Rumble, stumble

Booksellers heading to the Booksellers Association’s annual conference this weekend do so in better shape than they have been for years. There is growth in the market and confidence in the air. As conference chair The Bookseller’s own Cathy Rentzenbrink noted in a Twitter Q&A recently: “I’ve chaired for four years and the mood gets more buoyant each year.”

How we got here, from where we were, is worth unpacking. Back in 2008, racing into the longest recession in history and on the cusp of a once in a lifetime shift to digital, bookshops faced both economic insecurity and a fundamental change in customer behaviour. They might survive one of these, but could they weather both? The collapse of Borders UK and Woolworths, the slow sales drain at W H Smith, the sale of Waterstones to Alexander Mamut, and the steady decline in indie bookshop numbers created a narrative that was glum and self- perpetuating. Yet while the economy was beyond our control, booksellers had two things in their corner. First, publishers responded favourably to bookshop needs, extending credit terms, creating differentiation around book product and reinforcing the commitment to in-store events. A number also shifted to the agency model: divisive and controversial but, in terms of halting the destablising low pricing used by Amazon to grow market share, effective.

Second, the world did not change as rapidly as many people had predicted, in fact it altered in different ways. The digital shift actually helped bookshops find and amplify their voices and it enabled stores to focus on creating demand rather than chasing discounted sales. Most importantly, it meant bookstores could redefine what it meant to buy in-store by creating spaces and events that appealed to customers. It is little wonder that topics under discussion at the conference this year include “articulating” the bookshop brand, and running author (and interestingly, non-author) events.

If everything stopped now, we might smooth away our worry lines; but the world has not ceased turning and change is constant. If we believe in the importance of bookshops to the wider business of authorship then our attention should not waver. We might even consider using this calmer period to think more radically about the future. I do not know, for example, if the current model of printing prices on the back of books still serves the sector well; I do not know if booksellers paying publishers for books they might never sell still makes sense. Other book markets do things differently and we may want to look at these.

Bookshops survived the first digital rumble because in fact the blows were less profound than they might have been and even when they seemed to be on the ropes, the crowds were still cheering for them. I do not know if we are yet ready for the re-match.