Falling sales and a lack of readers: why two bookstores close a day in Spain

Industry report highlights the many challenges independent booksellers are facing

Discounted books on sale in a store on Madrid’s Clara del Rey street.
Discounted books on sale in a store on Madrid’s Clara del Rey street.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

Around 15 bookstores are going to the wall every week in Spain, hit by an 18-percent drop in sales since 2011, and the harsh reality of a country where 55 percent of the population never or only occasionally reads, according to a new report by the CEGAL Spanish association of booksellers.

“These are difficult times for the book,” says Miquel Flamarich of BCF Consultors, which carried out the report.

Juan Miguel Salvador, head of CEGAL’s research department, admits the economic crisis is largely to blame, along with the internet, while Pilar Gallego, CEGAL’s president pins the problem on “the lack of government policies to encourage reading, and better marketing campaigns and a pro-active approach by us.”

CEGAL’s survey provides a snapshot of the Spanish bookselling sector in 2014, and only includes independent bookshops, of which there were 3,650 in August of that year, 686 fewer than in 2013.

The survey shows that 728 establishments have been set up since 2000, around 20 percent of the total

Despite difficult times, there are people who are still prepared to open new bookstores: the survey shows that 728 establishments have been set up since 2000, around 20 percent of the total. At the other end of the spectrum, 103 bookshops founded before 1940 remain open.

Pilar Gallego admits that the sector has been slow to respond to change, particularly to the competition posed by non-traditional stores that have begun selling discount books, as well as large chains. “Perhaps we could have worked together more to keep out new booksellers that have used unfair practices to capture an important share of the market,” she says. At the same time, Gallego points out that bookstores have responded to the new scenario by creating more attractive spaces, which include areas where potential purchasers can read or have a cup of coffee.

Mapping the decline in book sales

  • There are 3,650 independent bookstores in Spain.
  • Over the last year, 912 have closed, and 226 were opened.
  • There are 7.8 bookshops for every 100,000 people, equivalent to almost two for every 25,000.
  • Galicia has the most bookstores per inhabitant, followed by La Rioja and the Canary Islands.
  • The region with the greatest number of bookshops is Madrid, followed by Andalusia and Catalonia.
  • Since 2000, 728 bookstores have opened. Just 103 booksellers that opened before 1940 remain.
  • Specialist bookstores make up 27.6 percent of the total, while shops selling a range of subjects make up 35.4 percent.
  • In terms of sales, just one percent of bookstores have a turnover of more than €1.5 million; 4.7 have a turnover of more than €600,000; 9.8 percent sell more than €300,000; 17.7 percent sell more than €150,000; 14.8 percent have a turnover of more than €90,000; 28.6 percent sell more than €30,000; and 23.4 percent of stores have a turnover of under €30,000.

Juan Miguel Salvador agrees that booksellers should have taken more measures earlier to encourage Spaniards to read more. “It’s possible that we haven’t come up with convincing arguments that link books with positive and modern values, making the connection between the formation of the individual and as something essential in today’s society.”

Salvador highlights the fact that reading has fallen out of favor in recent years: “People do not seem to have either the attention span to finish a book, or the respect and appreciation of an author’s efforts to do so. Similarly, these are objects to keep, they are not disposable, and are part of a world that takes its time and thinks about things.” That said, he believes that books will play a bigger role in the future: “The book is better adapted than most current technology for dealing with a world that will have to be more respectful with new and more severe limits, and less fast-paced.”

Teodoro Sacristán, director of Madrid’s annual book fair, the Feria del Libro, says the sector’s survival will also depend on better-trained booksellers, “who know what their customers are asking for, and who can advise them about what to buy.”

Pilar Gallego also says the media could do more to promote books and reading: “In recent years we’ve seen newspapers and magazines reduce the amount of space they give to culture, while on television there is nothing.”

Books make up 0.7 percent of Spain’s GDP, the largest contribution from the arts and entertainment industry. CEGAL says it has formulated a plan to encourage reading that it will present to the government this year, and that it hopes will help bookstores survive what is proving a difficult transition to the digital age.

Reinventing the bookstore

Faced with declining sales, bookstores have had to come up with new ways to attract customers. The CEGAL report says this has included organizing book presentations, story-telling activities, conferences, publishing catalogues, encouraging people to read, and other activities.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education has put aside €150,000 to help small bookstores create new areas for other cultural activities. “It’s not much, but it’s a positive sign,” says CEGAL. The ministry says it will also create a quality certification system for bookshops this year.

More than 66 percent of books are sold in cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. Of these sales, 20.9 percent are in Catalonia, 16.5 percent in Madrid, and 11.4 percent in Andalusia. Gallego says she does not see online sales as competition, but that piracy is a big problem. Online sales are dominated by big operators such as Amazon, with independent booksellers taking just five percent of the internet market. To increase their sales, smaller bookshops have joined together to set up www.todostuslibros.com.

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