to that – the most important one being: very rarely from a high street bookseller. I don’t see why anyone would. On the rare occasions when I want a newly-released book, and I’m not just rooting around in a second-hand shop, my first choice would be to buy it online, where it’s bound to be cheaper. Actually, that’s a lie. My first choice is usually to write to the publisher and ask for a review copy. Failing that, I wait for the paperback, and then buy it online. Only when in a hurry – usually, I have forgotten someone’s birthday – do I shop at high street stores.

I’m obviously not alone in this – but there’s a lot of people who don’t go into bookstores at all, online or off, and publishers are chasing new ways to get to their wallets according to the NY Times (link behind irritating registration) and The Guardian (free version). Books in the US have been turning up at grocers, clothing stores, cattle auctions and elsewhere. In an extreme version, Penguin has been putting its books on QVC – well, a guide to making McDonald’s hamburgers in your own home: unlikely to be a big seller at Hatchards. Abby Hoffman, VP of Chronicle, says “Anyplace that sells merchandise is a place to sell books.” Which is a long way from the “books are not cans of beans” reaction of most traditional publishers to the encroachment of multiple retailers into bookselling.

This is an distribution problem: getting books into the hands of people who do not visit bookshops. Publishers are clearly spending a lot of time, effort and money on finding new ways to do the same old thing: selling hard copy, pre-printed tomes. And will all that effort be wasted when books become available on demand from the machine in the bar or corner shop, or for download? Not entirely – but they’ll have to go even further afield. Like governments skimping on technology which would educate and enable their citizens, publishers are doing a disservice to readers by not investing in and advancing new distribution models and instead continuing to fight over the last few scraps of traditional retail space.

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