Working together

Times change. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than at the Booksellers Association Annual Conference.

Ah, those conferences of yore, typically at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Squadrons of board members, buyers, marketers and (even) booksellers would pour into town from every one of the major chains. Publishing houses would block-book boutique hotels and fill their diaries with terms negotiations and generous entertaining. At the evening gala, a famous comic, carefully briefed with gags about industry personalities, would hold sway over a crowd of a thousand diners. And while much of the conference content consisted of “whither the book trade” heart-searching (it was ever thus), most of the delegates were high on the hog, riding a wave of consumer prosperity and expansive bookselling.

All of that is gone now, like an Edwardian garden party, but at Warwick University this week the BA conference reinvented itself for the blasted landscape of 2012. While the BA remains a broad church, its focus now – absolutely correctly – is on those of its members whose primary business is selling books. And, in a world where chain store numbers continue to fall, that fundamentally means independents.

Whether consumers are buying p-books or e-books, their default bookshop of choice is now Amazon. Any alternative channel has to work hard to persuade consumers why they should pay more money elsewhere, for an identical product. Appealing to a customer’s social conscience is futile; bookshops must demonstrate unique qualities that the online giant lacks. The customer is always right, so physical stores need to understand what makes the Amazon experience so attractive to consumers (in addition to low prices), and offer a better-than alternative.

Quick Reads’ Cathy Retzenbrink, a witty and well-informed conference chair, suggested that the old “bricks and mortar” terminology sells physical stores short—the battle in the future will be between online sales, and “flesh-and-blood” retailing. Customers will pay for a good experience—consistent, intentional, differentiated and valuable. They’ll trust it, recommend it to their friends, and keep coming back; but indie bookshop owners have to be impresarios, launching a new show every trading day, remaining true to their core beliefs, and flexible in their execution.

Booksellers are justifiably angry that they can (and do) buy much of their stock more cheaply from supermarkets or Amazon than from wholesalers or publishers. They feel forgotten by the multinationals, but their individual pleas will be less effective than working together to ensure their voice is heard, and their relevance reinforced.   

As Publishers Association president Ursula Mackenzie stressed, good bookshops continue to matter to publishers. However, indies must coordinate themselves to share information on title sales and selling successes. It would be wonderful if every indie had a hotline to the multinational publishing decision-makers—but they don’t, and they never will.

They have to work together to make their voices heard, to ensure that the country’s best bookshops are getting their share of events, special editions, and marketing support.

Patrick Neale, BA president and owner of one of the country’s best bookshops, is a glass-half-full man by his own admission; but he painted a sober picture of challenging economics. Whatever independent bookshops had before, in the good times, is no more likely to come back than Borders or Ottakars. Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook/online offer are essential for indies who want to stay in business and thrive in the future. Customers, publishers and authors may all love independent bookshops, but love isn’t enough—indies need to change, adapt, and work with each other.

Judging from the conversations I had at Warwick with many indie owners, they are determined to do just that.  It will be tough, but I believe the best of them can and will thrive, and continue to be beacons of excellence on our beleaguered high streets.