Paul McNally on the Future of Bookselling


This interview was conducted by email.

1) Brick and mortar bookstores, both chain and independent, are now planning for a landscape with increased ebook sales. What will McNally Robinson’s response be to the challenge of ebooks and the likely decline of paper books?

Obviously the business of bookselling cannot perpetually be business as usual; we must adapt and we are adapting. You see it in our sidelines (we have a patisserie!) and in the plenitude of programming we put on.

What may not be apparent, however, is how slowly the switch from paper books to ebooks has been happening. Simply as a person who follows the news, I would assume paper book sales to be down dramatically over the last six months, during which we have supposedly reached a tipping point. Nevertheless, our book sales are flat rather than down. This might be ascribed to Canadian adoption of ebook readers being less rapid than American, but at my daughter’s bookstore in lower town Manhattan, post-recession paper book sales are climbing, not falling.

2) What are your customers telling you about their involvement with e-readers and e-publishing? Do you see a schism developing between readers who prefer paper and those who prefer electronic?

Certainly we have continuing customers who also own and use ebook readers. They are, I suppose, apostates but not converts. This I think is because, like internet information sites, which hit certain sales categories (reference, travel) harder than others, the ebook has some of the characteristics of a niche product. It is wonderful for travellers because it is a library in your purse. It is terrific for seniors, because the type can be resized at will. But does every reader want to convert to reading on a screen all the time? Obviously not.

3) Are there opportunities for traditional booksellers in this new retail environment? Or will we see a return to smaller niche booksellers as in the past?

If it is about disintermediation, and it is, then the role of the traditional bookseller in ebook sales is negligible. Ebooks allow publishers to shed a lot of costly work in the manufacture of paper books and the maintainance of a supply chain. We already see signs of neglect in the supply chain, such as multinationals rationalizing their Canadian presence by closing warehouses and thinning out their sales representation. A major distribution enterprise in Canada has imploded and Winnipeg has gone from seven or eight resident sales reps to three or four in very quick order. If our ability to keep books on the shelf ready for purchase is eroded by publisher choices, the conventional bookstore will begin to decline in earnest.

However, we are committed to community bookselling, which incorporates not only the books we stock but the opportunities we offer for browsing, meeting, eating and attending hundreds of events every year–none of which can be digitized.

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Paul McNally

Paul McNally co-owns and manages McNally Robinson Booksellers with his wife Holly and their daughter Tory.