No one in the industry can certainly say whether bookshops will die out—and if they do, when that time will come. But we can look at the evidence and trends to gain a better idea of what may happen in the future…
In the past decade, there has been talk of e-book sales threatening physical book sales. With the rise of the Internet and e-commerce, the steady shift in popularity towards e-books seemed to prove this right. However, in 2018, that trend declined. While hardback and paperback sales increased by 6.2% and 2.2%, e-book sales dropped by 3.9%. People still gravitated towards physical books when it came to buying and consuming them.
Unlike other industries, such as VHS, tape, and CD, which died off when a new shiny format came along—physical books have survived the new kid on the block. How come? Well, there seems to be a vital difference between the formats that died off vs. physical books. With a VHS or DVD, the format is different, but more importantly, the watching experience isn’t. Yes, now there’s clearer quality and HD. But essentially, what you’re watching is the same whether it’s on a DVD or streamed from Netflix.
With e-books, the experience isn’t the same as reading a physical book. The feel of the pages, the smell of the book, the binding, the size and weight of it, and the ability to pass it to your friend when you’re finished with it are all unique to physical books. Some studies have shown that we take in and process information differently from a screen than from paper. It’s not that e-books are a new format for the same experience—they’re a different experience to physical books. And for that reason, I can’t see them dying a rapid death like the VHS did.
When you hear that “bookshops are dying”, what people see is major high street brands closing down stores, such as Barnes & Noble in the USA. However, in the UK, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 2018, Waterstones made an annual profit of £18 million, an 80% increase from the previous year. Their business is valued at an estimated £200 million. Yet back in 2011, they almost filed for bankruptcy after the rise of e-books threatened their sales. Somehow, they found a way to weather the e-book storm and come back stronger than ever.
In March 2020, after the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government encouraged people to stay in their homes to prevent the virus’ spread. Many flocked to books as a way to pass the time, learn a new skill, or escape from the world for a while, and a preference for physical books over e-books was reported due to “screen fatigue”. In the UK, sales in physical books rose by 5.2% from 2019-2020, with 202 million print books sold, demonstrating a high demand for this type of reading experience. Bookshops are still needed to supply these books whether by click and collect or home delivery.
Additionally, each bookshop has its own charm. Whilst some big chains are losing business, independent bookstores are actually on the rise. Studies show that younger generations are choosing to shop at indies because they value human interaction, browsing in-store, and purchasing physical books. In 2020, e-book sales increased to $591 million but print sales also increased, generating $2.4 billion and proving that physical books are still favoured over e-books, despite the shifts in our culture.
Of course, none of this means that physical books will always be in high demand, but something tells us that bookshops are still needed and will be around for a long time to come. If you live around or are visiting the West Midlands, have a look here to find some independent bookshops you can explore and support.
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