An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

Is Book Culture Dying? The book has become cheaper, it will get even cheaper, and it seems questionable whether the two things on which the industry has prided itself, making money while at the same time representing more than just commerce, can still be funded in the future. It's also a question of whether a culture is in the process of dying, and whether its death signifies more than just saying goodbye to printed paper.

You don't have to be a culturally pessimistic high-school teacher to walk into a large bookstore today and notice the signs of decline all around you. At some point, it started with stuffed animals at the register. Then came the wrapping paper and Christmas decorations, chocolate, toys, candles and esoterica. It's enough to leave some customers baffled when they enter into a store trying to find the new releases section. The branch of chain bookstore Thalia in downtown Hamburg is one of these bookstores, one of the largest retail stores in Germany, with 2,000 square meters (21,500 square feet) of floor space. The store will close its doors in January 2014.

The Thalia chain is now owned by Douglas Holding AG, which is best known for its chain of perfume and cosmetics shops and in which US private equity firm Advent International holds a majority stake. It all began in 1919, with a small bookstore in the building occupied by Hamburg's Thalia Theater, from which the former family business derived its name. The company now has about 230 retail stores in Germany, some of which are gradually being closed.

Sales Shift Online

Online bookstores now have a market share of almost 20 percent, but the large bookstore chains have failed to come up with a convincing strategy to counter this development. An exceptional bestseller like the "Shades of Grey" trilogy, with more than 70 million copies sold worldwide, can certainly improve a company's bottom line, but such phenomena do not change the fundamental outlook: People are buying fewer printed books, and when they do buy them, they increasingly order them online.

The industry is so nervous that the German Publishers & Booksellers Association has launched a €3 million campaign to coincide with the Leipzig Book Fair taking place this week. The campaign was created by Zum goldenen Hirschen, a German advertising agency that has worked on the campaigns of similarly ailing industries before, including the "Print Works" campaign for magazine publishers and "Piracy is a Crime" for the film industry.

The goal of the campaign is to bring the book back to the center of society, back into the public consciousness and back into conversation, says Publishers & Booksellers Association CEO Alexander Skipis. It aims to portray the book as fresh, modern and contemporary, partly to counter the results of surveys indicating that books are no longer as popular as gifts to bring along to parties as they once were.

The real issue is that books don't have an image problem at all. What really needs a campaign, but it's a message that would probably be too cumbersome for a few posters, is the fixed book price, which, largely unnoticed by the public, is dying a slow death. It could spell the end of bookstores in a few years.

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