One direction

It is ironic that in the week when we announce the regional shortlists and winners of The Bookseller Industry Awards’  Independent Bookshop of the Year category, we also devote three pages to the very real threat posed to academic bookshops by the shift to direct selling to institutions by some publishers, whose “aggressive” marketing on campus puts shops at risk.

It is always worth repeating: bookshops (academic, indie and chains) are the lifeblood of the book business. We may not know everything there is to know about digital marketplaces, but what we know for now is that they are pale replicas of physical stores, lacking the diversity, passion, curation and heart—all of which are notable in well-run bookshops. We can say more: without bookshops many more books would fail, many more authors would fail to earn a living, and many more readers would fail to find the content that turns them into life-long book-lovers. As I said last week, sometimes we overstate the mystique that surrounds this business: we find it difficult to work out what makes each bestseller. But usually there is a bookseller involved.

The messaging around bookselling is improving and yet last week I was tweeted by a writer asking how relevant The Bookseller was in a world so dominated by Amazon (he later asked me how I could get his book into bookshop windows). Our Awards tell us something very real about retailing now: the best bookshops are savvy about their customer base, their community and their social media presence, not just putting books out there but using local and national data to hand-sell them. Many have “pivoted” into new areas, from book festivals to cafés to writing courses. While some authors have found it possible to be their own publisher, few try to be their own bookseller.

Academic bookselling and publishing has its own idiosyncracies. Publishers within this world have always sold direct: their relationship with the end user is often unmediated by booksellers. They have been thinking for decades about how to build platforms that enable them to service professional clients direct, digitally and with content deconstructed around institutional need. The shift to digital textbooks—as well as universities’ own book bursary programmmes—are creating opportunities, imbalances, and a winner-takes-all mentality. Bookshops will need to evolve, and what they lack in investment, they can make up for with boots on the ground. 

This will not be comfortable. Publishers can tread as carefully as they like around this when questioned by The Bookseller, and talk about changing consumption patterns, but in reality no one has yet worked out how to sell the same book twice.