Forecasting the future

The Society of Young Publishers hit on an interesting idea in a recent issue of its magazine inPrint. They dug up an old article from 1998, in which Waterstones Managing Director Alan Giles was giving his thoughts about the future of the bookselling industry. For those of you who don’t know, Waterstones is the major bookshop chain in the UK, the equivalent of Barnes  Noble in the US, only even more dominant. So this guy should know what he’s talking about, right?

Wrong. He got more or less everything wrong. Supermarkets were not a threat, he said – “the aim is to sell more food, not to compete with booksellers”. Ha! Supermarkets are now a major player, not only competing with booksellers but affecting the type of books published and the price at which they are sold (the effect in both cases being negative). As for Amazon and other internet booksellers, “he believes the threat is minimal and faces many fundamental problems in the retail market. People are still afraid to give our credit card details for example, and not everyone has access to a computer let alone the Internet yet.” Ottakars, now defunct, was “poised for growth”. Borders UK, now defunct, had then just started up and had “an advanced understanding of what the bookshop of the future should offer the customer.”

The point is, of course, not that Alan Giles in particular got things wrong. It’s that more or less anyone, writing in 1998, would have got things wrong. Some of the things he said were even right for a while, but in the long term things change so much. What’s interesting is how the long term comes about much sooner these days. A prediction made in 1968 would probably still look reasonably sensible by 1980. But from 1998 to 2010, the bookselling industry has changed radically. Publishing houses and booksellers have gone through dozens of mergers and acquisitions, start-ups and bankruptcies, and we’ve gone from a world where people were afraid to give out their credit card details on the internet to one in which books can be downloaded in seconds onto an iPad, or printed on demand on an Espresso Book Machine.

So I’m sorry, Alan Giles, for making you look a bit silly. If it’s any consolation, I’m sure that most of what I say on this blog will look equally ridiculous in a few years’ time.

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There are 3 comments

  1. I don’t believe you’ll ever look ridiculous. 🙂

    This was really interesting! I think we all adapt to changes, and I think the book industry is thriving and strong. I’ve seen more interest in reading from people who showed no interest in it a few years ago. I think the YA market has changed things, and I think reading will always be a high demand no matter how we end up getting the books.

  2. Well, better to be wrong than a Cassandra that no one listens to even when you’re right. I always like thinking of how to make things thrive in even worst case scenarios. That keeps me a few hundred miles of the competition. 🙂


  3. Some of the booksellers at Borders knew their stuff. I know bceause I was one of them. I worked in the Solon store (we met at one of your signings there actually and I’m the one who asked about Marko at the Youngstown library talk last week). My uncle worked 8 years at the Westlake store and was absolutely brilliant about books and movies. Granted, a lot of the booksellers at Borders didn’t know much, but what could you expect at $6.50-7.00 an hour. How they couldn’t sustain business with such low pay I have no idea

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