There is an irony that as the rest of the (publishing) world looks forward into 2013, booksellers are busy in the trenches making sure that Christmas 2012 is a festive one for all.
The picture from the high street is mixed though. Print sales are down, as you would expect, but not uniformly, and those booksellers selling devices are said to be pleasantly surprised. Some booksellers are also reporting a rise in anti-Amazon sentiment and a return to the high street, something we noted last year in light of the Mary Portas review.
Blackwell’s results show that with patience and investment a sustainable high street model can be created, with rents likely to become easier to negotiate in the present climate, and landlords increasingly sensitive about the wider image of the high street. But there can also be growth: as markets evolve new opportunities arise, and not just around digital. Blackwell’s, for instance, is now dealing direct with institutions to put books at the heart of the student fees package. The chain’s “pop-up” Connect shops show that bookshops can also go to the customer, not just the other way round.
Of course one pine needle does not make a tree. This time last year we noted that direct government action was necessary to “save our high streets”, but one year on it is safe to assume that whatever action this government takes, it will inevitably be window-dressing when compared to the wider shifts in shopping habits and digital reading. But the corollary is that bookshops are run by incredibly enterprising and, judging by the window displays seen on out high streets, creative folk.
If ever there was a trade able to withstand and understand the shifts, it should be bookselling. In 2013 we should all take note to listen to and engage with booksellers further, not just through involvement with Foyles’ new “crowd-sourced” flagship but more widely, as the Booksellers Association has encouraged us to do for many years.
As publishers develop their direct-to-consumer models, and bookshops move into the events business, we are likely to see some merging, perhaps even duplicating, of roles, as everyone fights for the attention of readers. We need to learn to accommodate these changes, but we should also be wary of becoming too exclusionary—we still work better as a trade when we all pull in the same direction, even if we are rowing at different speeds.