Bookstores in T&T are under pressure from e-book sales through Amazon, and government policy, a leading bookstore chain owner said on September 20 at the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business in Mt Hope. “I think the future for bookstores in T&T is uncertain at the moment,” said Vivek Charran, managing director of Charran’s bookstores. Speaking to the Business Guardian after he addressed fellow alumni of the business school, Charran said, “If we are talking about general books, the whole concept of general books is now ebooks, so people through their phone, their iPad and so on, can buy books online from Amazon and get them instantaneously.” This means local bookstores “have foreign competition in the form of Amazon because of all these SkyBox we have now. SkyBox is not an expensive thing. Almost everybody has access to a SkyBox now, so it is easy to go online, buy a book from Amazon and ship it down, and some people are doing it just for the novelty aspect of it.”
He said, “The idea that people are coming into the bookstores and actually buying books is not something that we think is - how should I put it? - going to grow in the near future. It is something that is of concern to us. How do we stay relevant in terms of selling books, in terms of the changing technology in the market.” He said local bookstores are in the same dilemma as many of the other bookstores around the world. He said in the United States, “many bookstores are having to close down. Amazon is now the only online bookstore.” To say that there are still borders and non-tariff barriers on books would not be true, he said.
Charran said he understands that during stringent economic times, when consumers' disposable income is not what it is supposed to be, they make decisions regarding where they get value for their money, and “paying something like $50 for a novel” is up against paying $50 to see a movie or buying a few burnt DVDs from a pirate on the side of the road. He said, “You could get about eight or more” burnt DVDs for $50 on the street. “When you look at the opportunity costs of buying a novel, you have to say that only dedicated readers buy novels, and the people who we can have a business for are dedicated readers, and how many dedicated readers are there in Trinidad?” he asked rhetorically. The Charran's boss said, “We are finding that a lot of young ones are dedicated readers.”
He said books and movie series, like Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga and Hunger Games, were doing well. “Those are the ones that have mass followings, and when you have movies on in cinemas and things like that, people tend to buy these books because they get caught up in the whole, you know, trend.” These trending books have something in common, he said, which is they are accompanied by “a big movie, so people who read the books go to see the movie, and people who see the movie want to read the book and so on, and books like that don't immediately come out in e-book format. So the kids come out and buy the book.”
Asked if the solution could be merging coffee shops with bookstores as has been done in the US with Barnes and Noble, Charran said, “I think that what will happen if you merge coffee shops with bookstores, you may have more reading of books, but will you have purchasing of books? And that is really what you want to do, in order to survive as a business and to be a going concern, you have to sell.” He said asking people in T&T to pay for a coffee, lime and also pay for a book, is a bit much to ask. “Now, what if you have the option of paying for a coffee, liming and reading a book, and then putting the book back without paying for it, wouldn't you take it?” he asked. He said, “If you look at Barnes and Noble, they are struggling right now in the States.”
Turning to educational books, “like textbooks and so on, the government policy of providing (free) textbooks for the schools, and the textbook rental programme have eaten into the revenue of bookstores in T&T,” he said. Charran said while “we don't have a problem necessarily with the Government buying books for children,” the Government policy to give students free books “has affected us a lot. School book sales were a large part of our total sales and there is no denying that fact.” He said the main problem with the policy, “and why we feel the Government is fundamentalist in its policy, is that they are limiting parents, and they are limiting teachers in schools by saying: one textbook per subject.” He said schools no longer have the freedom to put more than one textbook per subject on their book lists.
“The idea that (we can) increase the quality of education (while) limiting people to one textbook in this day and age, in terms of open information and so on, is not necessarily the best thing. I don't see how that is going to ensure quality education.” Charran said the incentive for bookstores to stock textbooks other than what is used in schools has been taken away. “If you are saying it's one textbook per subject and we (the Government) are providing the textbook. I could say, well, okay, you know what, I will bring in all these textbooks, but I'll never be able to showcase the textbooks to the students, and the teachers will never be able to come and say, you know what, this textbook is working, but we need more information, so let's go to the bookstores - because it doesn't make any economic sense to do so anymore.”