Monday, April 15, 2013

How books (yes, books) will slowly kill the bookstores; the slow and painful death of the Book Dealers

It is widely believed that the long term future of the bookseller is grim. Many reasons are given for this, with e-books usually being the prime target, which is of course very true. As a bookseller myself though, I have come to the conclusion that it may be nothing other than books that will kill the bookstore and bury the booksellers within it.

Such an accusation against our beloved books needs an explanation, and supply one I will. To understand this, we must look at the history of the printing of books and the nature of the average reader.
I will focus on the reader of Jewish books, as that is the field I interact with. There are aprox 15 million Jews in the world (Those damned statistics!), of which, there are aprox 4 million that would be observant enough to have Judaism somehow part of their daily life. Of these 4 million, if we are very generous with our numbers, aprox 5% read 20 or more books a year. If these numbers sound harsh, take a recent American study which showed, that 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives and that 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year, let alone read one.

That leaves us with 200,000 people in the world who read 20 Jewish books on average a year, who we will call the serious reader. A search of OCLC, the world's libraries database, shows that there are slightly over 1 million books of Jewish interest published to date, just in the languages of Hebrew & English. Using these numbers, assuming that every book of the million books a series Jewish reader can choose from is evenly spread out, an average Jewish book is read 4 times a year. Naturally, there will always be best sellers and more popular books which are read more than others, leaving thousands of books that are rarely if ever read.

This has not always been the case in history though. If you lived in the mid 1500s for example, and you had a love for books, you can purchase every Hebrew book ever printed, and fit them all in your bedroom. In the good old days, for a book to be printed, it generally needed to be a good one, and a well versed reader only needed to read a few hundred books in his lifetime, as that was all there was to read. There were years when less than a score of Hebrew books were printed, and if you were a good reader, you can read faster than the books were coming off the presses, literally. With the advancement of printing and the lowering of the cost of printing over the years, more and more mediocre books made there way to the press. These mediocre books were read for a few years and were soon enough forgotten, other than to a few of the Jewish intelligentsia. With time, the numbers of these mediocre books multiplied and there were less and less people who would be able to recognize any specific author or title. In an age, where there is a Guinness world record for the most prolific authors and professors are ruled by publish or perish, it is little surprise that we have authors who have not have had an unpublished thought.

Even though the books were being printed faster and better, the amount a reader can read has yet to have changed over the centuries. This translates in to more and more books fighting for the reading time of the readers, who have not grown much in number, in turn translating in to many more books being forgotten over the years. We can imagine that an educated Jew, living in the 1750s for example, can name you 100 books printed in the last 20 years of his life, how many titles can a Jew living today name that were printed in those two decades? very few if any, I would suspect.

How does this translate for the bookseller? Not well, to say the least. All these books, printed throughout the ages, are now available to the intelligent reader of our days. He can now choose between 1,000,000 books, what he will read next. There will always be the popular books which will come around again again, but the time the reader spends on less known works, will now be divided by this ever growing number of books. A reader will now be searching for any one of these 1,000,000 books, and a bookseller, whose place it is to supply him with his needs, will find it harder and harder to stock all the titles that are available.

An average used bookstore today, stocks under 20,000 titles, thus, the chances of the store having a specific out of print title are rather slim. The rate that books are being printed, does not seem to be slowing down at all, and the likelihood of a bookseller making a sale will go down with every additional title published. There is at some point a ratio, say for example, if a bookseller doesn't have even 10% of books requested, that he will find himself out of business.

There will naturally be some bumps for the better of the bookseller. For those selling over the Internet, their customer base will widen with the spread of the world wide web. The spread of English through the world, will help sellers focus on the languages readers will likely be reading and thus no longer need to stock multiple languages. The overall trend though, appears to be for the worse. But for those of you cheering our downfall, I have news for you. Us booksellers will not got down without a fight. Like the Luddites of old, we will continue to pester people to read and buy books and will most likely be remembered as a clan of old men who would rather starve to death than give up their love for the book.

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
― Mark Twain


  1. You don't dwell on another factor, which is important to bibliophiles: service to the customer. SERVICE to the customer. I have a substantial, diversified library and have dealt with dozens of booksellers worldwide for decades. If they had your knowledge, desirable items, and active support to buyers, they wouldn't be croaking so fast. I never knew a seller who meets these criteria, that bottomed up. Retired, died, or repressed by political circumstances, of course; but failure NEVER. I'm sure I'm one of your tiny customers, but you've read many of my interests and needs impeccably, and provide a stream of much-appreciated gems. This has been one of the great surprises and pleasures of my altichkeit.

  2. Hi,

    I for one will always do my best to keep bookselling part of my life, not only from a business point of view, but i also love it. I personally believe specializing in one area/genre can help you stand out from the crowd and in turn allows you to reduce the number of books needed to stock. Have a nice fuller range of one or maybe two subjects, rather than several thinned out. But that is a bookseller by bookseller preference. It's not the answer for everyone, but just another possible option. Customer service is the usual fall-back answer i know, but it does make a difference. Caring about the Customers needs, and fulfilling that as quickly and professionally as possible, is the booksellers best weapon. Plus, if you really and sincerely enjoy bookselling, it is easy to do also! We booksellers have been around for so long now, we'll be ok for a long time to come I am sure!