Battlers of Britain

This week the Booksellers Association publishes the Bookselling Britain report, written by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, detailing the contribution the sector makes to the UK (the executive summary can be read here). The report is vital and timely, detailing the value of bookshops as well as distinguishing what sets high street retailers apart from internet conglomerates. The soft case for books and bookshops— their impact on society, reading for pleasure and wellbeing—has long been well made. The business argument is now as strong.

It is worth focusing on the raw numbers. Book retailers generated revenue of £1.3bn in 2015, and made a contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of “at least” £541m in that year; for every £1 spent in a bookshop a further £1.91 of turnover was supported elsewhere; the bookselling sector employs 24,440 people, who received an estimated £415m in wages, and in turn supported a further 22,000 jobs in the wider economy. Bookshops also pay their taxes—overall worth £131m. The report outlines what makes bookshops distinctive: from providing local jobs (not filler roles) that support communities to spillover impacts from events and outreach to schools. It also sets out the dangers to bookshops: Amazon, unfair taxes, rising rents and utility bills and policy changes such as the National Living Wage and pensions auto-enrolment, which— laudable though these last two are—hit smaller businesses disproportionately.

Booksellers Association president (and bookseller) Rosamund de la Hey says the report is part of the body’s growing “lobbying arsenal”, with the BA emboldened by the European Commission’s recent rulings over Amazon’s tax deal with Luxembourg and its possibly unfair dealings with publishers over e-book contracts. The report does not mince its words about the future, pointing to a range of factors—from Brexit to rising prices—that could threaten“the very existence of Britain’s local and national booksellers”. Two copies are to be sent to BA members, the extra copy designed to reach MPs and/or local councillors.

The recent growth in the market, the success of bookshop fodder such as La Belle Sauvage, and the return to form of Waterstones should not detract from the fact that this remains an incredibly insecure time for high street bookshops. How people read in the future, or procure their books, is still in flux, as is the economic environment. If bookshops have held their ground it is not because any external force levelled it for them, it was simply that they dug in and dug in again. I would say that the legislators got lucky, for a high street without a bookshop is a drab and soulless place and, as we now know, one that is economically short-changed.

But it wasn’t luck—it was hard work.