Independent booksellers have taken a lot of body blows in the last two decades—from the coming of superstores such as Indigo, through the real behemoth on the block, Amazon, to ebooks—to the extent that some indie stores in the U.S. have donation jars beside their cash registers. But nothing has gutted the indies, emotionally as well as financially, as the practice known as “showrooming.” Prospective buyers come into bookshops, wander the stacks, peruse the artful displays and even—unkindest cut of all—seek the advice of staff. Then they leave, those who bother to do so first, and order the books they want online, where prices can be up to 50 per cent cheaper. “That is so hard for us to take,” says Eleanor LeFave, owner of Mabel’s Fables children’s bookstore in Toronto, “especially the abuse of our staff’s time and expertise.”
Showrooming is widespread. Surveys in the U.S. and Britain reveal nearly half of book-buying decisions are still made in bookstores, a percentage far higher than actual sales. (Amazon alone accounts for about 40 per cent of American book purchases.) Still, booksellers’ laments elicit little sympathy in a price-conscious commercial society. Internet commentators tend to shrug. If you can’t compete on cost, you can’t compete, end of story—just as it has been for 300 Canadian bookstores in the last decade, perhaps a fifth of the total.
But the issue is not that simple. The services, if not the products, of bookshops are still in demand: No one has yet found a substitute for browsing in them. The reasons why bricks-and-mortar booksellers, especially independents, can’t compete with online retailers, particularly Amazon, are numerous, occasionally complicated and always venomously disputed. If the indies can’t compete on price, it’s equally evident the online sellers can’t (yet) compete on guidance and immersive experience.
The indies’ main competitive edge can actually add to the booksellers’ frustration over showrooming, according to Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton. “All we have is our knowledge—the books we’ve read, our ability to tell someone, ‘Yes, I know that’s an awful cover, but it’s a really good book’—so you have to invest the time. And when you never see them again, it really, really drives me bananas.”
What to do about the situation—how, depending on perspective, to either bolster or replace bookstores—is a huge dilemma in the trade. There have been moves from each side. Last summer, Amazon bought GoodReads, the social reading network with more than 10 million titles under review. It was clearly an attempt to create a virtual browsing experience, even while online evaluations were coming under more scrutiny than ever. Last month, New York state regulators fined 19 companies $350,000 for posting their own fake reviews.
In France, on the other hand, where it has been illegal since 1981 to discount a book more than five per cent from its cover price, the government is poised to ban any discounting of books that are shipped to buyers, effectively making online stock more costly than a bookstore’s. Quebec is considering a quasi-fixed price for books in the first nine months after their release, limiting discounting to 10 per cent in that period. Both measures are aimed at Amazon, which European critics accuse of dumping—providing goods and services below cost in order to capture market share—and its offer of free shipping.
In the more robustly capitalist Anglosphere, though, it’s doubtful the French and Québécois plans will fly, nor anything at all that smacks of price-fixing. And that goes for Higgins’s observation that if the major publishers, “who give those humongous discounts to Amazon in the first place,” stood unified against the practice they wouldn’t have to do it. Nor is there reason to expect virtual browsing to capture readers’ hearts, minds and trust like actual browsing. Here, then, the existential issue remains: Everybody loves bookstores, but nobody wants to pay the prices that keep them alive.