Indie marvels

One of the joys of judging The British Book Awards is reading through the submissions (yes, all 450 of them) as we first longlist and then shortlist those who will go on to contest the prizes on 14th May. This week we release the regional shortlists for the Independent Bookshop of the Year—39 indies competing first to win in their local area and then to vie for the national prize. The process happens to coincide with confirmation from the Booksellers Association that the number of indies in its membership has grown—by one—for the first time in 22 years. Truly something to celebrate.

It is worth reading through the shortlists and our accompanying exposition in full: some of the stories are remarkable. In an otherwise flat market for physical book sales, most of these indies grew their businesses— some massively. The Chicken and Frog Bookshop in Essex grew sales by 20%; Pages of Hackney had revenue up 30%; Linghams Bookshop in Merseyside saw turnover up 10%; Warwicks Books in the Midlands reported sales up 15%; and Drake, The Bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees recorded growth of 36%.

What marks out the shops on these shortlists (but also many others) is their energy: these are now events-led businesses, hand-selling books (often at full-price), boosted by—but not reliant on—author visits. Events range from character-themed evenings, book clubs, to Christmas markets. Theirs is also a community role, either in providing a platform for the cultural conversations authors and their books can spark, or in forging links with schools, libraries or other local institutions. Some years ago Malala Yousafzai said a city without a library was like a graveyard. Ditto a high street without a bookshop. Past winners of this British Book Award have benefited from wholesaler Gardners’ generous £5,000 prize, others from author James Patterson’s Bookshop Grants, and all from the continued work of the Booksellers Association (including National Book Tokens, Batch, Independent Booksellers Week and the Books Are My Bag campaign).

Indies don’t have the dominance of Amazon, the pulling power of Waterstones, the footprint of W H Smith, the branding of Foyles, the academic prowess of Blackwell, or the footfall of the supermarkets. But what they lack in these areas they make up in hard graft, expertise and imagination.

There is still plenty of work to be done: rates, discounts, digital, embargoes and special editions remain areas of concern and contention. But as the BA’s new membership figures show that it now has more bookshop outlets among its membership (5,029) than at any point in its history—let’s salute the 868 indies who are at the heart of this sector, as well as the 39 independent bookshops who make up our regional shortlists.