Bookshops, ebooks and the future of the novel

Overland: Malcolm, at the Perth Writers Festival this year, you argued that, in ten years time, 80 per cent of bookshops will have closed. Can you explain that?

Malcolm Neil: You’ve got a three-pronged attack on bookstores. Firstly, there’s the shift to online retail. Secondly, there’s the shift in leisure expenditure: people aren’t actually buying as many books. Thirdly, there’s the shift to digital formats. Digital is unfettered, unbound. Why would you go into a bookstore if you can get everything you need outside of it?

That’s the demand side. But on the supply side, publishers are switching their model to digital. They’re going to invest less in print infrastructure, their print runs will become smaller, their print costs are going to go up, they’ll be squeezed on their margins. The print side of things will become almost a boutique aspect. You’ll see department stores and chain stores like Target backing out of books – and they provide 15–20 per cent of the volume for publishers now. What everyone forgets when they talk about bookshops and the book industry is that the literary world is only about 3 per cent of the actual turnover.

OL: Do you see the shift as good, bad or indifferent?

MN: Ultimately it’s a good thing, because the shattering and fracturing that’s taking place creates more opportunities. It allows more people to access and participate. I think at the moment the book trade is a very controlled, insular industry that doesn’t necessarily reflect the wider culture in any country in which it operates. It reflects a fairly specific, learned method of reading and transmitting stories and ideas.

OL: Jo Case, you worked in bookshops for many years. Do you accept that forecast?

Jo Case: Almost … The figure I’ve heard was that 30 per cent of stores will survive, a figure that also reflects the independent bookstores’ percentage of the market. Bookselling will, I think, move to a more boutique model. Independent bookstores, community bookstores, those catering to a community of readers or to a more literary market: they will survive.

OL: That sounds quite upbeat. Are you as positive as Malcolm about what’s happening?

JC: No, not really. I think it’s positive insofar that the bookshops that are going to survive are the community and literary bookstores, which is much better than the other scenario, in which the chains survive and the literary bookstores all die. But no, it’s not a good thing for authors and publishers. Their revenues will drop greatly because they’re not going to have the market reach. I haven’t heard any publishers feeling positive about that.

OL: John, what’s your take?

John Weldon: It’s very hard to argue with the general trend Malcolm identifies, though I think everyone agrees that the actual percentages are quite rubbery. In terms of whether it’s a good or bad thing, I think it’s value-neutral. Bookshops are a business. They have all sorts of wonderful and romantic associations, and I love them, but they’re a business model, a communications model, that’s not inherently morally superior to a digital model. The real downside is that a lot of people will lose their jobs, but that’s a different point.

In the past, a new medium has often turned an old medium into art objects, as photography did with painting. We might see the digital revolution turning printed books into art objects. Maybe the bookshop goes down a similar path and becomes a destination, a place to see books as wonderful things, in the same way as when you want a good coffee, you go to a good café rather than to Coles to buy some Nescafe.

OL: John, you’re a writer who’s currently finishing a novel. Would it bother you to not see that in a physical bookshop?

JW: There are lots of romantic associations with the physical book, and we’ve all grown up with it. So yes, I would love to see my book in print. But that’s going to become more and more unlikely for writers down the track. I think we have to be pragmatic and talk about how we maximise the digital opportunities for writers.

MN: We need to remember, though, that already 30 per cent of books are bought online. That means the book’s received in the post or it’s received digitally; already there’s a significant shift with regards to the physical product and the bookstore and the location of the customer. What’s more, this has been happening for a lot longer than people realise – it’s just that digital is a little fancier and a little sexier than supply-chain logistics and disintermediation, which were already changing the industry.

OL: The traditional bookshop is often discussed as the centre of a community. But is this real? Is it not arguable that people today develop communities online as much as elsewhere?

JC: I think online and offline communities are important but for different reasons. Of course, I do see Malcolm’s point that a bookshop is a business model and it’s only going to exist for so long as it is profitable. But I’d argue that if people value their neighbourhood bookshop then they should support it. That community is still important, especially for children’s reading. You can browse the books, you can read a bit, you can interact with them and decide what you’re going to take home. You don’t get that experience online, and it’s an important one for fostering a love of books and of literacy. The community of readers online is more about people who already love books, and I think that’s a great thing too. But bookshops are part of the discussion as well.

MN: At risk of sounding cynical, I’m not sure those interactions actually occur at depth in bookstores. If we walked into the majority of bookstores today, we’d be lucky to find the sorts of conversation we’re describing, where the staff engage in intellectual discussions about the cultural milieu and how a particular novel fits into that. There’ll be a little bit of recommendation, a little bit of customer service. There’ll be the transaction, the buying of the book, and lots of people browsing and not wanting to be bothered. Except at events, which don’t necessarily occur that often.

JC: You will get a mix. There will be people who are having conversations, there will be people who will be getting crap service. There will be people not wanting to be bothered. All of those things. But it is a place where you can have those conversations, can have unexpected encounters, can find something you didn’t know that you were looking for. And it’s also a place where people connect with one another, in a way that people often don’t online.

OL: Moving away from bookselling, perhaps we can talk briefly about how reading is changing.

JW: In Australia, it’s really hard to find any concrete figures about ebooks: how many are selling, who reads them, that sort of stuff.

MN: We have a pretty good idea, actually. Everyone who’s selling them knows who’s buying them …

JW: But you don’t tell us …


MN: No, because that gives away our market advantage. But I can give you an indication. Basically, it’s the heavy readers, the people who love books. They’re the people who are early adopters, the same people we talk about as creating a community in a bookstore. They’re the people who are reading ebooks.

JW: Is there a change in reading content? Are they still reading the traditional 60 000-word novel? Or are they reading, say, flash fiction?

MW: That’s a good point. Reading in the past was obviously dictated by what we had in our hands: published material in physical print form. Scholastic do a fairly comprehensive survey of kids’ reading – the last one was 2009, I think – and it shows that children are reading differently. They’re not reading long-form narrative, and not reading as many picture books, but they’re still reading. They’re just reading differently. Reading now is many things: it’s papers, blogs, Wikipedia … whatever.

OL: What does that mean for writers? Can we expect the already very limited earnings that writers make in Australia to decline?

JW: Because now we all write every day, it’s easier to source content. Writing is less of a rarefied craft, and that makes it much less of a specialised skill for which you would pay money.

JC: I recently interviewed people about that exact question. Matthia Dempsey, the editor of Bookseller + Publisher said pretty much that: the recent past is an unlikely-to-be-repeated golden age in terms of the money that professional writers were paid, and that’s been devalued because of the free stuff online. We spoke about those self-published ebooks for $3.99 and how that’s affected consumers’ expectations of what you should pay for a book, which is driving down the prices generally. But then I also spoke to Lisa Dempster from the Emerging Writers’ Festival, who was a little more positive. She said that model, with a book at $3 or 99 cents, represented people actually starting to be prepared to pay for online content.

MN: I’d argue that there was never a golden age. Sure, some people made a lot of money. But of all the authors that I’ve met or have known better than in passing over the last twenty-five years, the only one who’s made any money is Christos Tsiolkas, and that was only quite recently. Until recently, he was working part time here and there. Writers have always been paid badly. I don’t think there’s been a massive shift in the amount of income they’ve received. It’s always been poor.

JC: I agree that there was never a time when writers were paid amazing amounts, but I do think the amount of money you can get these days is less.

MN: But let’s tease that out. If you’re an author, a first or second time novelist, and you’re publishing through a traditional publishing house, you receive a small advance on a royalty amount of 10 per cent. In this country, on a print run of 5 000 copies, that’s not a lot of money. If you’re publishing through a digital world, you disintermediate so that there’s all these people who previously took a clip from you who no longer do. Your starting royalty point is suddenly around 25 per cent. You can get up to 70 per cent if you self-publish, and then pay for all the services of editing and jacket design out of that.

I don’t see that the capacity to earn is necessarily any different to the past. It’s all based on whether you can move the volume, whether you can find your route to the reader.

JC: But most people won’t move that volume. And most people aren’t going to find that route to the reader.

MN: But most people don’t already. So the publishers who do well and survive will be those who make sure that the book gets in front, through their editing, their marketing, through all the processes that currently add value. There’s a suite of services that a publisher provides and they can be segmented. New models emerge from a complete fracturing of what this industry currently does, which is select an author, bring a book to market and then distribute it through a fairly exclusive process.

JW: As a freelancer writing for newspapers and so on, my rates haven’t gone up in twelve years. So, in that sense, there’s definitely a squeeze.

MN: The number of publications has multiplied immensely. To me, the idea that before you were writing for a discrete publication and that piece you were writing had one life. Is there now some sense that the piece now has multiple lives?

JW: But they always did. Most publications only ever required first rights.

MN: But you have a greater number of outlets.

JW: Yes, but it’s hard to sell the same story two or three times, and it’s hard to sell it overseas if it’s written for Australia. In principle, yes, you can do it, but in practice, no.

OL: Moving on from that, will we see a change in the kind of writing that is published?

JW: Maybe we can make a comparison with popular music. The album was just a marketing container that worked well for a time. It was portable, convenient. But it’s only a recent phenomenon, and music has now moved away from it. Perhaps we need to look at the novel in the same way. The novel is a container, and it influenced the way that writers worked for several hundred years. But maybe now we’ll start to see different formats emerging.

MN: Yes. The book industry will disappear because it will no longer be the book. But it’s never been about the book, it’s always about what’s inside it. We’re in love with the book and we fetishise it. That’s great, but that’s not the future.

There’s a dramatic upswing in, for instance, people publishing short essays. There’s a whole lot of experimentation taking place. It is a space where the cost of failure is so much less than it’s ever been.

OL: Technological alternatives to the novel have been promised for a long time, though.

JW. But it will take a long time. There’s a number of experiments with what people call enhanced ebooks, but they mostly seem to struggle. We are so acculturated to dealing with a page and starting from the top left-hand side and having a starting point and a finishing point. What these experiments do is change that interface radically. There might be three or four ways into the book, or you can start with a picture, then go to a song and then a piece of text. And they’re incredibly confusing since most of us are not used to accessing text in that way. So they will fail and they will stumble until they find a way to make those texts not too unfamiliar for us and until we as a culture change from associating reading with the page.

JC: There’s other sorts of experimentation going. Allen & Unwin are releasing a series of short stories for $2 each.

MN: And HarperCollins did something similar and Text are doing it too …

JC: It will be fascinating to see how people respond.

MN: That’s what I mean by experimentation, but that’s still contained in the book. What’s the new form of reading? Well, I think we can only guess as to the way that people will consume stories by breaking free of this idea that they will do so in long-form narrative format.


John Weldon

John Weldon has worked as a freelance writer since the mid 90s. His work has been published by the Age, the ABC and the Western Times among other organisations. He currently lectures in Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University. His first novel, Spincycle, will be published later this year by Vulgar Press.

Jo Case

Jo Case is senior writer and editor at the Wheeler Centre and a former bookseller, most recently for Readings Books Music & Film. Her first book will be released through Hardie Grant in 2013.

Malcolm Neil

Malcolm Neil currently works as Director of Content for Rakuten Kobo Inc and is a founding board member of the Small Press Network. He took part in the productivity commission enquiry 2009 as CEO of the ABA and participated in discussions around the forming of the Book Industry Collaborative Council. He sits on the board of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays