What do 'real' booksellers have that others do not? Knowledge, personality, a bag.
The Booksellers Association's annual conference, taking place this year at the University of Warwick, showcased the virtues of all three. As M&C Saatchi's James Lowther told the audience of about 200 (mostly) indies—in the struggle against Amazon and Kindle, booksellers need to accentuate their differences, create physical environments that showcase physical objects but also play up the virtues of buying books from real people. "Sell the sizzle, not just the sausage."
These are smart words at an event where words are in demand. As The Bookseller's and Quick Reads' Cathy Rentzenbrink put it, "bookshops are palaces of possibility". She originally meant to say 'place', but after a typo it became the former. And it is a better word. The best bookshops are not humdrum utilitarian outlets selling beans or nails, they are the stuff dreams are made of: literally.
If this sounds slightly unreal, it is not. This year's BA conference is a far cry from the days when publishers, authors and booksellers would gather in hotels and spend boozy hours talking books in a world that was both appreciative and supportive. The trade is much more hard-worn now. Amazon is variously mentioned at the conference, but rarely positively. If the original BA conferences were flavoured by the fact that they existed in a world Before Amazon, today's BA conference is AA (After Amazon). The Seattle giant has shaped this business in a way that would have seemed unimaginable 20 years ago. We can debate this for hours, but it doesn't change the reality.
So what is bookselling AA like? It is certainly less profitable: many of the indies I've been speaking to just about cover their costs, but few draw a salary. It is little wonder that Booksellers Association president Patrick Neale began the conference saying that “more needs to be done” by publishers to bring the core financial model of the bookselling supply chain up to date. Publishers, he said, need to look again at what can be done, and quickly.
Yet it is also fantastically creative, as necessity dictates. On the Sunday before the conference we heard from three booksellers, expanding where they sell, how they sell and who they sell to. The Bookseller's Young Bookseller of the Year Katie Clapham from StoryTellers Inc was particularly impressive, creating events in schools with ingenious publicity ideas and promotions—"some", of which, she admitted, paid off in sales terms. Some involved sticking her finger in the air and hoping for the best: return of investment was part of the creative process but it could never lead it. Incidentally, Clapham runs the shop with her mother: she also has two other jobs. This is bookselling AA.