Bookselling in a bankrupt country

The recent elections in Ireland saw Fianna Fáil, the previously ruling party, heavily punished for their economic policies which have basically left Ireland a bankrupt country.

Recession has hit Ireland hard and the retail sector has suffered from a major decline in consumer spending. Retail sales have declined in Ireland for a consecutive 35 months and data released from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) suggests that sales of books, stationery and magazines in Ireland have fallen 9.3% since December 2009. Figures from Nielsen, which relate only to book sales, are slightly more positive with the four weeks to Christmas 2010 finishing down only 3% on 2009, buoyed up by a stronger Average Selling Price of €12.38. However, with 2009 having been the worst year for retail on record this is of no great reassurance.

Borders pulled out of Ireland in August 2009, the collapse of Irish book chain Hughes & Hughes followed in February 2010 (six Hughes & Hughes stores have since reopened under different ownership) and the closure of Dublin’s two Waterstone’s branches in February 2011 have certainly sent a shiver up the spine of the Irish booktrade.

With many Irish publishers dependent on good home territory sales for their books the strain is being felt across both retailers and publishers alike. High rents tied into upward-only long-term leases and a high cost base, particularly in terms of staffing, electricity and rates, have made continuing to trade very difficult for many Irish retailers.

However, there are still many positives to be found in the Irish booktrade. The Waterstone’s closures had more to do with the desperate state of HMV and the music industry than that of book sales. HMV’s large Irish bookstore Hodges Figgis continues to trade profitably. Other book retailers have survived by renegotiating their rents and data shows that overall sales seem to be stabilising over the past two months.

The Irish are justifiably proud of their writers and their books, and the awarding to Dublin of UNESCO City of Literature status in 2010 has given a positive focus to the important role books play in Irish lives. Irish writers have ‘punched above their weight’ in the world market for many years.

As more of their customers browse, order and download from online sources the big bookselling chains have struggled to justify their large stockholdings in expensive High Street locations, allowing smaller independent bookshops with a focus on hand-selling, recommendations and personal service to demonstrate their strengths. We opened The Gutter Bookshop mid-recession in November 2009 and signs are that the business is both viable and much-appreciated. As more Irish publishers embrace the potential of e-books and additional markets they will also find ways to make their businesses viable and, most importantly, profitable.

While the politicians and economists fight it out over Ireland’s future, its people continue to delight in the pleasure (and the respite) that a good book gives them. The road for book retailers in Ireland is going to be a bumpy one for the foreseeable future but those that are willing to adapt, listen to their customers and grasp opportunities still have a great future.