Online book retail giant Amazon has opened a bricks and mortar book shop in Seattle and, according to the New York Times, plans to add another 300 to 400. 

For the many of us who believed that Amazon had started the eBook revolution and that the eBook was poised to have the same effect that CD’s had on vinyl LPs and DVDs had on video, this is a shock.

Online was expected to turn the book selling fraternity on its head with independents the first to fall off the page. So, is Amazon reflecting a return to the traditional tome or another new trend? What, if any, will be the off shoot for the book chain stores in malls as well as smaller boutique book stores around Durban?   

In my mind and those of many book worms, books are “touchy feely”. Book browsers need to pick up a book, study a cover, read the jacket. Buying books online or downloading seems sterile.

Yes, books decay, need dusting and shelf space. eBooks require less paper and save trees, result in less pollution of water by chlorine and ink, reduce the carbon footprint due to less freight, are more portable  (especially during air travel) and there is instant availability via WIFI.  However, they have to be recharged, can’t be wrapped for Christmas presents and reading in the bath is a little risky.

“There will always be a place for a book store. A book shop captures your heart,” says Kerry Snel, owner of The Book Boutique in Amanzimtoti.

eBooks, she concedes, have definitely eaten into market share. However, people are “going back to books”. In fact, even those who have moved into the online space haven’t switched completely, she believes.

A little research reveals many a twist in the tale of the expected reading revolution.

Existing book stores – as well as libraries and even second hand book stores and stalls at flea markets – can gain some comfort from the fact that the majority of readers are older and that this print generation will want to stroll between the shelves.   

Youngsters not only read less because they prefer computer games, smart phones and social media but would instinctively be drawn to eBooks. Or do they?

In September 2014, the British trade paper, the Bookseller surveyed 16 to 24 year-olds and found that 75 percent preferred print to eBooks and audio books. In December of that same year, a Nielsen survey of the reading habits of teens also over turned both assumptions, revealing that adults were actually the e-Book consumers.

In South Africa, the story might be completely different. Literacy rates are low because our flawed education system and because the majority of people don’t earn enough to afford books let alone the sophisticated electronic devices needed to read e-Books.

  

The South African Book Development Council (SABDC) in partnership with the Department Of Arts and Culture initiated National Book Week in 2010 to mitigate the findings a 2007 study that revealed that only 14% of South Africans read books and over half of South African households (51%) do not have a single leisure reading book.

However, the sector is still believed to be worth around R3 billion suggesting that an up and coming middle class would well prove a good market for book shop owners big and small.

As with most things, meaningful statistics are usually dated and hard to come by.

The Annual Book Publishing Industry Survey report for 2010 compiled by the School of Information technology at the University of Pretoria and released in November 2011 estimated that the total industry (which includes general trade, educational academic books) declined by 5.7 percent from R3.654 billion in 2008/9 to R3.440 billion in 2009/10. The general trade sub-sector – that’s books shops – recorded a decline of 4.5 percent. 

But a market survey entitled Books, News and Stationery Retailing that hails from New York via Reportlinker reported this month (February 2016) that, with a share of 3,1% of overall South African retail, the market for books, news and stationery reached R29 billion in 2014. It is forecast to grow at a rate of 6.29% over the next five years to reach R39,3 billion in 2019.

What was noted, however, was that sales from online stores were growing due to a wider product choice and sales of e-books were also on the up driven by increasing use of smart phones and “related gadgets”.

The spend per head on books, news and stationery will grow at about 5% over the next five years, the report predicted. This could be good news for Durban’s book shop owners.

Liz Hillock, head of marketing at what was Kalahari.com (and is now Take-a-Lot), South Africa’s first and leading book eTailer, told me two years ago that there was a definite trend towards digital. Although not able to provide actual turnover figures, she said that Kalahari, which was established in 1999, reached the milestone of over one million registered shoppers by 2011.

She was confident that growth would accelerate given the fact that there is always a slight lag in the mass adoption of new technologies between the USA, Europe and South Africa.

Cedric Sissing of Adams Books and Charlotte Mbali, a retired UKZN Professor of Adult and Continuing Education and Chairperson of Lifelong Learning, were equally adamant that the time for eBooks in South Africa had arrived.

They turned to UK and American statistics as a starting point. Drawing on data from information provided by 250 UK publishers, the UK Publishers Association’s Statistics Yearbook put the value of consumer ebook sales – fiction, non-fiction and children’s digital titles – at £92m in 2011. This was a 366 percent increase on the previous year with consumer eBooks now equating to six percent of book sales by value.

In 2012, it was reported that, in America, adult eBook sales were higher than hardcover sales.

The latest report, published in June 2015, suggests a similar about turn to the one picked out by the Book Boutique in lowly Durban. After slightly declining in 2014, revenue from eBooks increased by 3.8% – but just  over 510 million eBooks were sold in 2014 which was almost on a par with the number of hardbacks (568 million) sold in 2014.

In reality book shop owners are likely to be the authors of their own destinies. According to Snel, the real problem is not competition from eBooks but the exchange rate which is pushing both forms of reading material out of the range of the cash strapped consumers. 

Sissing and Mbali – who both eRead – believe that eBooks will inevitably eat into market share in South Africa. Sissing believes that book shops will have to reinvent themselves rather than try to fight a losing battle. “The money is not just in the text but in the whole brand as Disney, Tintin and Hogsworth have demonstrated. It will be a case of buy the brand, the film, the T-shirt, the mug, the fluffy toy.”

He believes book shops should captitalise on the social dimension of their business – browsing, book launches and coffee shops. He goes as far as suggesting that touch screens will become the norm in books shops, that NFC chips can be imbedded into covers of hard copies so that people can buy on line in store with the bookshops getting a portion of the download fee. An even more radical notion is also not that far from science fiction – bookshops could ultimately become rental spaces for competing on-line sellers. 

Which goes back to Amazon’s decision to open bricks and mortar bookshops – with an inevitable difference.

Now it is up to entrepreneurs operating within our city to go out and sell the experience of buying books and to become community meeting points with book launches and readings and tap into niche markets just as the Book Boutique is successfully doing.

“I think that these days you can’t have a bookstore without a coffee shop. Drinking coffee and reading complement each other. Whether it’s a newspaper, magazine, book or eBook, if someone is drinking coffee alone they are usually engaging with one of these forms of reading. It might be the coffee that lures them here in the first place but there’s something comforting about enjoying it while being in the midst of shelves housing the ideas, knowledge and ponderings of great minds,” Snel suggests.

Another shops serving an important niche is Ike’s Books and Collectables in Florida Road. Co-owner, Jo Rushby, admits that bookselling is not an easy business.

One of just five “antiquarian” bookshops in the city, Ike’s specialises in Africana, although Rushby and her co-owners Vishnu Padayachee and Julian May are trying to broaden this. “For me, it is home from home, a place of calm and tranquillity, a place where people come to talk, debate, sit or browse quietly, escape. Most importantly, it is a unique environment, an alternative to the sanitized shopping malls of South Africa,” she says.

Another type of book retailer that could make a comeback is the book exchange which was extremely popular in the sixties and seventies. Very few remain today.

Dawn Yates, owner of Books at Kensington in Durban North believes she could profit from the rising prices of books at a time when people have less money to spend on luxuries and less space to store books.

Many of the newest books that are still stocked in bookshops find their way on to her shelves. Often these pre-read books are half the price of their new counterparts with prices ranging from R40 to R120, depending on the title.    

She believes that the advent of eBooks will not erode her customer base because people relate to book in different ways. “A lot of people tell me they are reading on Kindle. But so many more say they never will. They like the feel of a book,” she says.