What is going on in the world of bookselling?
First, in January 2012, the last remaining chain of bookstores in Britain, Waterstone’s, dropped the apostrophe in their name and became Waterstones as they consider it “a more practical and versatile spelling”. Now, bookshops are being urged to charge their customers to browse by Victoria Barnsley, the CEO of HarperCollins and the founder of the Fourth Estate publishing house.
Barnsley is of the belief that physical bookshops won’t survive in an era when so many readers are moving to Kindle’s and other electronic reading devices. In conversation on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line programme, she cited a reported figure that just 35% of fiction is bought in a physical bookshop and argued that as a result such businesses are under “enormous pressure”.
In this regard, Barnsley is quite right but her suggestion that the solution would be to make customers “pay for the privilege of browsing” is just ludicrous. Could you imagine going into Waitrose and being charged to look at their selection of coffee or being asked for a pound just to look at sandwiches in Pret?
I would argue that charging a fee to enter bookshops would signal the death knell for them. Tim Huggins, a former bookshop owner turned industry consultant, also agrees and when questioned by The Washington Post stated that the idea made him “laugh then cringe”. Another bookseller, Mark Laframboise, added: “If it comes to charging admission for customers to browse, we’re done”.
The purpose and reason I love bookshops is that they are places for bilbliophiles to enjoy and explore at leisure and in peace. The ability to leaf through a book is all part of the pleasure of experience of finding something new to read and bookstores should encourage customers to come in rather than putting them off.
Barnsley concluded by stating that her idea was actually “not that insane”. She, rather like the fat cat banking chiefs the nation has come to loathe, shows herself as utterly out of touch. The comfort of her chief executive’s chair has plainly gone to her head. She ought to browse a little more.
Matthew Steeples is the publisher of The Steeple Times: http://thesteepletimes.com