Tempting the book browser

5 Sep 2012 - The Read - Booksellers NZ - Story by Nevil Gibson

If I had not been strolling through the ground floor of Whitcoulls’ flagship store in Queen Street, I would not have spotted a pile of plain white-covered paperbacks selling at the bargain price of $28.
It was called This is Not the End of the Book and was a phenomenon virtually unknown in the English-speaking world: a dialogue between two experts.
In this case (the conversation was in French), the principals were Italian author Umberto Eco and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere.
I was familiar with the work of both. I had just finished Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, a literary heavyweight that leaves the reader exhausted with its detail of events in France at the end of the 19th century when anti-Semitic conspiracies were at their height.
Its flourishes include the menu (in French) of every meal the main characters consume.
Carriere is best known as a screenwriter who has worked over several decades with many of the great European directors. The most recent of his films I had seen was The White Ribbon, which screened in the Michael Haneke season on Sky’s Rialto channel.
Their book is the best case I can think of for bookshops. They present opportunities for rewarding impulse buys that otherwise would not have occurred. I had not seen any reviews and it was unlikely I would have found it online. Website catalogues are constructed for searching, not browsing.
The conversation, conducted over several sessions, was “curated” by editor and writer Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. Their discussion, filling some 320 pages, ranges widely over human learning and civilisations. It is the kind of talk you would love to hear at book clubs or writers’ festivals.
Though familiar with the convenience and advantages of digital storage and retrieval systems, the two bibliophiles had no doubts the book – as the most convenient and permanent means of passing on knowledge – would survive.
But the discourse begged the question of how books would survive and in what form. Of course, no one really knows. The same is the case with newspapers as a medium for news.
The content remains the same, up to a point, but immediacy of delivery through electronic devices is changing quickly enough for smartphones to replace radio as the primary means by which people first learn of events.
Like most news media formats, the National Business Review is pursuing both traditional and online forms in complementary model, which we call “lean back” and “lean forward,” with separate staffs and content.
The newspaper format is printed and priced like a book or magazine to be read at one’s convenience anywhere at anytime, subject only to light. The digital format is dependent on a changing variety of devices and platforms, though still reliant on the availability of electricity or battery strength. The stories are read at work.
Does the future of bookshops need this dual-path business model? Only major companies can dominate online purchasing and bookshops themselves have access in any case.
But what online can’t deliver is the knowledge and expertise that supplements browsing, be it the selection of books and how they are displayed. Some bookshops do it better than others.
Whitcoulls has overcome the disadvantages of large shops by having more walkaround staff rather than just employing cashiers. I have bought a number of books because I was given immediate assistance – without asking for it – of where to find a particular book.
Specialist booksellers target their customers with displays that should immediately signal where certain books are likely to be found. I would add one criticism here.
Customers differ largely in their tastes and what appeals to a middle-aged professional or businessman is not the same as gift buying for that same reader.
I find the location and choice of non-fiction books for these two categories are often confused. When it comes to books, or even book clubs, men are from Mars. They want the bookseller to know as much – and preferably more – about the new books of interest.
I canvassed several heavy book buyers in this group: all read reviews in magazines such as The Economist or followed their favourite writers, usually leading historians and financial commentators.

These readers will not necessarily order online immediately. They can be enticed into bookshops that are not only aware of these books but have taken the trouble to pre-order them. The main challenge for booksellers, for this group, is to reward browsers with offers they cannot refuse.
Article by Nevil Gibson (pictured right)- editor in chief of The National Business Review and NBR ONLINE.
Photo by Marti Friedlander.