Rather a hundred little ships

Rather a hundred little ships

Whilst the arrival of Bookshop.org appears to offer independent booksellers an answer to what has been a very difficult question - how do I compete with Amazon? – with an affiliate model which seems painless and hassle-free, from a well-funded and slick organisation, the excitement about its proposition concerns me. I do not think that Bookshop.org is the answer. I understand the attraction, especially at these turbulent times, but I do not think it is good for customers and it is not especially good for the industry. Its launch also comes at a time when the benefits of burgeoning direct communication with customers could flower into a real answer to that question.

Enders Analysis have estimated that there were four years of e-commerce acceleration within the first three months of lockdown. People are not going back to the high street any time soon, and when they do their buying habits will inevitably include a heavier mix of e-commerce. Booksellers, like a lot of businesses, have shown a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity over the last few, very difficult, months. Websites have sprung up, school accounts opened, the ubiquitous Zoom events have been organised, what has been necessary has been done.

Outside of bookselling, I have seen some spectacular marketing from small businesses over lockdown – confectioners on Instagram are whipping up customers with limited offers and timed announcements to such a degree that unless you are online the very minute they make product available you will be disappointed. Check out businesses like @dunkcookies, @thechocolatesmiths, @wtfudgeuk & @thecookiepeopleco on Instagram for example. Growing follower lists and increasing skills with supplying customers online is an inescapable part of being a retailer today.

These businesses have shown all you need is a route to market – Instagram in this case (which is free!) - and a great way to share all the differentiators which make booksellers great; personal knowledge, personality, creativity and a great product, which we have in books! Every package you send out can include a personalised message, every interaction with your customers is a fantastic way to build relationships. Independent booksellers are perfectly placed to do this – the business is small enough to be personal and to have its own personality, and that is what competes against large faceless organisations, not booklists.

My concerns about Bookshop.org – who I am sure are very well intentioned - is that they remove the agency and personality which exists within bookselling at the moment. Suddenly every service is the same. Bookshops can offer more than just a booklist! Of course that is important, but the extra personal and creative touches, the limited signed editions and the knowledge of what people are buying on and offline combined is the opportunity this moment in time presents.

By all means use any route to market which works for your business, but also keep close the experience and contact which will ultimately help you grow, as this is what differentiates you from Amazon. There are many straightforward tools for local advertising – for example using Google Local to list the books you have in stock and create offers to drive them in to your shop today. Consumers are keen to support local businesses even more so than they were last year, give them the opportunity to do so.

Kieron Smith is digital director at Blackwell’s.