International Bookselling News

Publishing Perspectives has two interesting articles about the book and e-book market today:

First the positive: Amazon is apparently getting ready to launch a Brazilian Kindle store later this year. According to the article, e-books are only 0.5 percent of the Brazilian market so far, but 0.5 percent of the market in a country with almost 200 million inhabitants is still a whole lot of books.

The second article is a bit more depressing. Well, at least if you’re me. Because the article is about how the French bookstore and media chain FNAC and the German bookselling chain Thalia are positioning themselves in the changing book market.

Now I have shopped at FNAC on occasion, mostly at their Belgian stores, and I shop at Thalia stores all the time, so I’m invested in what happens to them. So I was sad to hear that FNAC seems to be having problems, though those problems seem confined to their Italian stores. I also don’t particularly care for the idea of “family friendly stores”. First of all, why call it “family friendly” when what you really want to say is “child friendly”. Besides, FNAC has never been a “pure” bookstore chain – instead their stores have always been somewhat messy with a lot of space devoted to magazines, music, DVDs, electronics and the like. Indeed, my main reason for patronizing their stores was that FNAC always had an excellent comic selection and is the go-to place for Franco-Belgian comics, if a dedicated comic store is not available. Nonetheless, I view the “more attractions for children” policy critical, because FNAC already has children’s books and comics. What more do they want? I’m not a fan of turning bookstores into toystores anyway, because the toys only distract from the books. Besides, if the balance at a bookstore tilts too far towards children’s books (i.e. half the floorspace or more is devoted to children’s books), I stop going there, because I rarely buy children’s books and am unlikely to find what I want in a tiny adult section crammed with travel books, cook books and bestsellers.

As for Thalia, I actually think it’s a good move for them to separate their ties with Douglas. For those that don’t know, Douglas is a chain of perfumery stores active in Germany and several other European countries. Douglas also owns the Thalia bookstore chain and the Christ jewelery chain, probably others as well. Now first of all, books don’t go particularly well with perfume and jewelery. That’s as if Barnes and Noble was owned by Walgreens or Waterstones by Boots. Secondly, it bothers me that the parent company is called Douglas Holding rather than Thalia. Wouldn’t you name your company after the most prestigious part of your business? And people who believe that perfume is more prestigious than books really shouldn’t be selling books.

Finally, Douglas stores offer one of the worst shopping experiences I’ve ever had. The staff is incredibly rude and condescending, at least if you don’t look like the typical Douglas customer, i.e. not made up within an inch of your life. They swarm you as soon as you set foot into their store, brows wrinkled in distaste at your make-up free face, jeans and leather jacket. “May we help you?” If you actually need help, they blatantly ignore your requests to push whatever trendy scents they’re supposed to push this week. One time, a Douglas sales clerk refused to let me sample more than four scents, because the nose supposedly cannot distinguish more than four scents. “Lady, I’m anosmic”, I wanted to scream at her, “I can’t actually smell any of that stuff, I go by the design of the bottle. And if you’d shown me a pretty bottle like I asked you to, you might have made a sale already.” Instead I just walked out. It’s not just me either. Douglas staff has treated my father like crap for daring to soil one of their store with worn jeans and a work shirt, even though he was prepared to drop one hundred euros for a Christmas present for my mother. They were rude to my mother, when she balked at the hefty price for a packet of eye shadow. They’re just rude period. As a result, I don’t shop at Douglas. I don’t buy a lot of perfume and high end cosmetics anyway and back when I still bought perfume, I patronized the small Mom and Pop perfumeries that Douglas has driven out of business. Nowadays, I head for the drugstore or the department store perfume counter.

So having a bookstore chain associated with a perfumery chain known for the incredible rudeness of its staff is not really a good thing. Especially since the majority of heavy readers, i.e. Thalia‘s natural customers, don’t look like the typical Douglas customer either and would therefore probably associate Douglas with rudeness (though I’d like to point out that Thalia staff has always been very helpful – indeed, several pals from university have worked or still work there). So IMO they’re better off separate.

As for Thalia‘s physical retail sales being down, I really can’t say without looking at their balance sheets. But the local Thalia stores seem as busy as always. One thing I have noticed is that the selection has gotten worse over the past few years. I used to order most English books at Amazon (though the bigger Thalia stores do have a nice foreign language section and I have bought a lot of books there as well), but used to buy German books at Thalia. However, the past two years I ordered German language books (as Christmas presents) at Amazon as well, because Thalia often only had the most recent book in a series, while Amazon had them all. So yeah, they’re driving even a loyal customer away.

As for Thalia‘s online store, I never use it. It’s not a bad online store at all and even their foreign language section looks very good these days. But Amazon got there first and gave us all the foreign language and hard to find books we wanted, so there is no incentive to look elsewhere.

And while I’m pleased that the OYO e-reader is doing well, OYO is still a weird product. I know more about the Nook, which isn’t even available in Germany, let alone the Kindle or Kobo than I know about the OYO. I don’t know the specs, don’t know what format it requires, don’t know if it can read e-books purchased elsewhere than at Thalia. One of these days I’m tempted to grab a Thalia employee and ask these questions, but I’d feel bad unless I was at least seriously considering buying an OYO. And at the moment, I’d buy a Kindle if I wanted an e-reader.

So while I like the idea of the OYO and want it to succeed, because I want both Thalia and the Dutch chain selexyz, which is also involved with the OYO, to survive. After all, Thalia is the only big bookstore chain in Germany. Weltbild can’t really compare, even before the Catholic church who owns the chain threw a fit over the content of some books. And selexyz took over one of my favourite bookstores in the whole wide world, Donner Boeken of Rotterdam. Imagine timelords designing a bookstore that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and you’ve got Donner Boeken. In fact, I suspect that architects van den Broek and Bakema who designed the Donner building are timelords.

Self-publishing doesn’t work for either, at least not directly. You have to go via one of the German distributors which are not easy to get into. I’ve never been able to figure out how to get into selexyz at all.

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