I’ve been doing the rounds of my local independent bookshops, and although the shops are well-stocked, and often beautiful, the economic picture is not pretty.

At each shop I have a good browse, buy a book, then have a chat with the person at the counter (usually the owner) about my forthcoming biography. I let them know that, as a local writer, I’m open to suggestions, and happy to do talks, signings, events, whatever. I give them a flyer and my contact details.

Usually the conversation ends there, with the booksellers expressing engagement and goodwill. Several will be selling the biography at the library talks that have been lined up for me over the next few months. At Red Door Books of Lancefield (pictured) I will be doing book signings, on the same day as the renowned Lancefield Farmers Market (Saturday 28 April, 2018). Worth a trip up the road, I reckon!

But in too many shops the conversation continues, with the owner explaining how difficult it is for them to keep the shop afloat. I’ve heard about people working seven days a week. About making no profits for three years. About not having the funds to employ staff. About selling up or closing up.

I live in the Macedon Ranges, a picturesque region with many small towns and quite a lot of tourism. The shops in central locations within the larger towns, with plenty of local and tourist foot traffic, seem to be doing OK. But the smaller shops in out of the way locations are struggling, and although I’m saddened, I’m really not surprised. Let’s have a look at the numbers.

Each week, a bookshop needs to cover the costs of rent, utilities and staff. Even where the owner works in the shop themselves, I think we can assume they’d like to take home some pay at the end of each week. As a rough estimate (and probably quite a low one) let’s say they need to bring in $2000 per week to cover costs. That might give the owner earnings of about $1000 per week.

Bookshops keep about half the retail price of each book. So that’s about $10-$15 per book (and less for some children’s books). So, in order to cover costs, a bookshop needs to sell about 150-200 books per week, or about 20-30 books per day. Even mid-week, in mid-winter, when the weather is foul. For a small shop in a small town, that seems a big ask.

I don’t think bookshops are in immanent danger of disappearing altogether but I do think the sector will continue to shrink for a while. For me, the comparison sector is saddlers. The advent of the motor-car surely brought about the closure of many small saddlery and produce stores. However to this day, a few large saddlery chains and independents continue to survive and thrive, serving the enthusiasts of the recreational horse-riding community. It seems to me that, over time, enthusiastic book buyers will become a similarly niche market, to be served by fewer, larger stores.

What do you think?