In my first year as BA president I was determined to bring booksellers and publishers closer together to better understand each other's businesses, to persuade the c.e.o.s and senior staff of the major publishers to get out of London and experience life behind a till, unpacking boxes, stacking shelves, reconciling invoices (oh the glamour!) and the myriad other things that make up a bookseller's working day. The challenge thrown down at last year's conference was, I'm pleased to say, taken up with enthusiasm by publishers, and to date over 40 senior publisher staff have visited over 20 bookshops from Edinburgh to East Grinstead…Sherborne to Bakewell.
It's been a great success and is an ongoing one with many more publishers lined up to visit. It's running in Ireland, in the Christian sector and also with IPG publishers, who are featuring it at their Autumn Conference next week. Our next step is to engage publicists and to extend it to the academic sector.
So, that was one of my goals for year one of my presidency. What about year two?
My first plea is to booksellers.
As we end the summer holidays, and for some booksellers the tourist season, I'd like us to think about the concept of Bookshop Tourism… How wonderful to open The Bookseller and see, among many other positive stories about bookselling, Sion Hamliton’s brilliant piece about Bookish in Crickhowel, which illustrated how well they have become part of the local tourist season. At Mainstreet, back in 2012, we worked with nine other bookshops in the Scottish Borders to create The Borders Book Trail which was aimed squarely at consumers and was very well received by visitors to the area. But, I'm sure we can go further.
While the rules do vary around the UK and Ireland, some bookshops with cafés are eligible for one of those fabled tourist Brown Signs in the category of 'tourist shop'. Why not contact your regional body, be it Visit Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales and find out if you can join their Quality Assurance Scheme? Put yourself on the tourist map.
Book lovers don't need to come to bookshops to buy books. We have great customer service, but so do our online competitors - albeit within a fairly dry definition. And yes, there are people who consciously want to support the high street. But most of our customers come into our bookshops and buy our books for one reason only; they enjoy the experience.
We are, I would say, already a leisure destination.
This was, of course, the brilliant starting point for Books Are My Bag… The key for BAMB was to crystallise and celebrate the link between the book lover, the physical book and the bookshop.
So, here is a thought… Maybe at this conference next year we might hear from a speaker from the leisure or tourist industry telling us about some transferable insights. This could be a keynote, or part of the Skills Labs. I know that this is a strand that the BA have been keen to introduce for a number of years but needed a change of venue to facilitate. It's a stand-out feature of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute. Today, you have your schedules, you know which skills labs you are booked into, take as much as you can from them and share with your colleagues and peers. And please, in your evaluation, do make suggestions for Skills Labs 2018… including Bookshop Tourism.
My second plea is to publishers.
As a lifelong fan of audio books (all those long drives home to Scotland), I'm delighted to see their renaissance in the market. A few years ago the conventional wisdom was that this train had left the station. The days when the BBC Radio Collection were backlist perennials for booksellers had gone for ever as the world turned to downloads. And yet the long-format boxed CD set is covetable and people, lots of people, are buying them. CD sales per title are on the increase and publishers are well aware of the potential of audio and are doing some great and innovative things with it. My plea would be to publishers not to forget CDs and to view them on the same profit and loss as downloads, perhaps even sharing some of the set up costs with marketing. More than one publisher has indicated to me that working this way supports the economics of CDs - it's a growing market and we booksellers would very much like to re-join the party.
I'm delighted that there are record numbers of publishers in the audience today and that they view booksellers as valued partners as never before. Despite, the thorny subject of invoices in boxes, I am encouraged by the dialogue between booksellers and publishers that is taking place and I hope we will see resolutions that satisfy all.
Publishers are supporting new and existing bookshops in creative ways and we are encouraging others to do likewise. HarperCollins launched their Indie Initiative Project this year with grants for booksellers creating, among other things, pop-up bookshops in rural communities, YA 'silent discos' and multilingual story-times.
Now… in a little while we’re going to hear a presentation from CEBR - the Centre for Economics and Business Research - who have produced a report for the BA detailing the economic contribution that British booksellers make in the case of some formidable obstacles. The BA continues to lobby Westminster and Brussels for fairness in the market, a fair deal for booksellers and against the unfair competitive advantages that Amazon enjoys. This new report will provide us with hard economic evidence of the contribution that Bookselling Britain makes to the whole book industry, to society, to the economy and to the nation.
Tim used the Parliamentary reception that we held in July to get the message across to MPs - and to the press - about the potential impact of rate rises. He pointed out that if just half of the bookshops facing a 10% or greater rate-rise were to go out of business as a result, 275 towns could find themselves without a bookshop. This message struck a chord and was repeated and discussed through the national media. And when news of Amazon's paltry tax returns were made public a few weeks later, the same national media were already warm to the subject and reports were supportive of bookshops. We continue to argue that in 2017 the business rates system is no longer fit for purpose.
Our message at the Parliamentary reception was also very much about what booksellers do to promote reading for pleasure - especially among children. As Philp Pullman said, booksellers are "the lantern bearers of civilisation", and we are grateful to him for shining a light on the cultural contribution they make to their communities.
In parliament, we called on MPs to support bookshops and a reading nation. To enforce the message, the BA produced an advocacy video which premiered at the reception and has since been disseminated far and wide.
Before we show this, can I wish you a great conference, a successful Books Are My Bag campaign and a profitable autumn and Christmas in all your businesses.
This is extracted from a speech Rosamund de la Hey gave at the opening of the Booksellers Association Conference in Birmingham on Monday 11th September. De la Hey is president of the BA.