Kevin Buckle: Bookshops’ survival is a cautionary tale

Bookshops are holding their own against both e-books and Amazon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Bookshops are holding their own against both e-books and Amazon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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I popped into Waterstones in the West End on Wednesday and it was reassuringly busy, which was good to see.

When you are in a shop like that it is hard to believe that online sales and Amazon in particular poses any threat and yet of course when somebody knows they want a particular book it is just too easy to press that button and have it delivered to their door.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles is the bestselling album on vinyl so far this year. Picture: PA

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles is the bestselling album on vinyl so far this year. Picture: PA

Things do definitely look rosier for bookshops, though, and far more so than record shops that of course are regularly written about as having the same problems. Superficially both sets of shops face the same challenges but very quickly the similarities fade.

E-books were the threat to books and bookshops much as downloads were going to replace CDs, but things have turned out very differently. While the popularity of e-books and downloads have both waned the big difference is that downloads have been replaced by streaming so the erosion of album sales has continued.

Meanwhile bands, labels and even record companies do everything they can to sell directly to fans while generally authors and publishers are happy to support bookshops with their sales. Imagine the devastating effect it would have on bookshops if authors started selling directly to fans, signing copies and maybe offering some bonus not available in shops. It is not that this doesn’t happen, but only rarely.

Of course artists do still make appearances in record shops but only after they have done all they can to sell online first and in an ever shrinking market those lost sales are vital to shops. One thing that has come to the rescue of record shops is the resurgence in vinyl but that too has its drawbacks. The clue there is in the bestselling album on vinyl so far this year – The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The top ten, 20 or even 50 doesn’t get much better, being dominated by albums released decades ago, a phenomenon that thankfully has not occurred in bookshops. As one friend of mine who works in a bookshop said: “Imagine if book sales were dominated by people buying hardback copies of The Catcher in the Rye.”

The day after my visit to Waterstones was “Super Thursday”, when over 500 new books were published in time for Christmas, with another 250 promised to be on their way. The BBC ran stories from Waterstones’ warehouse and generally there was very much a good feel factor that bookshops had seen off the threat of e-books and were at least holding their own against Amazon.

Meanwhile, though HMV may have recently announced they are back in profit that has far more to do with paying lower rents than sales as the fact that those sales were down £25 million showed. The high street is a hard place to be these days and whether shops can survive will very much depend on whether suppliers support or compete with them.

It’s well worth giving Martin’s Album Club a spin

As I was leaving the shop a poster caught my eye for Ruth and Martin’s Album Club: An Evening with Martin Fitzgerald and Ian Rankin to be held in Waterstones’ West End shop on Thursday, October 19 at 6.30pm. I already knew about the event, being a big fan on Twitter, but it was the poster that reminded me and decide to go. I always said the same thing with gigs; that while promotion online was a must, posters in shops still did no harm at all in jogging people’s memory.

For those not aware of the Album Club, Martin has an acclaimed music blog where guests listen to albums for the first time and write about their experience. Both Ian Rankin and JK Rowling listened to self-titled albums by Madonna and the Violent Femmes respectively and a host of other celebrities have done the same, leading to a bestselling book. Martin sets up the album with a backstory and then the guests, having listened several times, give their thoughts. It is always a good read and of course with this being music-related the book has some bonus material not available on the blog!

You can find out more about the Album Club here http://ramalbumclub.com/ and book a ticket for the event at www.waterstones.com/events/

Tron’s market traders deserve some clarity on kirk’s future

With a report on the short and long-term future of the Tron Kirk to go to the council’s finance and resource committee before the end of the year you have to hope that they consider all the possibilities carefully and don’t simply plump for whatever makes them the most money, be that in the short or long term. Edinburgh World Heritage were of course previously the preferred tenants but have not progressed sufficiently to take on the building, though they appear to have not given up on the idea.

The market that has occupied the Tron most recently has been a success but with the building needing some serious repairs and improvements a more long-term solution will be preferable.

This of course doesn’t rule out the market continuing and there are options for that to happen I’m told, but the worry from the traders who are guaranteed to be there until Christmas is that if it just goes to the highest bidder it may end up being the “tartan tat kirk”.

Whatever happens, with less than three months to go the established traders there deserve to know their future so they can plan ahead.

Nostalgia is taking over

I received an email from PledgeMusic recommending, on the basis of my browsing, the new Professionals album. The Professionals were of course founded by ex-Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, though Steve now is only a guest.

What was interesting was that, unusually, they had made the pledging numbers open so I could see they had sold just under 1000 copies. Given the ridiculously low sales figures these days this is a big chunk of what will be expected to sell and again highlights the problem retailers and artists now face.

From the retailers’ viewpoint that is 1000 sales that have been taken out of the system and from the band’s viewpoint that is 1000 people that won’t be rushing into shops or buying online. Now some years ago, when rushing into shops was still a thing, this was really important as it severely dented the momentum behind the album, but now if fans simply buy from Amazon it makes no difference.

That the album was recommended to me at all is more a symptom of the albums now available on PledgeMusic than my general browsing history as the original roots of the site helping small bands raise money to make their albums has now been overwhelmed by big names and nostalgia.