A Clear and Not-So-Present Danger

By Max Fawcett | May 19, 2008


The other day while I was sitting at the only seat at Dooney's
Cafe's newly renovated bar – thank you, Restaurant Makeover – and trying as
best I could to mind my own business I happened to overhear a conversation that
Franz Donker, the owner of Book City, was having with his business partner and
the manager of his Annex location. One of the major publishers he deals with was
releasing eBook copies of a major release, and Donker said that this marked
the beginning of the end of his business. The internet and its related
technologies would do what the Chapters/Indigo merger and subsequent market
monopolization could not. It would put Book City, Canada's most successful
independent bookstore, out of business.

It is, of course, possible that Donker was joking, that he
has a typically black sense of humour with which I'm not familiar.
Eavesdropping, after all, isn't the most reliable of journalistic techniques.
But whether he was being serious or sarcastic, his point is still an important
one. How will an independent bookstore, a bold economic venture at the best of
times, survive a decision by the publishing industry to move from print to PDF?
While such a move isn't in the immediate future, the ever-increasing pace of
technological development, particularly with respect to personal entertainment
and accessibility devices like iPods and Blackberries, suggests that it isn't
much further away than that. That Chapters/Indigo has replaced books on their
most valuable display spaces near the cash registers with CDs, branded bottled
water, aromatherapy trinkets, and bath accessories only lends support to a
vision of the near future in which the selling of books takes place in a
fundamentally different way.

Book sellers like
Donker aren't alone in facing this challenge, though. The threat they face is
no different than that recently addressed with varying degrees of success by
record stores, movie theatres, and video rental outlets. In each case, the
influence of the internet and its related technologies has rendered them
suddenly inefficient parts of the distribution chain, physical points of sale
that have been rendered obsolete. People can now buy or download music, watch
movies, and order DVDs online, and the previous points of sale for these
products have been forced to adapt to their newfound marginality. Book stores
will have no choice but to do the same.

The good news is that book sellers like Franz Donker can
learn a lot from the way in which businesses like record stores, movie
theatres, and video rental shops have adapted to their new technological
landscape. In each case, the secret to surviving the transformation from a physical
to a digital delivery infrastructure is creating added value to the
physical product. In other, less technical words, that means giving
consumers good reasons to trundle down to their local record store or movie
theatre, rather than accessing the same product from the relative comfort of
their own home. For record stores, that means in-store promotions and
performance, be it a mini-concert, an autograph signing session, or a Q&A.
Video rental outlets like Rogers or Blockbuster Video have responded to the
threat of online distribution by emphasizing the convenience of the rental
process. Blockbuster's recent elimination of late fees, once a steady and
significant source of revenue, was an indication of how seriously they took the
threat presented by the internet. Movie theatres enjoy the biggest natural
advantage – literally – in the form of a screen size and audio quality, but
they too have had to make concessions to the market by holding ticket prices
relatively steady.

The good news for book aficionados is that people like Donker enjoy significant natural advantages compared to other multimedia industries. Where there is no difference
between an MP3 downloaded from the internet and a CD purchased for $17.99, for
example, or a DVD rented and one BitTorrented from the internet, there is a
difference between books and eBooks, once they become commercially viable.
People enjoy holding, possessing, and even collecting books, and that's an
experience that can't be duplicated electronically. There is a tangible
physical appeal that books possess that cannot be replicated or marginalized by
the internet, so that while eBooks may replace physical copies in some instances
it will never do some completely. The increasingly adventurous work being done
by book jacket designers only adds to the irreplaceable physical appeal of the

Meanwhile, their biggest competitor doesn't take the selling
of books particularly seriously, and its employees invariably lack both the
knowledge of and interest in books needed to be of any real help to consumers. Independent
book stores like Book City can press that advantage by paying its employees
more than the minimum wage that Chapters/Indigo employees earn, thereby
availing themselves of better staffing options than university students and
underemployed poets. Such a policy would also encourage them to take a real and
enduring interest in the product they sell, a significant advantage when
compared with the lifeless drones at Chapters/Indigo. Finally, independent book
stores should emphasize the things that it can do that the internet cannot.
That means hosting readings, author signings, and other in-person events that
connect the consumer to both their book store and the product it sells.

The eBook, whenever it arrives, isn't necessarily going to
put people like Franz Donker out of business. Books will, in spite of the
availability of a digital substitute, still be in demand, even if the shape of
that demand changes. And, after years of harvesting the tiny margins on book
sales, people like Donker may welcome the opportunity to capture the
comparatively substantial revenues from eBook readers and other technological
gizmos. The only thing he absolutely
cannot do is ignore or, worse still, resist the changes that are coming. One
can no more resist or ignore technological change than they can a moving train
while standing on its tracks, a reality to which the enfeebled condition of the music industry
serves as a convincing testament. But that seems an unlikely fate for Donker's
Book City. After all, having faced down the near implosion of the domestic book
trade and the monopolization of the rest of the market, a simple technological paradigm
shift shouldn't be too difficult to deal with.

Toronto, May 18th – 1,034 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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