Better together

Just ahead of the Booksellers Association Conference, which kicks off at Warwick University this Sunday, there are plenty of reasons to feel cheerful. The book trade has just recorded its best week of the year after the arrival of those big titles in advance of Super Thursday next month and the long run up to Christmas has begun. The mood music has also been positive: summer was better than predicted, the general market more robust than expected, and the e-book sector continues to be less vigorous than anticipated.

Allied to this is the inspired work being done around this year’s Books Are My Bag campaign, with limited edition Tracey Emin-designed bags, widespread celebrity endorsement, and the tie-in to Super Thursday (9th October) helping to create a buzz around bookshops that is both celebratory and real. The BA is to be congratulated for its deft handling of that most ephemeral of assets: an annual cross-industry promotion of books and the shops that stock them.

The conversation around bookshops has changed in the past year, and for that we can all be proud—from Foyles to Waterstones to Dulwich Books. We have moved away from a world where we talk about whether bookshops can survive to one where the task is to figure out how best to use the space bookshops have and the promotional gold hidden within each bookseller.  

Bookshops have faced an unfair battering. The sector was caught in the harsh glare of a once-in-a-lifetime format shift at a time when the wider economy was at its most downtrodden and desultory. Ironically, high street bookshops are now emerging out of this stronger than their digital counterparts. In Canada, Indigo has shaken off Kobo; in the US, Barnes & Noble is demerging from Nook. We do not know if Amazon’s Kindle business is sustainable but its recent contract negotiations suggest there is work to be done. Digital businesses are generally spared such gauche analyses, but even this piper will eventually want paying.

The BA Conference programme talks about the “renaissance” bookshop, and this feels right: it may be the start of something new, but it is also a continuation from what went before.  The urgent task ahead for all of us is to figure out how high street bookshops can traverse the ups and downs of local economies while facing markets that are global; how to grasp the opportunities from social while hand-selling books to customers; and how to support the big titles and make the hidden gems discoverable, at a time when the pressure on book prices has never been fiercer.

As far the book business is concerned, we are all better together.