Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Poles are not great readers. Waning enthusiasm for the written word is sending newspaper and magazine circulation plummeting and provoking growing financial difficulties for the country's leading book shop chains.
An annual survey conducted by the National Library finds that only 40% of Poles bothered to open a book in 2014, while 16% have no books at all at home. An additional 15% have only children's textbooks in the house.
In what must be bad news for furniture makers as well, 80% of Polish homes can fit all of their books on only three shelves. Two-thirds of Poles say they read newspapers and magazines, but only about half read a long article at least once a month.
The Polish findings are quite different from other northern European countries. A Eurobarometer report says 90% of Swedes, 86% of Dutch and 82% of Danes read at least one book last year. Poland's numbers are much more similar to southern Europe.
The print media is taking a battering as a result. Gazeta Wyborcza is still Poland's largest circulation serious national newspaper, but last year saw average daily sales down by 14% compared with a year earlier at 170,000; a decade ago, the paper was selling half a million copies. Conservative rival, Rzeczpospolita had average circulation of 56,000, down by 7%. The overall sales of national dailies fell by a similar amount over the year.
One of the causes seems to be a leakage of readers to the internet. Another is that Poles are keen watchers of television, spending more time in front of the tube than most of their northern European counterparts. They notch up an average of 247 minutes a day, while Germans watch 221 minutes and the Swedish average is only 159 minutes. The Polish numbers are similar to Italy's.
The result has been a bloodbath among newspapers and book shops. In the first three quarters of last year, Gazeta Wyborcza noted a 21% fall in advertising sales. Gremi, the owner of Rzeczpospolita, has been laying off reporters and cutting the size of its newsroom.
The National Library report notes book sales in the first 11 months of 2014 were down by 7.5% at 2.5bn zlotys (€600m). Empik, the country's largest chain of bookshops, saw a 5% fall in revenue to PLN1bn.
The company is part of the EM&F retail group, which also includes a chain of popular children's shops. However, it had to be rescued with a PLN100mn injection from its owners last year, and the share price has fallen by 76% over the last year.
Rival bookshop chain Matras was sold last year, with 49% of the shares reportedly changing hands for as little as PLN50mn. Matras is now clearing payment backlogs with book distributors and suppliers.
As Polish book chains try to figure out a business model that will allow them to survive in a market with so few enthusiastic readers, there is a looming threat on the horizon. Amazon recently opened two enormous warehouses in western Poland. At the moment they're being used to supply western Europe, but there is growing alarm locally that the retail behemoth will soon start to sell books in Poland.
"If it starts to sell in Poland, there may not be enough room on the market for Polish chains," writes Martin Stysiak in Gazeta Wyborcza.
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