Is there any other industry where the most powerful retailers will spend a whole evening talking to the tiniest publishers? That's what happens at Meet the Buyers, the annual event run by the Independent Publishers Guild, fast becoming an essential industry fixture.
Last night in Portland Place some 100 IPG members sat down with senior buyers from the UK's biggest booksellers: Amazon (Kes Nielsen, Laurence Howell, Darren Thomson), Blackwell (Gareth Hardy), Waterstone's (Simon Burke, Peter North, Sarah Clarke), Gardners (Phil Edwards, Maria Mancey), The Book Depository (Andrew Crawford, Mark Thwaite), and Bertrams (Paul Taylor, Cat Banks).
They moved around tables which had a lively blend of the large and tiny indie publishers, including Earthscan, Anova, Myrmidion, Frances Lincoln, Profile, Faber, Anvil, Gallic Books, Salt Books, Parthian, and the delightfully named B Small. I caught snatches of conversations which ranged from bibliographic data to buying strategies from search technology to marketing materials.
Before that real business – and most crucially the drinks afterwards – I was asked to say a few words about "the state of retail". I began with some vintage quotes bemoaning the state of the trade: they could have been written yesterday, but were in fact penned by Joseph Whitaker in The Bookseller in 1858 (you can read them in full in tomorrow's 150th anniversary issue of the magazine). They showed that for at least one and a half centuries, publishers and retailers have been blaming each other for "under-selling" books.
As we are in the middle of a major public clash between the UK's largest trade publisher and its fastest-growing retailer, I wanted to issue a reminder of the need to focus on the end-reader. BookScan has brilliantly refocused the whole industry on the "sell-through" to readers rather than the "sell-in" to retailers, so let's not use firm sale or terms debates to turn back the clock.
Internal trade wrangles are inevitable, but they shouldn't distract from the overall push to get more books to more readers - especially in this uncertain economic times. That has to encompass even closer retailer-publisher partnerships across marketing, research, data, exclusive editions, and using authors as allies. Hopefully last night planted the seedlings of more such creative relationships, rather than more rows.