Issue 196
Winter 2016


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May 25, 2017
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    A Relentless struggle – against Amazon

    Amazon's founder first named the venture Relentless – quite appropriate, thinks a leading bookseller from Wigtown


    'Real' bookseller Shaun Bythell outside his real Wigtown store

    RECENTLY, there's been a turn-up for the books. Following a honeymoon period with the e-book, it is now being outsold by the print book. However, Wigtown bookseller, Shaun Bythell, owner of Scotland’s largest second hand book-shop, admits there’s a place for the electronic book and that's when a person is travelling or on holiday. But it can't take the place of a traditional book.

    "The Kindle has peaked," he says. "Even if people own one, they usually prefer to read print books."

    The traditional book may have seen off the Kindle, but bookshops have a more formidable adversary: Amazon.

    "When I bought my shop fifteen years ago," explains Shaun, "not many of us were selling online, so I could get a good price for rare books. Now everyone is at it and the prices and values for rare books have sunk. It's become a race to the bottom. Today, a book fetches £5 online when fifteen years ago, it cost £20.

    "I know a lot of booksellers are now in negative equity because of online selling. There's so much competition," says Shaun who relies on a fifth of his revenue from online selling and the rest from sales over the counter.

    "When buying books from a distributor, I can get 35% discount, but if I buy a new Scottish book, for example, I can probably get it cheaper from Amazon. In undercutting everyone, Amazon dominates the marketplace and puts people out of business.

    "The solution is legislation like in France where they don't allow Amazon to under-cut. If a publisher's price is £30, Amazon has to sell it at that figure. This protects the bricks and mortar side of a business. It works for new books but you can't regulate the second hand.

    "During the first five years of my business, the price of second hand books rose in line with inflation; then Amazon sold second-hand books and prices fell. Our prices dropped and I had to increase my sales to remain in the same place. We also had to pay less for books, which didn't please sellers. We've got to a level now where it's almost impossible to survive."

    Shaun's shop is not the only Wigtown business that struggles:

    "A lot of bookshops have a café as side-line. I've adapted with The Random Book Club, where 150 subscribers pay £59 a year to receive a random book monthly through the post. With its appeal to book lovers, it has saved my bacon. I also had to get rid of my staff, so I work six days a week all year round."

    Like many businesses, Shaun's bookshop suffered as a result of the 2008 crunch.

    "My turnover, which grew by 10 per cent per annum for eight years, returned to what it was in 2001. It grew and grew and then, bang, it went straight back. I don't know if bankers are aware of the economic impact they had. After nine years, I've only just got back to where I was before the credit crunch struck."

    Shaun buys his stock at house clearances and from people bringing books into the shop. He suffers in many ways from giants like Amazon.

    "For a bricks and mortar business to turn over $10 million, it requires a workforce of 45, while Amazon achieves a similar figure with 15 employees."

    The rise of Amazon equates with the demise of high street retail employment.

    "It's great for consumers, but if you're a seller or in retail, it's awful.

    "I don't buy their argument that they pay enough tax through employing people who are taxed. Amazon should pay the same as everyone else. At the moment it's loaded against small and medium-sized businesses. You have to function on a massive scale to fit with the Amazon economic model. I've got 10,000 books online but I'm competing with warehouses that stock millions of books.

    I visited one where lorry-loads of books, bought by the kilo, were shoved on conveyor belts, bar-code scanned and crammed in boxes. A klaxon sounded for the employees' ten minute break and another to get them back to work.

    Because the company dealt in massive volumes, it could buy in bulk. So its costs were much lower than mine. They also received massive concessions from Royal Mail, something small businesses are unable to benefit from. Everything is tilted in favour of multi-nationals so that high street businesses are disadvantaged to the point of being barely viable.

    "People may boycott Starbucks but not Amazon because it involves just one click and you get what you want the next day. I've got to take my hat off to them for the way they've gone about it.

    "Jeff Bezos first registered his business which became Amazon, as relentless.com That's what his philosophy is: relentless. He won't stop until Amazon is the everything shop.

    "If the government wants to protect the high street and small businesses, it's going to have to rein in Amazon or at least make it pay tax. It's registered in the Republic of Ireland, where there's a generous approach to business and tax (10%).

    "There's something wrong when I sell a book to a UK customer using Royal Mail and paying tax in the UK on the profit but Amazon doesn't. Their whole transaction supposedly takes place in the Republic of Ireland."

    On the plus side for Wigtown booksellers is the interest in books and literature generated by Wigtown being Scotland's book town.

    As a means of economic regeneration it's a good concept. Because they have something you can't get on Amazon, book towns restore what has been destroyed. A mass of bookshops encourages book lovers and collectors to visit the town as they are more likely to find what they're looking for if there are ten bookshops rather than one.

    Nonetheless, Wigtown is remote: 110 miles (3 1/2 hours) from Edinburgh and 86 miles ( 2 1/2 hours) from Glasgow.

    "Compare Hay-on-Wye, Wales's national book town. It has Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham within a 50 mile radius, a population of 3 million, while Wigtown has Ayr, Dumfries and Belfast. So we're in the hundreds of thousands in terms of a catchment area. Hay has a huge advantage over us but, in our favour, our facilities are less expensive."

    So, Amazon or no Amazon, Wigtown is well worth a visit.

    MARY GLADSTONE

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