No one leaving the Booksellers Association annual conference would have felt downhearted about the future for booksellers.
Lively sessions buoyed by the successful (and ongoing) Books Are My Bag campaign meant business met optimism and got on like old friends. As Katie Clapham from Storytellers Inc said: “I’m leaving with a bag full of books and a book full of ideas.”
BA president Patrick Neale got the tone right with his keynote talk describing booksellers as a “touchstone species”. Some on Twitter found his analogy with bees [he reminded us that Albert Einstein said that when the last bee disappears humans have about four years left] a tad overblown. But as Nielsen Book’s Jo Henry reinforced, bookshops aren’t simply places where books are sold, they are places where they are discovered. “Palaces of possibility” is how conference chair Cathy Rentzenbrink put it.
It never fails to surprise me how blithe some are about what happens if these “palaces” disappear. The web has so far done a poor job of replicating this, even though digital enjoys enormous advantages in other areas. As Foyles’ ebullient head of marketing Miriam Robinson argued, a search engine narrows the choice, a bookseller broadens it.
Heads of publishing houses were notable for their absence—I counted two, and both were speakers. While we hear of much good work happening in the relationships between publishers and booksellers, public engagement remains necessary. The BA conference is rightly focused on bookselling, but we all have a dog in this race, publishers not least of all.
The narrative around bookshops and the high street is changing. Politicians are beginning to notice the number of bookies and charity shops that are taking root on high streets, and the debate about whether this is desirable is just beginning. The Labour Party put business rates at the top of its agenda at its own conference this week. There is a sense that if bookshops can ride out these tough times, they may yet get the wiggle room to evolve further.
Publishers should take note. A lot of the chat at BA 2013 was not about selling more books, but selling the bookshop—singles evenings, sofas, coffee, wine etc. As M&C Saatchi’s James Lowther put it, “the sizzle, not the sausage”. That’s all very well, but it’s the latter that brings home the bacon.