Books defy e-reading
Downloads have stagnated and Kindle sales have been slowing as people return to the printed page. Even so, SA booksellers are struggling.
The voluptuous pleasure of cracking the spine on a new novel may be one factor in the apparent renaissance of book sales – and the dwindling popularity of e-readers like Kindle.
Exclusive Books CE Benjamin Trisk says: "In the period through to 2011, Kindle sales were growing at three-figure digits; in 2012, that growth came down to 41%. In 2013 we were looking at the purchase of Exclusive Books and that was obviously one of the key triggers — what was going to happen to unit sales of Kindles and electronic book downloads?
"What has happened in the period from 2013 is that e-book downloads have stagnated and Kindle sales — Amazon keeps them pretty close — have not been growing. The best example of that is to look at what’s happening in physical units of books in the UK and US — last year and the year before there’s been growth."
While the threat of e-readers has waned, local booksellers aren’t exactly coining it. "The reason we are not seeing significant growth in SA is because there’s something called the price ... books are expensive in SA and are not part of anybody’s core purchasing budget," says Trisk.
Still, "we are seeing a total decline in orders for e-books. That ordering pattern is totally insignificant — so much so that we do not fulfil e-book orders ourselves".
So how does Exclusive Books convince shoppers to spend their money at its stores?
"I will spend money on books where someone spends money on shoes, so people prioritise differently. But there are also books that buck the trend — if we suddenly had JK Rowling announcing the ninth Harry Potter instalment, I can promise sales would be astronomical."
Waiting for Ms Rowling isn’t a business model, however.
"There are two words that retailers need to remember — any retailer — if you’ve got physical space: you need to give your customer ‘compelling reason’ to come to your store. I can go home and order online, why should I bother with all the aggravation?
"What we’re doing with our bookshops, we give compelling reasons (for customers) to stay there, and the retailers who fail to do that lose their customers."
As for the tactile pleasure of holding a book in the bath, Trisk says he hears "story after story that ‘I used to use a Kindle but I’ve gone back to books because there’s nothing like the feel or smell’. I don’t think Kindles don’t have a place — if you’re travelling it’s much easier to take books on a Kindle, but to me that’s the only reason."
Catering to black readers is also vital to Exclusive Books’ continued survival.
"We have just spent a fortune producing an African catalogue which carries titles across Africa and North America, and we’re seeing in the space of a year that the sales of those books featured in the catalogue have risen 60%," he says.
Trisk ascribes the growth to "a new market — a black reader, black consumer who doesn’t really want to read Eurocentric novels or nonfiction but who wants to be exposed to fiction that comes out of this continent. The net is being cast wider and wider and I think we’re at a tipping point, with reading and reading patterns — much for the better."