5 Years ago, you could walk into Waterstones in Dublin and see 8-10 filled with computer books. Walk in today and you would be lucky to see 1-2 sections, less than a quarter the number. The titles still being covered are the ‘mass market’ items – Word, Excel , Access, Microsoft Office. No longer can you find the items of specialist interest – JMX, Aspect Orientated Programming, Ajax and the like. Even slightly more mainstream books on Oracle and Enterprise Java are getting hard to find.
What is going on? Remember how the dot com boom promised to revolutionise retailing and that old fashioned retailers were doomed? It turns out that a both online and offline retailers are thriving. Specialist areas (the long tail – as explained in this post) are migrating online. Mass market hits (such as Sharon Osbourne’s and Will Young’s biographies) stay in the shop, where you’re more likely to buy them as a last minute present or impulse purchase.
From on online retailers point of view (e.g. Amazon), computer books are a perfect product. No ‘bricks and mortar’ book shop is going to be able to stock all the books I need, given that for a worldwide population of 6 Billion people, less than 20,000 copies will be sold of an book such as Java Messaging Service (JMS), even for a popular title from O’Reilly. This translates to about a quarter a copy a year for even an above average bookshop in Dublin , Belfast or Drogheda. Bundle them up into an online bookshop however, and 20,000 copies is a very nice market.
This process, far from being the death of traditional retailers is proving their renaissance. Companies like Tesco and Argos are mastering true Clicks and Mortar techniques. They can devote previous shelf space to high volume, high profit goods, while direct their ‘do you have this in pink in a size 20’ queries to their online store. Maybe not as convenient for techies in
search of the latest knowledge fix, but 3 days wait for a book is better than not being able to get that book at all.
I work in a bookshop in Dublin and it has been neccesary to reduce the size of the computing section that I run due to falling sales. We have the largest computing section in the city and so I believe that this is indicative of a wider trend. I would disagree with the contention that all shops focus on the mainstream. Most of the positive performers in the shop are not books on excel and other office applications but titles on Joomla, Oracle, Drupal, open source and other emerging innovations. Most people by this stage have knowledge of office applications and their sales have reached a plateau. Unfortunately for computing sections, the previous boom in the sales of those books, allowed a broader range of titles. Now the onus is on us to ensure we can respond to and keep ahead of these nascent technologies and also keep a broad enough stock of titles. While I recognise that people use online stores for purchasing books, I would contend that a specialist bookseller has more knowledge than unvetted recomendations online. The ability to browse titles freely is a service we can offer also, with direct comparison possible easily.