Wednesday 22 November 2017

No need to read between the lines, it's Hard Times for the books world

John Spain, Books Editor

These are difficult times in the books business. This week the London bookshop made famous by Hugh Grant in the film Notting Hill began a closing-down sale; and here at home Eason's, the biggest bookseller in the country, said it may have to axe at least 90 jobs in a programme of compulsory redundancies.

Eason's wants all employees to take a 10pc pay reduction, and it has been suggested that stores may close.

That's just in the last few days. We've already seen Hughes & Hughes collapse and then return in a much smaller edition; and Waterstones has also closed its stores. But the real carnage is among the small independent stores. We don't hear much about their problems but their number has been shrinking steadily.

The Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill is a rare example of an independent store collapsing that makes the news. One might ask how other independent bookshops both here and in the UK can last when that one, with the global publicity it has got, is bringing down the shutters. As The Travel Bookshop began a two-week closing-down sale, tourists who had come to see where Hugh Grant dithered over Julia Roberts were incredulous.

Once again, people were asking if bookshops can survive, particularly the quirky local bookshops we all love but not enough of us shop in.

There are a number of reasons why there's no happy ending in sight in the story of the bookshops.

First of all, there's the recession. Books are part of discretionary spending and that's way down for all businesses. The latest trade figures for Ireland (for the year up to August 13) show that book sales this year are down 7.6pc in volume and the trend is worsening.

That follows a difficult 12 months last year. Several Irish publishers report that the value of sales last year was down at least 10pc. To combat this, there is widespread discounting in the trade, with 'three for the price of two' deals and so on. The problem for independent bookshops is that they find it difficult to match what is available in the big chains. And on top of that, the supermarkets now offer cut-price bestsellers near the checkouts. Competition like this has to be faced by many retail businesses. But for bookshops it's even tougher because they're not just fighting the recession. They're also facing two other major threats: the increasing popularity of online book-buying and the phenomenal growth in e-book sales.

Because of the volume they handle, online book sales from Amazon in the UK and Eason's and Kennys in Ireland, offer value that individual bookshops struggle to match. Some offer free postage. Even with postage, the prices are competitive and there is the convenience of getting the book delivered right to your door.

In the long run, an even bigger threat to local bookshops -- and books in general -- will be e-books and e-readers, sales of which have come from nowhere since a couple of years back to around 10pc of the market internationally.

Just last week, for example, one of the world's biggest publishers, HarperCollins, said that e-book sales now comprise 11pc of their total revenue.

However, they also revealed that that in the last three months e-books comprised 19pc of US sales and 11pc of sales worldwide.

That's a clear indication of the way things are going and it has set alarm bells ringing loudly in the traditional book trade. Many readers still claim to love the feel of "real" books and swear they will never use an e-reader. But the figures are telling a different story.

That's why this week's news story on Eason's reported that although the chain wants €8.5m in cost savings, it's also rolling out a €20m investment plan that will focus largely on online sales and e-books.

Last year, online sales through the Eason's website was only 1pc of its business; the target for the business is to grow that to 10pc of sales over the coming year.

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