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Into the bookstore with a shopping basket. Booksellers are grasping at the straw called behavioural change.

Last December, we had no internet and no TV/netflix for a week. The Customer Disconnection Department of KPN, formerly XS4All, had not understood that a broken cable in our neighbourhood could have had anything to do with it. One of the funny effects of these fibre-less days was that I finished reading four books. Something I normally do only on holidays. I enjoyed them. Intense reading, deep concentration and sometimes a real conversation in the living room.

We don't read anymore, at least not enough, and certainly young people between 13 and 20 are abandoning books en masse, be they paper or digital. Those who do still read are older people over 50. Reason why a volume of Lucinda Riley's The Seven Sisters series for the second consecutive year Netherlands' best-selling book is. With 233,000 copies this year and added to previous sales, the latest volume in the series has now gone 'platinum'. You get that reward at 350,000 books sold. Riley herself was speechless when she received the certificate. Although, again, she managed to put it beautifully into words.

Negative impact VAT

None of which takes away from the fact that book sales are down. Sales did increase in 2019, but that was because books became more expensive, mainly because of the VAT increase (needed for the expansion of Schiphol Airport). In fact, significantly fewer books were sold. And that stings.

The book trade is a languishing industry, threatened not only by young people addicted to apps, but also by online commerce. During the seminar, which preceded the New Year's address by the now-again chief punter (cup a soup) poked and prodded CPNB director Eveline Aendekerk, it just wasn't about that online trade. The announced arrival of Amazon, pretty much the biggest elephant in the room, could be discussed during the drinks afterwards. Where, in turn, the music was so loud that any conversation became impossible.

Funny advertising people

What it did talk about, at that seminar: behavioural change. There were two presentations on this topic, which is all about nudging and framing. First, two very funny advertising people spoke, and then a real behavioural scientist repeated everything again with some more difficult words. Whether the booksellers in the room were much the wiser is impossible to tell. We would have liked to ask during the drinks reception, but the music was too loud, in other words.

We shared some of the findings on Twitter, and some discussion did ensue. For instance, about the fact that 50 per cent of schoolchildren do not see the point of reading. Poet and VSB Poetry Prize winner Joost Baars responded that there are then also 50 per cent of young people who do see the point. Now, one could argue that among growing adolescents, the 'don't know/no opinion' category is also pretty well represented, but the point is clear: how do you frame reading: negative or positive.


Another tip from the advertising people was to make shopping baskets mandatory in bookstores. With a shopping basket, the nudging specialists, people will be more likely to do something in it too, and even more than 1 thing. 'You wish people who are paid well (better than someone in retail) to give speeches like this would spend a day walking along in a bookstore. Just, to avoid this kind of high-paid 'tips'.' riposted Baars again. 'I'd still 1000x rather walk around with an empty basket than buy a book with one of those,' thought Harrison Sealts: 'Let one thing be clear, booksellers: baskets are for the supermarket.'

Remco Takken, clearly a glutton when it comes to books, remarked: 'So I have to start behaving differently. I normally say to 'the cashier', "This pile will be mine later, but I'll be right back; I haven't been to the history department yet."

Choice stress

But what then, bookstores wonder. Put fewer books on the shelf to avoid choice stress? Many readers think that's a nonsensical suggestion, but personally I don't think it's so crazy. In Tokyo, a bookstore opened in 2015 that sold a different book every week. But then only that one book. Seems to run great. Still something different from the competition with all-you-can-eat formulas like Kobo Plus and Amazon, in which the lavishly stocked bookshop will lose out.

A nice middle way, and probably the right way for bookstores, came in in the person of Tim van den Hoed, owner and operator of the Utrecht Book Bar. He stocks up to a thousand books and places them all with the covers visible on shelves and tables. He is all about conversation, reading clubs, presentations, and books that interest him himself, or that his customers, whom he wants to get to know well, arrive with. And about coffee. The business, run by a millennial who turned away from office work, is going well.

In the end, you can do a lot with the lessons from behavioural science, but the bookshop still seems to benefit most from a smaller scale approach, its own face, and people skills. And the occasional cable break at KPN.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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