This article was originally published by ‘The Bookseller, and it was written by Phillip Jones.
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What do ‘real’ booksellers have that others do not? Knowledge, personality, a bag.
The Booksellers Association’s annual conference, taking place this year at the University of Warwick, showcased the virtues of all three. As M&C Saatchi‘s James Lowther told the audience of about 200 (mostly) indies—in the struggle against Amazon and Kindle, booksellers need to accentuate their differences, create physical environments that showcase physical objects but also play up the virtues of buying books from real people. “Sell the sizzle, not just the sausage.”
These are smart words at an event where words are in demand. As The Bookseller‘s and Quick Reads‘ Cathy Rentzenbrink put it, “bookshops are palaces of possibility”. She originally meant to say ‘place’, but after a typo it became the former. And it is a better word. The best bookshops are not humdrum utilitarian outlets selling beans or nails, they are the stuff dreams are made of: literally.
If this sounds slightly unreal, it is not. This year’s BA conference is a far cry from the days when publishers, authors and booksellers would gather in hotels and spend boozy hours talking books in a world that was both appreciative and supportive. The trade is much more hard-worn now. Amazon is variously mentioned at the conference, but rarely positively. If the original BA conferences were flavoured by the fact that they existed in a world Before Amazon, today’s BA conference is AA (After Amazon). The Seattle giant has shaped this business in a way that would have seemed unimaginable 20 years ago. We can debate this for hours, but it doesn’t change the reality.
So what is bookselling AA like? It is certainly less profitable: many of the indies I’ve been speaking to just about cover their costs, but few draw a salary. It is little wonder that Booksellers Association president Patrick Neale began the conference saying that “more needs to be done” by publishers to bring the core financial model of the bookselling supply chain up to date. Publishers, he said, need to look again at what can be done, and quickly.
Yet it is also fantastically creative, as necessity dictates. On the Sunday before the conference we heard from three booksellers, expanding where they sell, how they sell and who they sell to. The Bookseller‘s Young Bookseller of the Year Katie Clapham from StoryTellers Inc was particularly impressive, creating events in schools with ingenious publicity ideas and promotions—”some”, of which, she admitted, paid off in sales terms. Some involved sticking her finger in the air and hoping for the best: return of investment was part of the creative process but it could never lead it. Incidentally, Clapham runs the shop with her mother: she also has two other jobs. This is bookselling AA.
Selling books online
A second talk came from Melanie Carroll from Unicorn Tree Books who spoke about effective selling online. Here the key message was to use every medium possible, not just to sell the books, but also the shop. Booksellers, she said, needed to sell their enthusiasm. Back their knowledge, trade off it and publicly display it (online and offline).
The sobering thing is that in bookselling AA this may not be enough. There is, along with all this day-to-day hard work, a process of reinvention. Saatchi’s Lowther talked about some of the things bookshops could do beyond bookselling: singles evenings, selling wine, coffee and cake—not just any old coffee and cake but the best there is, creating a destination reason for shoppers.
Most importantly, bookshops need to get more bolshy. Neale spoke about booksellers as a key-stone species, because their eradication would mean a fundamental heart attack for the eco-structure that exists to serve authors and readers.
It never fails to amaze me how blithe some pundits are about this. As if the disappearance of all those windows displaying books, and all those knowledgable enthusiasts for the book, its content and the people who write and read them, all those environments where authors and readers meet, would be only a minor disruption to the landscape. As Lowther said, Amazon is a warehouse and an algorithm: there’s no world we know where the latter is an adequate replacement for the former.
Speak up for bookshops
We don’t resolve this by moaning about it, but let’s not deny it either. If we want bookshops we need to speak up for them. The supply chain is important to this business: remove a link and it weakens the chain, at some point irreparably.
Booksellers need to play their part too. As Lowther said, there are so many disparate voices in the trade, they need a megaphone to compete against Amazon. There has been much talk at the conference devoted toBooks are my Bag, the feeling being that this was a promotion that increased that noise level and gave that thought a physical manifestation.
Those bags are part of the armoury, but they are just the start. Bookselling AA needs to keep on running, the rest of us need to provide the support.