Opinion

Will e-readers save high street bookshops?

6 min read

16 April 2013

The number of high street bookshops in Britain has more than halved in just seven years.

I love books. I have missed my stop on a train or forgotten to eat my dinner countless times over a book. Every time I’m in a bookshop, I have to call my partner to ask how many books I’m allowed to buy because otherwise I’d buy the whole store (he usually allows me five). There’s not much in life that I love more than reading.

So, last night’s news should have been great for people like me. At a press event at the Millbank Centre in London on Monday evening, e-reader producers Kobo described their product to be “for those who love reading above all else.” They introduced their new HD reader, the Kobo Aura HD, which, with 265 dpi, has the highest resolution of all e-readers or tablets currently on the market.

The gadget is available to pre-order from today and it is, I admit, rather beautiful. It feels light and extremely comfortable to hold, thanks to contours on the back, and the HD e-ink doesn’t just look impeccable, it’s so gentle on the eyes it’s easy to forget that you are reading on an electronic device.

Of course, I’ve always shunned e-readers, with the same irrational, romanticised love for physical books that most of us old-fashioned literature junkies have. We’re the kind of people who “sniff the glue”, as Faber and Faber’s Stephen Page put it last night. (It’s not as creepy as it sounds.)

Businesses like Kobo know that, which is why they are at their proudest when they say that their new reader is “the closest experience to reading on paper”, that it’s meant to “make you forget it’s not a book you’re holding”. This industry is trying to create technology that comes as close as possible to the world’s oldest medium: books, good old paper books.

Bizarrely, this makes perfect sense.

High street booksellers are on the road to disaster; 2012 was the seventh year running in which the number of booksellers has fallen, with one shop closing every single week. In 2005, the UK boasted 4,000 bookshops on its high streets – now, there are only 1,878 left.

While physical book sales are falling rapidly, British consumers spent twice as much on e-books in 2012 than they did in 2011. No, really: twice as much!

Times are tough for high street booksellers. They can’t possibly compete with the prices of Amazon – the big, bad scapegoat of business -, who sell both physical books and e-books online. Instead, they need to make up for price with expertise and physical presence. Their function is now similar to independent record stores, which are booming in the UK by leveraging their function as physical community hubs and small gig venues.

Patrick Neale, president of the Booksellers Association (BA), said that independent booksellers need to stand out with their bookworm abilities: recommend great reads and give great customer service. But to survive, they also need to embrace the industry’s new dynamic.

BA has partnered with Kobo to introduce e-readers to independent book stores. When the first e-readers popped up in his shop, says Neale, “So many customers actually showed relief that they could talk to us about e-readers. Having them [e-readers] on display started the conversation.”

He continued: “My message is that Kobo have understood the high street and help us enthuse about books. I’m hoping we’ll enjoy the future of e-books.”

Can e-readers and high street book shops merge to create a new platform for literature? Will there be space for both?

According to Kobo CCO, Michael Tamblyn, there is: “Our philosophy has been that this is a revolution that has to happen with booksellers. We should come out the other side with a stronger, more robust industry.”

Oh, I hope so, Michael.

Undeniably, electronic readers are an exciting development with enormous influences on the business of publishing and book retail. They open up opportunities to create products and formats we’ve never created before, new levels of interaction with books, and an accessibility to literature we could have only dreamed of a century ago. At the same time, they cater to the changing habits of book buyers, who want speed and convenience above all else.

It’s fascinating to watch the impact of e-readers on the industry grow, and to see partnerships emerge. I do hope that a collaboration will make independent bookstores stronger and help them to re-establish their place as a hub for writers and readers on a search to discover new ideas.

I doubt that my own reading habits will change any time soon – I’m too stubborn. This morning, I left my sleek new Kobo Aura HD at home and packed my heavy, impractical, hardback copy of “Umbrella” instead.