Raise high the bookshop

The BA Conference starts this weekend at Warwick University, with a fantastic industry representation and record attendance from booksellers. My wishlist of outcomes must surely be headed by a desire to see some meaningful progress on the work started last year by those publishers who responded to our calls to review the financial model of supply to bookshops. Another fervent wish is to see a significant number of independent booksellers selling e-books this autumn.

It’s clear to me that, in retail, the balance of risk has changed. Consumers are using retailers as showrooms; viewing the product and then buying online. Bookselling isn’t unique; this is happening across retail. The effect is that the certainty of a sale from stock is reduced. In this respect, the business model has already changed—to the risk and detriment of booksellers. We, as booksellers and publishers, have a responsibility to address this changed model in order to have a sustainable partnership for the future.

As we know, sales of e-books and e-readers have grown massively in the past 12 months. Chain booksellers have developed their own strategies; W H Smith with Kobo; Waterstones with Kindle; Blackwell’s and Foyles with Nook. Until now, options for independent booksellers were limited. Independents now have a choice of supplier offering e-readers and e-books—the main ones being Kobo and Hive (Anobii has delayed its plans until 2013). Both will be at the BA Conference to talk to booksellers about their offers.

It is, of course, up to booksellers to decide whether or not to sell e-books and some booksellers tell me that as their customers are not asking for e-books, they are not that interested in selling them. But I am concerned about customers not having any dialogue about e-books with their bookshop because they believe that e-books are not sold there, and simply go elsewhere. As a sector, bookshops have to be visible in selling e-books—in my view by this autumn. If high street booksellers aren’t, very visibly, selling e-books the sector risks being marginalised in the mind of both the consumer and the publisher. I strongly urge independent booksellers to look at the terms from Hive and Kobo now and start selling e-books this autumn.

Publishers, authors and booksellers agree about so much. We agree that we need bookshops and the Society of Authors is doing fantastic work to encourage authors to show their support. We agree that copyright is vital. We face huge challenges in combating illegal copying. The Publishers Association and the SoA work tirelessly to support copyright. The BA is four-square behind their efforts. We agree that if the right parameters aren’t in place for e-book lending by libraries, consumers could obtain e-books so easily from their library that they would never need to buy a book again. We support VAT-free reading. Printed books carry 0% VAT; e-books are taxed at the standard rate. The European Commission seems to be sympathetic to reducing VAT on e-books, but in return for “harmonising” the rate for both printed and electronic books. If that happened, zero VAT on printed books would go. We have to guard against this.

Publishers and authors need bookshops to engage the book-buying public as they do in so many ways, and to keep selling the ever-important backlist. Nobody does it better. Booksellers need publishers and authors to provide their books and the support necessary to help sell them. We need each other, and we have to work together.

Details about the Conference can be found at www.booksellers.org.uk/conferences.