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The dynamic trade

For a creative industry we can be awfully fixed in our thinking. From royalty rates to Digital Rights Management to e-book lending to a “Spotify” model to bundling, an inflexible approach looks to be at odds with a world that has gone the other way.

Last week we held the Foyles Bookshop Workshops, the intention of which is to crowd-source ideas about possible futures for bookshops. The first workshop (the second took place on Friday) was an energising event, marked by the dedication of the delegates to the cause, but also the openness of Foyles to listen.

That Foyles said it was consulting with eight employees over their jobs ahead of the event brought home the importance of the mission. This is for real.

The beauty of the workshop process is that it is not fixed. Some ideas might fly in the “new” Foyles, some might not. Some might be suitable for smaller bookshops, but not for the chains. And vice versa.   

One overriding theme was that bookshops need to become more dynamic, to have the ability to curate their shops around prevailing moods, or types of shoppers, to bring teen titles to the fore at the weekend, but promote adult reads during the working week. In a sense, to bring the flexibility of a website to the shop floor.

Some hardened retailers might grizzle at the prospect, but it gets at something that is becoming increasingly important: having a beta attitude. I’ve said recently that the industry is coping well with the digital shift, evolving and in some cases leading. But are we prepared to look beyond our comfort zone? We have made print books into digital books, but the way we sell them and the business models that underpin the industry remain largely unchanged. We now need to challenge ourselves to take the next step even if it might be a misstep—trial and error.

In 2009 Amazon applied for a patent over a used digital goods marketplace, even though there was no certainty over the legality or viability of the idea. Last week Vicky Barnsley argued that it might not be “insane” for bookshops to charge for browsing. Before kicking the notion into touch, let’s kick it around—at the workshop the idea evolved into a members’ club, offering bookish privileges to dedicated book buyers.

We cannot expect all ideas to make the grade, and not all trials will help us make up our minds, but let’s at least admit that what we think now can be subject to change.