Bookshop obscura

For the past few weeks my colleagues and I at The Bookseller have been ruminating on how best to cover what we notionally, and I expect incorrectly, refer to as “non-traditional retail”. It is that bit of the market that is not well served by current data providers and therefore exists outside of our general purview. It is, by its very nature, ephemeral and ill-defined. Special.

Over the past seven years the landscape for book sales has been reshaped dramatically and irrevocably; those sales channels once considered to be unusual have started to become reliable. The “traditional” parts of the trade have been most damaged—the loss of Borders, the decline of independents, Waterstones’ ups, downs and up-agains—with online, supermarkets (sporadically), and non-traditional retailers the chief beneficiaries. This week’s Lead Story looks at this final category, an area of the market that has been growing and gaining in sophistication as publishers have focused on making books into what Pavilion m.d. David Graham calls “retainable product”.

You will now spot books in retail outlets as varied as Urban Outfitters, Oliver Bonas, The Conran Shop, Anthropologie and Bert’s Homestore, as well as more traditional “non-traditional” retailers such as John Lewis, and the National Trust.

The success has been self-fulfilling. As the retailers have experimented with books, and found publishers to be willing partners, so they have figured out what works for their different audiences. In working with different types of retailers, publishers too have been able to learn new skills, including how to meet the demands of a different type of channel.

Two years ago I noted how art publisher Thames & Hudson was running a campaign that pushed the notion that “beautiful books keep people in your store” and— in part—what we see today is testament to the hard graft put in back then by savvy presses. The market has also been driven by necessity—with bookshop space diminished, publishers needed fresh channels.

The improving “traditional” bit of the book retail market, as measured by Nielsen, should not distract us from the importance of these newish retailers, fickle though they might occasionally be. We come out of this period of recent decline with as small a high-street footprint as many of us will have ever known, with the book’s place as part of the wider retail firmament not secure and the high street still a very difficult place.

Yet for all that, there is something happening around books and retail that feels vibrant and new—from the success of the new Foyles, to the revival of Waterstones (and, whisper it, W H Smith); from Rohan Silva’s interesting new east London bookshop Libreria, to South Africa’s Exclusive. The picture may be hazy, but this new landscape might yet be a renaissance piece.