Do e-books pose a threat to traditional bookstores in South Africa?

One of South Africa’s top technology experts said “massive” numbers of book readers are turning to electronic reading devices, such as Kindles. The trend could spell the decline of traditional books in the country, but the appeal of paper may yet survive the technological onslaught.

A woman flips through a book inside a shop in Johannesburg – anecdotal evidence that people still like to read the printed word. But for how much longer?

Arthur Goldstuck, who analyses tech trends in Africa for his Johannesburg-based firm World Wide Worx, said there is no denying the growing popularity of electronic books.

“We’ve seen many independent bookstores closing down because they simply can’t compete either with the big guys or with the digital market.”

Physical book still attractive

Goldstuck said his brain tells him the electronic download is the future of reading in South Africa, but his heart tells him there will always be a “big place” in the country for the “good old fashioned book”.

“I’ve read many books on Kindle but I still prefer to go back to a physical book. An e-book is so ephemeral compared to a physical book that there’s a greater sense of solidity and almost stability in reading a book. The ability to flip back in a book, to quickly cross-ref something, just doesn’t exist in digital. Even though it makes that promise,” he said.

Love Books is one of Johannesburg’s few remaining independent bookstores. Owner Kate Rogan said many of her customers own e-reading devices, while remaining loyal to traditional books.

“A large part of our customer base [consists of] people who do love books. They love to feel them, flick the pages, smell them; they love to have them on their shelves. They are passionate about a certain author and they want a [book] collection,” she said.

Rogan maintains her shop “hasn’t suffered at all” because of the rise of the e-book.

“I opened this business five-and-a-half years ago. And it coincided almost exactly with everybody going into a flat panic about digital downloading. But looking at figures and turnover, my business has grown in the last five years. Last year was my best year in five years.”

Niche enterprise

According to Goldstuck, bookstores such as Love Books are able to thrive amid the digital revolution because they’ve become niche, specialist enterprises.

Rogan does not carry a heap of titles, but what she has is eclectic, stylish and always interesting. She knows her good customers by name and has intimate knowledge of their likes and dislikes.

She points out that no matter how good e-readers are, people cannot have personal relationships with them.

“I don’t think that algorithms can ever replace walking into a shop, a bookshop, and finding something that you’ve never heard of, an author you’ve never heard of, buying it, loving it and it touching you in some way or another,” Rogan said.

While e-readers are sweeping South Africa, stores selling second-hand books are also opening all over.

Goldstuck said this is because new, traditional books are overpriced in the country.

At a Bookdealers store in Johannesburg, owner Doron Locketz said business is booming.

“We’re seeing continued interest and revived interest in physical books. The initial huge interest in electronic books I think has died down… Kids’ books are still huge. People still want their children to have a physical book.”

Personal service

Locketz maintains the traditional book will triumph over electronic downloads because South Africans prefer “face to face” service from booksellers.

“We believe in personally recommending books and this is what I think our customers want. They can come into the shop and they can talk to me or to one of our experienced staff who can recommend something to them which they’ll enjoy,” Locketz said.

“They can’t get that experience online. Every day we have lovely conversations with customers who enjoy talking about books. They can’t do that with the major online retailers, it’s impossible.”

But Goldstuck sounds a final warning to booksellers: unless they aggressively market the advantages of traditional books to new generations of South Africans who are growing up in the digital age, they will be out of business, no matter how much they love hardcopy books. – VOA