Action not words

Here’s an interesting list of authors, can you guess what they have in common? Joanne Harris, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Alison Weir and Julia Donaldson. The answer is they all have websites that direct readers straight to Amazon to buy their books. Now here’s another list: Kate Morton, Ian Rankin, Tom Holland and Patrick Ness. The websites of these authors direct readers to buy their books either from Amazon or a multiple.

So what? Well, as an owner of two independent bookshops I feel angry that these authors, unthinkingly or by design, have chosen to support Amazon, W H Smith or Waterstones without giving a fig for independent bookshops.

Many of these are authors who, when asked, will say they like nothing better than to support the independent sector, they couldn’t imagine life without their local bookshop, everyone should do all in their power to save it as a much-loved institution at the heart of the community, and much more along similar lines. But words need to be matched by deeds if they are to make a difference.

I speak as someone who has built up two profitable indies, but whose turnover has declined in the past couple of years, beset as we are not only by the general economic malaise and the infiltration of e-books, but more significantly by undercutting from supermarkets, multiples and Amazon. And I speak as someone who is heartily sick of not being able to fight back against Amazon, because we pay our taxes and it doesn’t. That is why we started our petition—to get Amazon to pay its fair share of taxes—which has now garnered 168,000 signatures and which we recently presented to 10 Downing Street. A group of MPs is even now seeing how this can best be debated in parliament.

Let’s be quite straight about this . . . the company that these authors support avoids paying its fair share of corporation tax in the UK simply by saying that it doesn’t have a permanent presence in this country—and HMRC has been stupid enough to accept this argument at face value. Amazon diverts profits through its Luxembourg company to tax havens where, having built up massive cash resources, it then uses to buy up all the competition (Abe Books and the Book Depository for two). Having built up a virtual online monopoly it is then in a position to squeeze suppliers on price till the pips really do squeak, and that gives it even more market share, and so it goes on.

Is this really the type of company and operation and morality that authors want to support? Because that is what they are supporting and every day they do so drives another nail into the coffin of the independent sector, which is now in desperate straits. We put a lot of effort into supporting authors, promoting their work, diligently hand-selling, inviting them to our festivals and “meet the author events”. Not many of us work less than six days a week often seven in doing so. It’s about time they supported us.

Here’s what I think should be done.

1 The Booksellers Association should contact all authors immediately and ask them to stop supporting Amazon directly.

2 The BA should then put together a scheme that would enable individual bookshops to be linked to individual authors, selling their products on their behalf. This would need the support of authors and publishers. It is quite practical. My son, an IT specialist, tells me that he could knock up a transactional site in one evening which would enable me and any other independent either singly or together, to sell the complete range of an author’s books to the UK public just as efficiently as Amazon does. I would, of course, need the same support from the publisher on stock availability and discount that they currently see fit to give Amazon.

3 Authors and publishers should give immediate attention to consider other ways in which they can actually help increase the turnover of individual independent shops and help preserve what apparently they all want . . . a thriving independent sector rather than support the behemoth that is Amazon.

Keith Smith is the owner of Warwick & Kenilworth Books.