News

BA urges government action to protect bookshops

High street bookshops need help from the government if their presence there is to continue, the c.e.o. of the Booksellers Association has said.

Tim Godfray called on the government to give rate relief to businesses with a cultural and educational value to maintain independent bookshops on high streets and protect “the wellbeing of society”. He also called on publishers to do more to support bricks and mortar booksellers.

Godfray’s remarks come after the BA found overall membership numbers had declined by 20% in the last six years, from 4,495 in June 2006 to 3,683 in June 2011, with independent bookshop membership falling even further by 26%, from 1,483 in June 2006 to 1,099 in June 2011.

In a statement, Godfray said: “At a time when literacy is an issue and libraries are under threat from government cuts, we need to build a coalition of publishers, government and consumers to provide opportunities for the passionate and creative entrepreneurs who run bookshops on our high streets to thrive.

“What is clear from surveying our members is the considerable influence local and national government and our competition authorities have on the high street retailer. There is a lot of talk about putting the high street first, but far more action is needed. Rate relief for businesses with a cultural and educational value would be welcome.”

He added the issue affected wider society, not just BA members, because maintaining bookshops high streets is vital to literacy, the future economic prosperity of UK plc and “the cultural health of our nation.” He said: “There is plenty that can be done but it needs to be done now if we are to maintain bookshops on our high streets and protect the significant impact they have on the wellbeing of local society the UK. We will be making representations in the next few months to the appropriate bodies, and are also providing our members with posters for shop windows.”

The BA recently surveyed its members in August about concerns local and national government could address and the top three issues cited were rates (29%), parking (28%) and planning (13%).

Godfray told The Bookseller the BA had decided to speak out now after finding out its “stark” membership figures. He said: “For us, the membership figures were really worrying and disturbing and we took the view it was incumbent on us to take action about the situation we find ourselves in."

However, while Godfray said in the BA statement that action was needed to maintain bookshops on the high street, the sector was not at fatal risk. He told The Bookseller: "While the figures are despairing, we are not saying bookshops will not survive, we would never say that.”

The BA would also like to see more free or lower cost parking in town centres to encourage customers to use the shops there along with better planning of town centres, so that shops are not allowed to become vacant and community centres become “like ghost towns.” Godfray said: “So many of our members are despairing about the difficulty that customers have in parking and getting near to their shops.”

The organisation has been in talks with publishers to look at better ways of supporting high street retailers but Godfray refused to elaborate on details. However, he said: “Fewer bookshops equals fewer sales for authors, publishers and for booksellers. We have been working closely with publishers and it is certainly clear that they are generally really concerned about the pressure bookshops are under and many are considering ways they can give bookshops greater support.”

Jane Streeter, owner of The Bookcase in Lowdham and president of the BA, said the decline in bookshop numbers is not inevitable. She said: “Booksellers are already at the heart of their communities, key parts of their local high streets, and are undertaking positive and innovative work across the country to make their shops the best places to browse and discover new books.

"However, if we don’t make a real and concerted effort now, then the economics for high street booksellers simply won’t add up. We need to see a real commitment from publishers and government to offer opportunities to booksellers so we can keep our place on the high street, and keep our high streets diverse and innovative work across the country to make their shops the best places to browse and discover new books.”

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What complete nonsense. A trade organisation which has presided over the demise of the businesses it is supposed to support asking for government assistance....what words can I use to describe the uslessness of the B A.

Tim Godfray would be well advised to ask himself why indie booksellers like myself want no part of the BA.

These are tough times, and probably will get even tougher ; times are tough on the high street for the butcher, the greengrocer and many other skilled trades - not just bookshops.

In my experience publishers are only too willing to back the bookshops who are prepared to work with the publisher showcasing stock and working "firm sale".

I have always considered the BA are out of touch, like an edwardian luncheon club ; they are reliant upon the supermarkets membership dues and have nothing to offer the independent bookshop proprietor.

The BA have totally lacked foresight over the damage caused by abolition of the NBA, and the manner in which predatory pricing from the supermarkets and Amazon would destroy the traditional sales outlets.

Those of us who have survived have ploughed a lone furrow whilst hearing BA executive spluttering on about a free market economy abd being unable to intervene.

BA = totally useless. We're only in so that we can take book tokens and use batch. They don't speak for independents like us.

I have recently been arranging book-signing events. To support indies, I contacted several. Most were not available, NONE returned phone calls. Some were too busy to talk and asked for emails. NONE replied to the emails. The events involved them getting books on sale or return. Apart from that, point of sale advertising is provided by the publisher, press releases and interviews by my agent, all the retailer has to do is stick the advertising up, provide a table & chair and if they're feeling generous, a cup of coffee. In return, they would get upwards of £200 in their tills. It doesn't surprise me that they're going out of business if they ignore trade like that. I also have to make a living, so I turned to the chains, who were far more receptive.

I think the previous two sad comments have misunderstood what has happened ? The BA has it seems started to publicly talk about the bricks and mortor bookshop problems.
BBC news last night and now this press statement, it seems that more is to come, albeit a bit slow for me !
The real issues of some sort of price control as in europe needs to raised at the highest level...even though it might attract the attention of the vat man. The BA has tirelessly worked within it remit and the law and the EU to not attract vat ,but now I believe a small vat would be not so bad if we had the pricing deal most euopean member countries have.
As for have publishers firm sale ? I have never had firm sale from a publisher unless its at a huge discount, so I dont know who you deal with but you need to sort yourself out.
If you joined the BA it would cost you pennies and instead of freeloading on thier endevours you could put something back into an organistaion which 'makes a huge difference'
I think we might see more action ...

What are the year on year percentage and absolute declines?

what is your name and the publisher of your books ?

Seamer Bill - what is your real name?
The problem with events is that to be worthwhile, they have to be tailored to the market.
It's really hard to do events here, because people just don't turn up (which isn't helped by the fact that the local papers don't bother to run articles for us in advance)
I don't know of any Idnie that would refuse to hold an author event if it fitted their market.
I need Children's authors, or local ones. Oh, and another member of staff to cover the shop while I run around looking after the Author would be good too....
(the last author event I did put £18 in my till)

It's hard to sell books alone on the high street. Last time I went up Ayr High Street there was just Waterstone's (also sell coffee now) and WHS (sells books at the back of the long narrow shop). Go back 10 years and there was a bookshop in Newmarket Street (found it could make more selling greetings cards & teddy bears) and James Thin which had been in the Sandgate for 100 years until the chain was sunk by events elesewhere. Ottakars clsoed that shop & merged it with their shop in the High Street which then became a Waterstone's and now has a coffee shop at the back. Unfortunately the lack of space means the book selection has to be determined by popularity through the Epos so I generally don't find a range that appeals to my eclectic interests whereas Ottakar's range had a bit more zing and Thin's shop when it existed had the space to stock a much wider range. The real problem about being on the high street is that space is expensive. All the money goes on rent and rates and the thing that suffers is stockholding and range. Believe me customers will travel long distances to shops that have interesting ranges and depth of stock whatever product you are trying to sell and local customers will come back again and again. You don't have to be bang in the epicentre of the high street - in some ways that is the worst place to be. Independent bookshops that are thriving are in some pretty wacky locations - The Watermill in Aberfeldy is a great example - talk about the middle of nowhere!

In reality, the bookseller has to do a lot more than what is descibed, or they will have an unhappy author moaning about an empty shop. A potential £200 in the tills is £90-100 profit, which might pay for the extra effort. All too often it does not.

Having worked in a bookshop which was really good at these sort of events, the average was that it was not worth the effort in cash terms, realistically [a target of extra sales of over £1000 was our benchmark] but worked well in reputation. The best events were always when the shop targetted an author that fitted its market, and did not just run with random choices because they were available.

The other problem that Bill faces is that most indies have let all their staff go, there is no-one left to run these 'events'.

Strangely, I get the similar kind of non-response when I contact publishers...
So the chains were more receptive? Tesco, W.H.Smith, Sainsbury? I don't think so and from what I knew of the Waterstones of old there would be heavy negotiations over "support" (i.e. the publisher chucked them a bung).

An independent would be more than happy to support an author so long as it suited their market. There's little point in expending energy on organising a book-signing event for, let's say, a minor poet from a small publisher if no-one and his dog is going to turn up. Lee Child, Val McDermid, Dan Brown, Jamie Oliver...no indie in their right mind would turn these away. Sadly, it is rare that this quality of author is ever offered to the indies.

Interesting response highlights another problem with author events. The retailer shouldn't need a member of staff to look after the author. If the author is doing their job right, they will be proactive, going to customers interested in their genre, handing out bookmarks, chatting & hoping for a sale.
The other point is that by continuing to hold such events, retailers will, with luck, persuade people that visiting their shop is a pleasant experience and in time it will become habit forming.
I accept that certain genres do not sell well in certain stores, but the courtesy of a reply wouldn't have gone amiss. Sometimes, events fail through no fault of either the store, the author, the genre or the customers. I did a round trip of over 200 miles to do a book signing in a store within a large shopping precinct. 2 minutes after the scheduled start, having signed the first book, there was a bomb alert which closed the centre until well after the advertised end of the session.

It really makes me smile.
Publishers were responsible entirely for the end of the net book agreement, their greed and shortsightedness are responsible for the death of the independent bookshop and unless it was re-introduced all the pissing in the wind will not stop the rot. The public have the prospect of diminishing lists failing small publishers and probably missing out on some of the 21st centuries great writers who will never see the light of day.
Why could no-one see that books WERE a special case for keeping a level playing field. The big boys could profit by their buying capacity and the small bookshops could make a living by selling at the same printed price, the public actually would have be very little worse off as publishers could recommend a lower selling price as they would not have been squeezed by supermarkets as they are now.
Oh well the new wheel has been invented so there is no going back.
I closed my bookshop in 2005 spouting the same stuff and the rot continues. I suppose I am destined for a kindle.

Peter Bergman Late of The Regent Bookshop

Ron Johns wrote
"As for have publishers firm sale ? I have never had firm sale from a publisher unless its at a huge discount, so I dont know who you deal with but you need to sort yourself out."

If that reply is directed at me then I think I should make a pertinent reply.

My business has one of the largest stockholdings from a range of illustrated worldwide book publishers. Perhaps I need to sort myself out for as I type this reply I have just signed for 11 large boxes from Bookpoint and LBS - all supplied "firm sale" as is their publishers norm to all stockists.

My father, who was born in 1889, was a merchant trader ; I was taught from a young age "the day you sell is the day you buy" so firm sale comes naturally to me, and is my blood.

Don't expect my business to feauture in any bookshop guide listings, the shop stock speaks for itself and draws customers from a wide area.

As for suggestions that businesses like mine are freeloading on the endeavours of the BA - that made I larf.

Richard, some very wise words there for any potential indie bookseller - especially re location.

You have the argument in a nutshell Peter. Wringing of hands and special pleading is so much wasted time and hot air. The publishers are stoking the fires ever higher - just look at the tat that is this Christmas's "bestsellers" (all of which will be down to a penny on Amazon marketplace in January) - and you can see to what a poor state to which this trade has advanced.

Peter Bergman is absolutely right.

If the BA had addressed this way back when, many, many booksellers would still be trading, supermarkets and Amazon wouldn't be bleeding an industry they couldn't care less about absolutely dry, and publishers would be better off too.

There is a tiny chance of saving the high street, but action is needed NOW. The die is cast with Amazon, and the mindset is now in place, but all supermarket pernicious influence could easily be reduced and corrected.

But the BA has been taking your money for years, overpaying staff who work in swanky offices in London and doing nothing to actually benefit the trade. Like many others, I was a member only for Book Tokens and Batch.

And Godfray has the absolute gall to ask for government assistance!! The answer is industry-dependent!!!

Of course, Peter Bergman and Ron Johns are correct. Everything else is of relatively little significance in comparison to pricing issues as per European models. Each independent has different priorities and different experiences re their relationshops with publishers, their desire to do events - or not. The common ground is the abolition of the NBA. In France supermarkets sell books but they don't give them away. The public want cheap books - and why wouldn't they - but a limit on discounting should be the priority. It's clear that the NBA won't be re-introduced, and perhaps shouldn't be, but the playing field could certainly be a lot leveller.

In truth quite a lot of people saw in 1995 that books were a special case for a levelish playing field, though even then publishers were falling over themselves to give ludicrously generous terms to chains and supermarkets while leaving indies to languish on 35 per cent. It has been sad to watch what many of us predicted gradually but inexorably unfold. The BA fought tooth and nail to the very end to try to preserve the NBA and since then has done everything legally possible to support and defend independents. However, even had publishers shown more backbone to preserve the NBA, imports from the US via Amazon.com would have quickly made it unsustainable. The faint hope is that Tim Godfray's contribution may add to the debate on the social impact of dead or caffeine/alcohol-only town centres. The track record of successive governments, though, has been to reject economic and planning support for small retailers in favour of driving down consumer prices, regardless of the social cost.

The retail market in France is strictly regulated and books may not be discounted by more than five per cent. No UK government would accept any kind of similar proposal and the BA would be wasting its efforts even to suggest it. Can you propose any means by which the BA could attempt to 'level the playing field' which would not fall foul of competition law?

What complete nonsense. A trade organisation which has presided over the demise of the businesses it is supposed to support asking for government assistance....what words can I use to describe the uslessness of the B A.

This is going to be an interesting story to follow. I hope that I will be reading more about this from you in the future. Bookstores do need to be protected and saved, even if most reading is done online now.

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Tim Godfray would be well advised to ask himself why indie booksellers like myself want no part of the BA.

These are tough times, and probably will get even tougher ; times are tough on the high street for the butcher, the greengrocer and many other skilled trades - not just bookshops.

In my experience publishers are only too willing to back the bookshops who are prepared to work with the publisher showcasing stock and working "firm sale".

I have always considered the BA are out of touch, like an edwardian luncheon club ; they are reliant upon the supermarkets membership dues and have nothing to offer the independent bookshop proprietor.

The BA have totally lacked foresight over the damage caused by abolition of the NBA, and the manner in which predatory pricing from the supermarkets and Amazon would destroy the traditional sales outlets.

Those of us who have survived have ploughed a lone furrow whilst hearing BA executive spluttering on about a free market economy abd being unable to intervene.

BA = totally useless. We're only in so that we can take book tokens and use batch. They don't speak for independents like us.

I have recently been arranging book-signing events. To support indies, I contacted several. Most were not available, NONE returned phone calls. Some were too busy to talk and asked for emails. NONE replied to the emails. The events involved them getting books on sale or return. Apart from that, point of sale advertising is provided by the publisher, press releases and interviews by my agent, all the retailer has to do is stick the advertising up, provide a table & chair and if they're feeling generous, a cup of coffee. In return, they would get upwards of £200 in their tills. It doesn't surprise me that they're going out of business if they ignore trade like that. I also have to make a living, so I turned to the chains, who were far more receptive.

what is your name and the publisher of your books ?

Seamer Bill - what is your real name?
The problem with events is that to be worthwhile, they have to be tailored to the market.
It's really hard to do events here, because people just don't turn up (which isn't helped by the fact that the local papers don't bother to run articles for us in advance)
I don't know of any Idnie that would refuse to hold an author event if it fitted their market.
I need Children's authors, or local ones. Oh, and another member of staff to cover the shop while I run around looking after the Author would be good too....
(the last author event I did put £18 in my till)

In reality, the bookseller has to do a lot more than what is descibed, or they will have an unhappy author moaning about an empty shop. A potential £200 in the tills is £90-100 profit, which might pay for the extra effort. All too often it does not.

Having worked in a bookshop which was really good at these sort of events, the average was that it was not worth the effort in cash terms, realistically [a target of extra sales of over £1000 was our benchmark] but worked well in reputation. The best events were always when the shop targetted an author that fitted its market, and did not just run with random choices because they were available.

The other problem that Bill faces is that most indies have let all their staff go, there is no-one left to run these 'events'.

Strangely, I get the similar kind of non-response when I contact publishers...
So the chains were more receptive? Tesco, W.H.Smith, Sainsbury? I don't think so and from what I knew of the Waterstones of old there would be heavy negotiations over "support" (i.e. the publisher chucked them a bung).

An independent would be more than happy to support an author so long as it suited their market. There's little point in expending energy on organising a book-signing event for, let's say, a minor poet from a small publisher if no-one and his dog is going to turn up. Lee Child, Val McDermid, Dan Brown, Jamie Oliver...no indie in their right mind would turn these away. Sadly, it is rare that this quality of author is ever offered to the indies.

So true, as an Independent Publisher we have a very similar experience with Indie bookshops. Be it with trying to organise book signings or getting books stocked.

I think the previous two sad comments have misunderstood what has happened ? The BA has it seems started to publicly talk about the bricks and mortor bookshop problems.
BBC news last night and now this press statement, it seems that more is to come, albeit a bit slow for me !
The real issues of some sort of price control as in europe needs to raised at the highest level...even though it might attract the attention of the vat man. The BA has tirelessly worked within it remit and the law and the EU to not attract vat ,but now I believe a small vat would be not so bad if we had the pricing deal most euopean member countries have.
As for have publishers firm sale ? I have never had firm sale from a publisher unless its at a huge discount, so I dont know who you deal with but you need to sort yourself out.
If you joined the BA it would cost you pennies and instead of freeloading on thier endevours you could put something back into an organistaion which 'makes a huge difference'
I think we might see more action ...

Ron Johns wrote
"As for have publishers firm sale ? I have never had firm sale from a publisher unless its at a huge discount, so I dont know who you deal with but you need to sort yourself out."

If that reply is directed at me then I think I should make a pertinent reply.

My business has one of the largest stockholdings from a range of illustrated worldwide book publishers. Perhaps I need to sort myself out for as I type this reply I have just signed for 11 large boxes from Bookpoint and LBS - all supplied "firm sale" as is their publishers norm to all stockists.

My father, who was born in 1889, was a merchant trader ; I was taught from a young age "the day you sell is the day you buy" so firm sale comes naturally to me, and is my blood.

Don't expect my business to feauture in any bookshop guide listings, the shop stock speaks for itself and draws customers from a wide area.

As for suggestions that businesses like mine are freeloading on the endeavours of the BA - that made I larf.

What are the year on year percentage and absolute declines?

It's hard to sell books alone on the high street. Last time I went up Ayr High Street there was just Waterstone's (also sell coffee now) and WHS (sells books at the back of the long narrow shop). Go back 10 years and there was a bookshop in Newmarket Street (found it could make more selling greetings cards & teddy bears) and James Thin which had been in the Sandgate for 100 years until the chain was sunk by events elesewhere. Ottakars clsoed that shop & merged it with their shop in the High Street which then became a Waterstone's and now has a coffee shop at the back. Unfortunately the lack of space means the book selection has to be determined by popularity through the Epos so I generally don't find a range that appeals to my eclectic interests whereas Ottakar's range had a bit more zing and Thin's shop when it existed had the space to stock a much wider range. The real problem about being on the high street is that space is expensive. All the money goes on rent and rates and the thing that suffers is stockholding and range. Believe me customers will travel long distances to shops that have interesting ranges and depth of stock whatever product you are trying to sell and local customers will come back again and again. You don't have to be bang in the epicentre of the high street - in some ways that is the worst place to be. Independent bookshops that are thriving are in some pretty wacky locations - The Watermill in Aberfeldy is a great example - talk about the middle of nowhere!

Richard, some very wise words there for any potential indie bookseller - especially re location.

Interesting response highlights another problem with author events. The retailer shouldn't need a member of staff to look after the author. If the author is doing their job right, they will be proactive, going to customers interested in their genre, handing out bookmarks, chatting & hoping for a sale.
The other point is that by continuing to hold such events, retailers will, with luck, persuade people that visiting their shop is a pleasant experience and in time it will become habit forming.
I accept that certain genres do not sell well in certain stores, but the courtesy of a reply wouldn't have gone amiss. Sometimes, events fail through no fault of either the store, the author, the genre or the customers. I did a round trip of over 200 miles to do a book signing in a store within a large shopping precinct. 2 minutes after the scheduled start, having signed the first book, there was a bomb alert which closed the centre until well after the advertised end of the session.

It really makes me smile.
Publishers were responsible entirely for the end of the net book agreement, their greed and shortsightedness are responsible for the death of the independent bookshop and unless it was re-introduced all the pissing in the wind will not stop the rot. The public have the prospect of diminishing lists failing small publishers and probably missing out on some of the 21st centuries great writers who will never see the light of day.
Why could no-one see that books WERE a special case for keeping a level playing field. The big boys could profit by their buying capacity and the small bookshops could make a living by selling at the same printed price, the public actually would have be very little worse off as publishers could recommend a lower selling price as they would not have been squeezed by supermarkets as they are now.
Oh well the new wheel has been invented so there is no going back.
I closed my bookshop in 2005 spouting the same stuff and the rot continues. I suppose I am destined for a kindle.

Peter Bergman Late of The Regent Bookshop

You have the argument in a nutshell Peter. Wringing of hands and special pleading is so much wasted time and hot air. The publishers are stoking the fires ever higher - just look at the tat that is this Christmas's "bestsellers" (all of which will be down to a penny on Amazon marketplace in January) - and you can see to what a poor state to which this trade has advanced.

In truth quite a lot of people saw in 1995 that books were a special case for a levelish playing field, though even then publishers were falling over themselves to give ludicrously generous terms to chains and supermarkets while leaving indies to languish on 35 per cent. It has been sad to watch what many of us predicted gradually but inexorably unfold. The BA fought tooth and nail to the very end to try to preserve the NBA and since then has done everything legally possible to support and defend independents. However, even had publishers shown more backbone to preserve the NBA, imports from the US via Amazon.com would have quickly made it unsustainable. The faint hope is that Tim Godfray's contribution may add to the debate on the social impact of dead or caffeine/alcohol-only town centres. The track record of successive governments, though, has been to reject economic and planning support for small retailers in favour of driving down consumer prices, regardless of the social cost.

My memories of 1995 differ to yours in certain Areas Martin I agree that quite A few people saw books as A special case including some senior people at the Publishers that Broke the NBA wide open and at that stage I do not remember a great deal of action from Tim and his team at the BA, from that date the only comments I heard from the BA where there was nothing they could do as it would have been seen as the Book Sellers acting in Concert, My counter argument to this was it had never been tested in court, Since then of course the BA has moved ever closer to the main chains and the Supermarkets I deify any one at the BA to show me one stock holding supermarket as defined in the historic description of A Book seller.Now all of a sudden Independents are worth supporting Bearing in mind there figures of A decline of 26% is only based on the Bookshops reported to the BA as we have seen in recent announcements this could be only the tip of the Iceberg.
Knowing the Buyers at the Supermarkets and the Chains we have left I would not be surprised if negotiations on membership fees have started or will soon start,That is why I find Old Bookseller comments very succinct who is going to pay for the ongoing gravy train. As for the Publishers they are certainly reaping what they sowed and still they don't learn i.e. 90% discount on Ebooks for Amazon, They are pricing Fiction at £20 for the key autumn period knowing that the supermarkets and chains are going to sell at from £9.99 to £12.99 the same applies to all other major titles. I believe Peter Bergmans final piece sees it all. Will the last independent please turn out the light.

Interesting comment but the record shows that until the very day in October 1995 that four major publishers decided together with WHSmith to abandon the NBA, the BA fought with every sinew to preserve it. I have no doubt that had it not been for Tim Godfray, Willie Anderson and the BA, publishers would have almost certainly walked away from it four or five years earlier than they did. They were precious years for many of us in maintaining viable businesses and preparing for what was clearly to come. As for the 'only' words from the BA being that nothing could be done in concert, this was not excuse dreamt up to avoid action - the BA always had the best legal advice and to have taken the matter as far as the courts would have meant the imposition of punitive fines and the end of the trade association. I fail to see how or why the BA could have rejected membership applications from supermarkets, indeed I was largely instrumental in tearing up the old restrictive rules of membership when I was president. If a business sells new books for profit, why should it not be treated as a bookseller? Mixed product retailers such as WHSmith had been members for decades so excluding supermarket chains would have again left the BA open to legal action and fines. As for the way the BA was and is run, it is certainly no gravy train; it has been prudently and well led and remains a huge resource of value-for-money services and advice for booksellers of all types and sizes. Let us not forget that it is not just indies feeling the pain in the current retail context, book sales at Smiths and Waterstones make grim reading too. Yes, it's sad. Yes, it has all sorts of negative cultural consequences. Yes, we all wish it had turned out differently. But this is the business context which every other small independent retailer - butchers, bakers, off-licences, greengrocers - has had to face. Aside from the additional channel of the internet, no one can say the BA did not accurately predict the outcome of abandoning the NBA, namely a hobbled high street trade, uncompetitive discounting and diminished stockholding.

Martin A spirited defence of the BA you were obviously much closer to the centre than an ordinary Bookseller But the spirited defence you talk off sounds A little off, bearing in mind that at that stage the three biggest chains in Bookselling all with senior members of staff on the committee were committed to ending the NBA i.e. W H Smiths Waterstones and Dillon's. I don't remember John Smiths Stance At that Time
Roddy

Waterstone's were at that time still broadly in favour of keeping the NBA, though knowing their strength in a non-NBA marketplace, they made little effort to fight for it. John Smiths, represented by Willie Anderson, were four square behind the agreement. WHSmith, along with publishers HarperCollins, Random House, BBC Books and Penguin, supported the NBA until October 1995 but then decided the game was not worth the candle and, to mix metaphors, pulled the plug. Remember that at that time Pentos (Dillons) were actively opposing the agreement and Hodder Headline had withdrawn from it the previous year. Remembering the mood amongst publishers, it was obvious that they did not have the will (or the funds) to fight on. Indeed, there were rumours of a nod and a wink from government that if publishers did not discard price maintenance, the Chancellor would impose VAT on books. I doubt whether even had the will been there, it would have been possible to maintain it for more than several months but I maintain the battle was worth it; in the years from the time when Pentos first opposed it to the time it collapsed the wholesalers expanded their ranges, offers and systems so that in a non-NBA environment they were better placed to offer more competitive terms to indies. Also businesses like mine had a breathing space to plan for the future, though the arrival of online booksellers left all bricks and mortar booksellers at the starting line, chains included.

As you state above W H Smiths and Pentos (Dillions) Were activity trying to dismantle the NBA also Waterstones were very conscious of the good press Pentos were getting in the broad sheets, Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Independent and on Radio and TV and they had their own plans in place. Going back to my previous post with these major players at this time not strongly in favour of the NBA, the BA's stance must have been weakened.

The BA/PA side held pretty firm, despite the positions of Pentos and Hodder Headline, right until WHSmith and the four publishers I mentioned agreed, in the space of a few days, to abandon the NBA, feeling that the management time and effort in its defence was futile. From that time on the NBA was effectively dead. Remember that Smiths, Dillons and Waterstones thought they were 'big beasts' who could dominate the high street at the expense of smaller players. As is so often the case, short-term advantage had a long-term downside. Had they been able to foretell the arrival of Amazon in a few years they might have thought differently. Be careful what you wish for...

Peter Bergman is absolutely right.

If the BA had addressed this way back when, many, many booksellers would still be trading, supermarkets and Amazon wouldn't be bleeding an industry they couldn't care less about absolutely dry, and publishers would be better off too.

There is a tiny chance of saving the high street, but action is needed NOW. The die is cast with Amazon, and the mindset is now in place, but all supermarket pernicious influence could easily be reduced and corrected.

But the BA has been taking your money for years, overpaying staff who work in swanky offices in London and doing nothing to actually benefit the trade. Like many others, I was a member only for Book Tokens and Batch.

And Godfray has the absolute gall to ask for government assistance!! The answer is industry-dependent!!!

Of course, Peter Bergman and Ron Johns are correct. Everything else is of relatively little significance in comparison to pricing issues as per European models. Each independent has different priorities and different experiences re their relationshops with publishers, their desire to do events - or not. The common ground is the abolition of the NBA. In France supermarkets sell books but they don't give them away. The public want cheap books - and why wouldn't they - but a limit on discounting should be the priority. It's clear that the NBA won't be re-introduced, and perhaps shouldn't be, but the playing field could certainly be a lot leveller.

The retail market in France is strictly regulated and books may not be discounted by more than five per cent. No UK government would accept any kind of similar proposal and the BA would be wasting its efforts even to suggest it. Can you propose any means by which the BA could attempt to 'level the playing field' which would not fall foul of competition law?

Martin, in France the French Govt do actively reward independent booksellers who pass a certain standard with tax rebates (I could find out more detail if anyone is interested). That is a good approach, though it seems unlikely to pass muster here unless booksellers also offered to collect bins (weekly). An industry fund that rewarded excellence in high street bookselling as has been suggested in the US (again sorry, don't have time to provide a link) might be one solution. This is one of the reason we found Super Thursday such a missed opportunity: publishers could have sent their staff to help out local booksellers for the day, unpacking books and generally creating a buzz around the physical product. Did it happen? Nope.

Philip, I doubt if the hardest pressed independent in the UK could swallow the concept of a tax inspector ticking boxes to see if he/she qualifies for a tax rebate. As to rewarding excellence in the high street, it could be argued that the indies who are innovative and cleverly located will reap their own rewards (see The Guardian's nifty supplement last Saturday). Sadly, though, in a hurricane even houses on the firmest foundations can get blown away. The perfect storm of a recession, declining high street shopping footfall, online bookselling and supermarkets may sweep away some well-run indies. With so many deserving social demands on taxpayers' money it is hard to see a positive response from government for anything other than notional support. It's a bit like Darwin's theory of natural selection; it's not the biggest or the strongest who necessarily survive but those most adaptive to change.

This debate is not only about the high street but about society at large, which Tim Godfray is right to raise. I am reminded of a recent article by an American visiting Cologne where he found numerous well stocked independent bookshops, knowledgeable staff and many customers. What a contrast with the US and UK! He discovered that the reason was retail price maintenance, and that German people welcomed this as a means of protecting and enhancing their society and culture. Perhaps we should do the same and bring back the NBA or have a similar system as Germany? There would of course be leakage from Amazon.com and other overseas suppliers but such a move might help stem the decline of high street bookshops whilst at the same time make a significant contribution towards safeguarding and improving our own culture and heritage. We could certainly take more note of how our European neighbours handle this issue and also question whether free market economics has a downside. As a previous supporter of the NBA must go brigade, I never thought I would say this!

At last I can be blunt and say we told you so! No, sorry Martin but the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. European countries which defend their retail price maintenance on books are supported by government because they identify the book publishing and retail industries with the protection of their language and cultural patrimony in a fundamental way. The EU is happy to allow individual governments freedom to do this. The English language being now global can expect no such protection in the UK. There is zero chance that publishers would support it (as they are global too) and no chance whatsoever of such a proposal having any traction with government or the Restrictive Practices Court. So long as books are widely available at competitive prices, and they are albeit online, the criteria for consumer protection are satisfied. The availability of books in high street bookshops and the cultural/heritage arguments are not seen as part of government's remit any more than they would be for butchers or bakers. What you see is what you get. My take on this is that online opportunities for indies still exist but that so far wholesalers and publishers have been too slow to offer realistic and profitable innovations in this area, leaving the field open for Amazon. The market is unbalanced and needs more players but entry costs and risks are too high for indies acting alone. The BA is prevented from doing anything other than offer research, encouragement and advice and this it has done consistently. Amazon's market dominance and publishers' supine acquiescence on discounts to them and supermarkets are the long-term root causes of the high street bookshop decline.

Martin Grindley is right. The fact that English is global, and that we now have ebooks, means we are too late. Any attempt to control the consumer pricing will result immediately in a torrent of customers ordering from the US.

The solution is in the hands of the publishers. They should be selling to independents on the same terms as they sell to supermarkets/Amazon. That is all that is required, and it works equally for books and ebooks.

The publishers have been very short sighted. They have ceded control of the situation to Amazon, who now tell them what to do and on what terms they can trade.

Of course the public want cheap books...the public want cheap everthing and goverments and multi-nationals squeeze producers to produce just that..but at what cost.Ok we can bleat on about quality of life and the death of the village shop but the dearth of choice which presents itself to the coming generations is actually more than sad. Put a hypermarket anywhere and of course it will be full, the town dies and choice disapears. Don't build it and life goes on , who makes that decision? Who would be brave enough to put quality of life over profit. See the flying pig.

The net book agreement will not return and bookselling will in the main become a computer based industry, no human feedback poor choice and crap books being pushed by bean sellers. Am I bitter?
No just nostalgic and sad.

Late of Regent bookshop

I have never quite understood why when back in the pre NBA abolishment days when a publisher could declare a book as having a Net or Non Net price the need to completely abolish the NBA arose. Surely those publishers that wanted non net prices could have taken a decision to publish non net, based on their market research and discussions with customers, to allow for discounting on a non net title.

This would have provided a two tier system that would allow for a clear distinction between books that might sell in very high volume at discounted prices but would provide the protection of titles of a more specialist or esoteric nature; many of which given a window/in store display and perhaps author signing and or event could have sold in really meaningful numbers.

The book buying public would perhaps also have more fully understood that important distinction between titles that are printed in very large quantities and those that cannot benefit from the economies of scale. A defence of the NBA on the basis that there was a choice [of net or non net] strangely never seemed to garner support/momentum.

One final plea please lets not lay disproportionate blame for the demise of the NBA at any one sector of our trade - there were many back then on both sides of the argument. One is tempted to say we are in this together...

Surely it was all or nothing? Books may be copyright and fall into different categories (front list, mid list, backlist and so on) but they are not selling each into their own discrete little market. It would have been unrealistic to hope that one publisher could publish a title falling into any category as net and not expect another publisher to make a similar title non-net and gain a sales advantage via discounting.

Peter very astute piece many in the trade will nor remember Net and Non-Net My memory of having discussions with Publishers about this matter was they thought it would split there lists in to buy or no buy depending on the retailer they are selling there new titles to. I agree with you that this should of been the way forward. Knowing Supermarket buyers, Chain buyers and Booksellers I believe the Trade could of lived with this and carried on growing the market. As to your last point ever the gentleman Peter, but I'm afraid the Independent bookseller at the very best was to be found in the Bilges of the boat not on the bridge with the chains and supermarkets

How about a system that supplies indies on a consignment basis , pay for what you sell and return what you don't ?

Presumably publishers would enjoy the same benefit from the printers, and the printers from the paper mills, and ink suppliers...

Consignment selling is for widget sellers how have neither the spunk or knowledge to determine what sells on their "high street". A few publishers are willing to sell on consignment to indies in USA but imvho it is a very regressive measure more in desperation than sound reasoning.

The progressive indie who is prepared to devote their time, energy and expertise to running their bookshop will survive and prosper ; the odds are stacked far more in favour of an indie than Waterstone's as a unit.

My final words on the subject ; forget the BA and start to purchase stock a section of which is exclusive to your business. Sail close to the wind at times, but reap the satisfying rewards of being a true merchant adventurer.

Every time I take £8.99 from a customer for a standard paperback I know and they know that they could have bought the book from Amazon for at least 30% less. despite the enlightened loyalty of my customer, that degree of price differential will be unsustainable over time. That's an inescapable fact. My business will die.

As far as I can see, the only people who can re-balance this situation are the publishers. They have to recognise the benefit to their businesses of physical bookshops. The benefit has been proven by research which shows that sales of books to a given community decline if there are no bookshops in the town. Bookshops add value by making books visible to the browser, Amazon diminishes value by hiding the books and undermining price by huge discounting.

Publishers, in recognising this, should give physical booksellers more discount than they give to Amazon. Turnover used to determine discount but in future 'value added' should determine discount.

Why should publishers rock the apparently profitable boat? Because it is only profitable in the short term. When the unsustainable price differential between High Street and Amazon has worked itself out i.e. little or no High Street bookselling remains, then the publishers will be completely at the mercy of Amazon. They will have lost turnover because books are no longer available as an easy and convenient browse option for a gift or impulse treat and they will be confronted by a single company in total control of their market, demanding ever greater margins.

To a bookseller this is blindingly obvious, apparently not the publishers. The only ray of hope for the UK book trade is that the USA is a few years ahead of us in the process.

This debate is quite fascinating, especially when one is now on the outside of the trade looking in or, perhaps, back. There is, in my opinion, absolutely no chance of the NBA being re-instated and that is mainly because there is no support from the public. Why should books, as a commercial item, albeit supposedly educational and cultural, be treated any differently from any other item bought from retailers? If you have price maintenance on one group, which does not command a huge place in the everyday needs of most of the population, then price maintenance has to be re-introduced across everything. Why should books be treated differently and yet they are in respect of having no positive rate of VAT attached to them.
When the NBA fell in 1995 there was no public outcry at its demise. At the time booksellers were portrayed in the press, who were massively in favour of its abolition, as “rip-off” merchants who were more interested in keeping books expensive to line their own pockets. Untrue as we know booksellers have seldom been fortunate enough to be able to line their pockets with average net profits in NBA days being around 1% (the Charter Group target was 2.5%, for those that can remember that group.) We have to remember that the NBA was a voluntary agreement entered into by publishers and booksellers were signatories to this agreement and bound to its conditions by the terms of sale imposed by the publishers. It was not a law backed by government statute. I cannot see any government now wishing to become involved; there are far more important issues other than the well being of the book trade and the perceived intellectual elite.
As to the claim that today’s woes can be laid at the generosity of publisher terms to a favoured few, I would state categorically that some publishers were granting massive discounts to the chains prior to the fall of the NBA. I saw the invoices when boxes were delivered to us in error. The two biggest mistakes, in my opinion, made after the NBA’s fall were deciding that heavy discounting was the way to increase sales (by volume perhaps, but not by value or margin) and the other was to maintain the printed RRP. Booksellers are the only retailer, as far as I know, who base everything on the RRP set by their supplier. Every other retailer bases their decisions upon the cost price and works upwards. Our margins are still set, to a large degree, by our suppliers and not by our own efforts and expertise. The trade has never really let go of the NBA in its entirety and it should have.
Booksellers will and are surviving because they are concentrating upon their business and being proactive in adapting to the changing market demands. That will continue to be the case, but if booksellers continue to claim victimhood and plead for special support, then I am afraid very few of the public could care less. They have Amazon, who have set the benchmark.

It seems to me that the publisher's should be thinking "Where to, next, for Amazon?" Is it inconceivable that (once they have tied up the bookselling side, and effectively closed down the bricks-and-mortar extablishments) they will turn to publishing themselves? Maybe start out by buying up one or two established publishing houses and then (once the infrastructure is there) start poaching cash-cow authors from the other publishers? Food for thought........

Er, Steerpike, Amazon is already a publisher.

It publishes huge numbers of e-books.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/seller-account/mm-summary-page.html?topic=20026...

Amazon also owns print on demand facilities.

They would rather the whole shebang was digital. Just because you like printed books don't assume Amazon care about them at all. All that warehousing and shipping is so much faff for them.

Independent Bookseller - '....are the publishers. They have to recognise the benefit to their businesses of physical bookshops.'

Which are?

A successful specialist publisher (who used to be a bookshop owner) wrote last year that there are three target outlets for his titles. Waterstones, WHS and Amazon (if he were a bit more mass-market he would add supermarkets). Indies are irrelevant to him, they offer hard fought sales with little volume and are not worth the effort.

It is the cold hard truth.

As is said above, the market is skewed by publishers in favour of Amazon. If anything, the high street bookseller should be given a premium discount to help with the additional costs that they must bear.

And as Willie Anderson so precisely puts it above - (without going the whole hog)
"Booksellers are the only retailer, as far as I know, who base everything on the RRP set by their supplier. Every other retailer bases their decisions upon the cost price and works upwards. Our margins are still set, to a large degree, by our suppliers and not by our own efforts and expertise. The trade has never really let go of the NBA in its entirety and it should have."

- The answer is simple and one I have advocated for years - get the printed price OFF BOOKS. Amazon can't then claim XX% discount like they do now; like they cannot against any other products online.
Look at the prices for CDs - £8.99 or thereabouts - but they have very little retail competition to worry about and can charge effectively what they want. The same will happen with books. Stop them advertising a percentage discount and you remove a huge advantage that Amazon currently have.

Tough love but I largely agree with Willie's comments, though in future general booksellers small and large, however adaptable, will find the business context even tougher than it is today as the babyboomer bookshop-loving generation die off or with poor pensions have less disposable income. Their replacements are the time poor iPhone generation who rarely use physical shops. While accepting that there was wide disparity in terms between large and small players prior to the collapse of the NBA, I would re-iterate that this widened greatly in the late 1990s. Once Booktrack found its way into supermarkets, publishers fought to get on to the Sunday Times bestseller list and bought their way to the charts by offering Tesco, Sainsburys etc discounts of up to 80 per cent (plus placement fees or marketing spend) at what was effectively a 'run on' cost while holding terms to independents back at 35-40 per cent. Authors and agents also keen to achieve bestselling status agreed to accept lower royalties for these high margin sales, believing them to be incremental to the traditional trade. Inevitably the sales of bestselling Christmas titles (Jamie, Nigella and major mass-market fiction) leached away from the high street to the deep discounting supermarkets. In effect the stockholding booksellers, with a high cost base, were partly subsidising the very discounted sales that were undermining their long-term future. I recall stating in 2000 that the UK had the greatest disparity in terms between small and large players of any book industry in the developed world and this remains the case today.

The sad fact is that in reality the majority of the book buying public
have NEVER been better served . If you live in London things are not much different in terms of retail , but if you grew up with one poor bookshop in town with little stock and dreadful supply times its absence is now substantially replaced by Amazon , and a sprinkling of Tesco and Oxfam retail.Sure many indies improved their offer because of Wholesalers but publishers have essentially undermined that initiative by giving terms away to supermarkets to kill bestseller sales in bookshops.
The public only care about bookshops closing for sentimental and not service reasons . Add to this the explosion in the convenience of digital delivery [again best served by Amazon] and you will find that those who are heavy readers don't really mourn the indies passing .

Sorry Julian but but your blanket statement is wrong in so many ways.

I take your point about the poorly served small town but just at the point where it would have been viable to open small bookshops in unfashionable areas the rug was pulled away when the NBA was discarded. The majority of the public may appear to be well served but back lists are diminishing and new authors are not being supported. Poor supply times in independents only applied to badly run businesses, with good wholesalers in many cases an independant can beat a multiple.
Can you really believe that heavy readers don't miss the idiosyncratic local bookshop that could reccommend a small run new author which would be the next Booker, so many seminal books started as a favorite in a local bookshop and snowballed. When I was in the trade booksellers would swap titles they loved and promoted them for the joy of it not because they had numbers to meet.
Of course we miss the local bookshop for sentimental reasons but the loss of that face in the street the smell and feel of tangeable print and ink and the knowledge that you were general served by someone who loved books cannot be produced by Amazon Smiths and unfortunately in many cases Waterstones.
The end of the NBA was a disaster socially and in some senses morally.
I was told when I ran my Bookshop that it was against the competions act to get together with other indies to try and produce more buying power while Tescos bought at Gods knows what.
London is as badly hit as anywhere else...in Camden Town before the end of the NBA there were five different independent shops including my own and two multiples all catering for slightly diffent markets and all flourishing. Now there is Waterstones.
Ask people in Camden...the Bookshops ARE greatly missed, not for nostalgia but for the variety and vibrance they gave to the area.Try to get that back digitally. Virtually impossible.

Late of Regent Bookshop

I understand your sentiments Peter, but the NBA had to go and the customers in general are delighted it has .[We couldn't even give AirMiles on book sales ]. The popularity of the NBA was with the publisher [who protected margins with tight discounts ] and in some cases small booksellers who felt protected by such price fixing holding competition at bay .WHS loved it because it prevented supermarkets competing with them effectively AND because most punters THOUGHT that WHS were cheaper .[I carried out a big survey in the 90's which found this].