What is the future for bookshops? And indeed for books? This is a commonly asked question – and a particularly relevant one for me, since I own a bookshop and I write books. I ask it again this week because I have just read that Stephen King, an ebook pioneer 10 years ago, has released his new novel in physical format only, because he wants to get people back into bookstores rather than online.
Of course, this forgets the fact that many people buy their real books online, but the nobility of the gesture is heart-warming.
I've lost count of the times I've been jabbed in the chest by a cyber-utopian shouting "Books are dead!" at me. Luckily, it appears that these bibliophobes are wrong. According to recent figures published in The Bookseller, ebooks account for only 15 per cent of the total market. OK, that's significant, but it hardly means that the book is dying.
The proportion of "e" to "p", as the publishers say, when it comes to my own books, is about one in 10. We are currently enjoying a huge success with our book Gwynne's Grammar, published by Ebury. Each Tuesday I receive an email detailing the sales figures, and ebooks sales account for only 7 per cent of the total.
Still, after three years of selling books in a real bookshop, I have to say that the picture is not rosy. However, this may be due to our location: James Daunt or Waterstone's would never have dreamt of opening a shop in the quiet corner of London's Notting Hill where the Idler Academy resides. Actually, Notting Hill has disappointed me. We get a few tourists who are Idler fans but very few locals. We are thinking of moving to east London.
Rough Trade, the record store which has shops in both Notting Hill and Brick Lane, reports a rise in sales of vinyl, which is one in the eye for the neophytes – and my hope is that people are getting fed up of the digital world and that we'll see a drift back to the real.
That is my hope. But when it comes to bookshops versus Amazon, bookshops are in an impossible position. Our staff are knowledgeable, charming and brilliant. The shop is beautiful, and we sell proper cakes and coffee. What happens? People lounge around and chat and browse for a couple of hours, spend £2.50, then buy books online they have researched in our shop.
Why? Because they are so much cheaper. Why are they cheaper? Because in 1997, in a fit of free-market liberalism, we did away with the Net Book Agreement, which had prohibited booksellers from discounting. It was a pleasingly guild-like system, one that is still used today by lawyers, doctors and drugs companies – those professional groups that still look after their own.
One problem in all this is that publishers no longer seem to like books. They think of themselves as groovy Californian libertarian tech-heads. I winced when I read that the chairman of Penguin said that books could change in the future and be filled "with cool stuff". I think "cool stuff" as a phrase should be banned if you are the head of a venerable English publishing company.
Publishing CEOs have two main tasks: reducing costs and maximising revenues. Hence, they impoverish their staff and writers. And to do the latter, they lick the bottoms of Amazon, WH Smith and Tesco while ignoring independents. Here is a very depressing quote from the head of Bloomsbury: "Fewer books are being sold through high-street shops as ebook sales are continuing to grow. However, there will be a place for the physical book for many more years albeit mainly sold online."
For our part, we have tried to inject life into the literary scene by running a non-stop programme of events and courses. These are pretty well attended but the combined sales of books and events barely cover our basic costs. So we feel that we are slaving away, enriching other people. On the upside, our online sales are increasing. That leads us to conclude that the sensible option would be to operate from a warehouse on a Swindon industrial estate rather than a groovy boutique in west London. But where's the romance in that?
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'