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BLOG: How to save our bookstores

Zafar Anjum | July 23, 2013
Here are some solutions for bookstores to fight back and survive in the face of the digital challenge.

Libraries and bookstores are the intellectual lungs of a city. You can't imagine a city (doesn't the word city come from the word civilisation?) without bookstores and museums, the repositories of art and artifacts. In the past, whenever looters and marauders attacked a city, the savages would ransack these very places where valuables (ideas; arts) remained stored. The Al Qaeda (rebels in Mali) still do it as we saw in Timbuktu.

Yet, the very existence of these suppliers of art is under threat due to the successful arrival of digital bookstores and book distributors like Amazon.com. The result is that the whole traditional ecosystem of the publishing business has been rattled.

Everyone is feeling the pinch-from the writer to the publisher to the bookseller. Book advances are shrinking. Publishers are merging (for example, the merger of Penguin & Random House). Bookstores are closing down as the business is becoming unviable. We have seen how Borders and many of Barnes and Nobles bookstores closed down in the US and other parts of the world. When Borders closed down in Singapore, book lovers of the country mourned the loss. Recently, another bookstore, Prologue, announced that it would be shuttering its Orchard Road store for good.

At the same time, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the good that companies like Amazon.com (worldwide) and Flipkart.com (in India) have done for readers and writers. Now, you don't have to live in a big city just to get a book. Books are home-delivered to you. You get good discounts too.

Many writers are now self-publishing online and finding success. One of the glittering examples is the sensation of our times, Fifty Shades of Grey, a blockbuster novel by E L James.  It had its origins in Internet fan fiction. Then it was picked up by a small Australian press before Vintage signed a US$1 million with James in March 2012. Since then, the series has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.

What could be a good analogy that defines the death of bookstores and the rise of e-commerce in the book business?

Is it like the desktop replacing the typewriter? It is not even that. We are talking 'virtual' here. The e-books are replacing physical books, just as e-cash is taking the place of hard cash, slowly but surely.

I have no problem with people who want to go totally digital. However, it would be sad to see all bookstores disappear from cities. Actually, it is something beyond books; it is about the community. It is about the bank of the river where we come to get a drink of water and feel being part of the herd.

 

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