A gripping story but not the last chapter for traditional book shops
May 6th, 2010
written by Carissa Casey
It's a cruel irony that tales of our economic woes were among the best sellers last year in Irish book shops, including the now defunct Hughes and Hughes.
'The Bankers' by journalist and senator Shane Ross topped the Irish non-fiction lists in 2009 with a near record-breaking 30,000 copies sold.
His was just one of a rake of books on the 'where did it all go wrong?' theme, all of which sold well. Every cloud . . . as a cynic would note.
Otherwise, the value of sales in Irish bookshops last year fell by 5.36 per cent to �156.5m, according to Neilsen Bookscan. The number of books sold rose from 13.9 million in 2008 to 14.6 million in 2009, a 4.4 per cent increase in volume terms. So while punters bought more books, they paid on average �1.10 less per book.
According to Tom Owen, books director at Ireland's largest independent book seller Easons, the fall in average price reflects the weakness of sterling and consumer reluctance to go beyond the �20-�25 price point.
"We definitely saw that in the Christmas market. People weren't interested in books with a higher price tag," he says.
Hardback books also performed badly, with most buyers preferring to wait for the cheaper paperback edition.
Still, as Owens and others in the industry point out, as retailing sectors go, the book market is holding its own.
Sales for the first few months of this year are down. But it's in the last half of the year that most books are sold, through a combination of the summer holiday reads, back-to-school season and the Christmas gift market.
The demise of Hughes and Hughes seems to have come as little surprise to market insiders. It was not the only book seller in Ireland to fail in the downturn. At Blanchardstown shopping centre, a huge Borders shop closed late last year. A handful of small independent book stores have also shut up shop around the country.
The boom years were kind to book shops. Ever since the arrival of online book sellers such as Amazon in the late 1990s, experts have trumpeted the death of the traditional book store. But between 2004 and 2006, sales in Irish book shops were rising rapidly from �104m to �131m. In October 2007 alone, �14.7m worth of books were sold, an 8 per cent increase on the same period in the previous year.
In Galway, Des Kenny, owner of Kenny's book shop, says that in the 80s there were about six book shops in the town. By 2005, that figure had risen to 20. "I think that's the biggest problem now. The butter is being spread thinner and thinner."
"There is a romanticism about owning a book shop. It is a great business but making money is another matter."
Kennys was one of the first Irish book sellers to go online. It shifted its physical book shop out of the centre of town and discovered that customers followed. "In the boom there were too many people who didn't know the books they were talking about. They had to look everything up on a computer. Customers like the intimacy of a book shop with knowledgeable staff," he says.
The advantage for Easons and Kennys is that the demise of a competitor means more customers for them. Sales at Easons' Blanchardstown store rose when Borders pulled out.
Sales are also growing now at Eason stores close to boarded-up Hughes and Hughes shops. Easons has bought the chain's airport stores which are also contributing to sales growth.
But there is plenty of new competition. Sales at Amazon to Ireland are soaring, according to one insider. The UK chain WH Smith, which already has a toehold at Shannon airport, will be operating at the new Terminal 2 in Dublin when it opens.
Advances in technology have also brought an entirely new threat to the traditional book shop. The ebook, an electronic version of a book that can be read on a device such as Kindle or even an iPhone, is rapidly gaining ground in the US and Japan.
Michael McLoughlin, head of Penguin Ireland, has been in the industry for 20 odd years and describes this period as being the 'fastest moving' in all that time.
For example, in Japan, Harlequin, a publisher of romantic women's fiction, is selling one million ebooks every month.
McLoughlin says reports from the US suggest that ebooks could account for 10 per cent of sales by the end of this year.
The rise of the ebook is a serious threat to the traditional publishing and selling business, according to Eoin Purcell, editor of Irish Publishing News.
"People don't want to pay for digital goods. You can see that in the music industry. But it's not always that much cheaper to produce a book in digital format," he says.
He also points out that it is wrong to make too many comparisons with the music industry. Where music lovers might want to buy just two or three tracks from an album, a reader is unlikely to download a chapter or two from a narrative fiction. There's also the physical experience of a curling up with a good book.
Purcell is perhaps a typical ebook early adopter. He uses a Kindle to read when he's commuting. "I love it. It's so handy when you're sitting on a bus or stuck at an airport."
That said, he hasn't forsaken the traditional book, which he reads at home.
Predictions for the share ebooks will take vary widely. Purcell is an optimist. He believes that ebooks will climb to a 20 per cent share within 10 years and, after that, rise to half of the market.
"The technology is improving all the time. Take a typical coffee table book of beautiful photography. As the applications improve I believe people will have an iPad on their coffee tables with a selection of titles," he says.
O'Brien Press in Dublin has two ebook titles now: a dictionary of Irish slang and Neil O'Dowd's memoir, 'An Irish Voice'.
Ivan O'Brien believes that in three or four years the ebook will account for about a quarter of the market. He invested in developing a system which is capable of putting the publisher's entire back catalogue into digital form. "There was a big learning curve and I'm glad we got that out of the way. I think there's going to be another big learning curve now in understanding how this market is going to develop," he says.
O'Dowd's book is of interest to the overseas Irish market. He is prominent Irish- American journalist who was intimately involved in the Northern Irish peace process.
So O'Brien can sell the digital title instantly worldwide. And there is a surprisingly large market for Irish books overseas. O'Brien points out that Brendan O'Carroll's 'The Mammy' was a huge hit in Italy.
There are problems though. Savings can be made on printing, storage and transport, but these are not significant in the overall cost of producing a book, according to O'Brien. "It's the writing and editing that takes up most money and time," he says. "That's the same whether it comes out in ebook or printed form."
Digital books are also subject to 20 per cent VAT, which traditional books are not.
A further danger is the speed with which ebooks can be copied electronically. "We haven't had to deal with that before. People could photocopy a few pages or even a chapter of a book but it just wouldn't make sense to copy a whole book," says O'Brien. "Illegal copying could undermine a huge chunk of the market."
What will ebooks mean for the traditional book store?
At Easons, Owen is betting on ebooks accounting for 15 per cent of the market by 2015 and 20 per cent by 2020. "But what does anybody know?" he adds.
"I think at first it will be the gadget buyers rather than true book lovers who'll go with this," he says. "But you have to bear in mind that most kids are growing up reading things on a screen."
He believes that book shops will have to extend their message and set up systems to allow customers download books in-store. Easons has embraced the online world. It recently set up a Facebook page, which now has 3,000 fans, and features an online book club.
Rather that collapsing in face of the online threat in the early 90s, book shops adapted and survived. They've triumphed despite competition from the supermarkets.
More recently, the recession has claimed some victims, but those that are still standing are more likely to see out the current downturn.
The ebook sector is a new threat, but on evidence so far, Irish book sellers are ready for the challenge.
- Carissa Casey Irish Independent