Decline and fall of the bookish empire

Posted on by Mike Evans

Banner_main NOT ONLY newspaper publishers are finding it difficult to make ends meet these days. Book shops are closing down in ever-increasing numbers. London's Charing Cross Road, internationally famous for specialist new and second-hand bookstores, is now under pressure. One of the latest casualties is the crime-only Murder One store that was a browser's pleasure. Even though electronic e-book readers represent only a tiny percentage of the reading market, the main pressure seems to be coming from on-line booksellers, in particular from Amazon.

In many ways this is a pity. 84 Charing Cross Road, the hugely successful 1970 book by Helene Hanff epitomised the lure of the specialist bookstore. Now all this glory is waning. Perhaps fittingly, Charing Cross Road is the southern extension of Tottenham Court Road. TCR is sells computer, audio visual and smartphones. It is thriving.  South of Oxford Street, CXR was always bookland but is now sadly shrinking. It is a fitting analogy for the victory of technology.

But Blackwell's in Charing Cross Road have now launched the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) which will print off a paperback book in about 20 minutes. Presumably this idea, if successful, would enable booksellers to concentrate smaller stores on more popular books while relegating less popular and specialist titles to the Espresso machine. Good try, Blackwell's, but this is surely a rearguard action doomed to failure. 

Electronic book readers may still be a tiny part of the market, but they are clearly the future. Printed books will become curiosities. Because they are nice curiosities and look good on shelves, they will make a better job of surviving than the audio cassette, the CD or the DVD. Who could have predicted five years ago that electronic music downloads would be sweeping the world? Record shops are closing even faster than bookstores.

Dead-tree books and newspapers will be eclipsed within the next five years as the pace of technological advance increases month by month. This article in today's Times by Nicholas Clee heaps more books on the bonfire.

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